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Dracula - Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002)
Director: Guy Maddin

review by Amy Harlib

Quirky, Canadian, independent, award-winning filmmaker and a cult favourite, Guy Maddin - most notably for Tales From The Gimli Hospital (1988), Careful (1992), and Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs (1997), presents his first feature in six years, an utterly unique version of Bram Stoker's classic 1897 dark fantasy novel. Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, in turn based on a stage production choreographed by Mark Godden for the Canadian Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company, combines two highly stylised art forms, ballet and silent movies, yes, silent movies, to create what may be the best adaptation of the famous, well-loved, gothic vampire yarn, ever! Alas, this picture is only getting limited art house distribution but it should not be missed. Fortunately, video and DVD editions are available.

Maddin, a connoisseur of cinema before the advent of sound, whose body of work pays homage to that early era of motion pictures, in this recent endeavour, goes all out in employing that period's special film techniques. Taking advantage also of modern technology to spice up his efforts, Maddin brilliantly conveys the melodramatic emotions, eerie supernatural elements and the deeply disturbing, tangled anxiety and sensuality of the Bram Stoker source material. To do this, the filmmaker shoots in black and white with colour-tinted sequences that effectively enhance key scenes; uses hand-painted highlights of colour (red blood, green money); and includes some judicious sound effects heard, along with the perfectly mood-setting Gustav Mahler score excerpting his first and second symphonies. A few strategically placed subtitles and intertitles also skilfully propel the story and communicate the themes and atmosphere along with dreamy close-ups; irises; superimpositions; dissolves; silhouettes; and plenty of fog and mist.

Evocatively designed and lit sets permit freedom of movement for the performers and for the camera that moves all around them, balancing nearness to the characters with long shots that reveal the beautiful movement, Mark Godden's choreography expressively blending mime, emoting and classical ballet. The results perfectly capture the story's expressionistic, heated, Gothic ambiance bordering on campness.

Director Maddin also invigorates his Dracula by emphasising aspects of the tale frequently overlooked - the misogyny and racial prejudice of the period. The film opens with an image of blood oozing from east to west across a sketchy map of Europe while the title cards scream, "Others!" ... "Immigrants!" to indicate a spreading taint into the occident.

The eponymous Count is portrayed by the stunningly handsome and charismatic Asian Zhang Wei-qiang who radiates sensuality as he seduces his prey. In the first part Dracula infects the lovely heiress Lucy (Tara Birdwhistle). Her affliction, the way her three suitors and Dr Van Helsing (David Moroni) react, implies a racial, sexual and medical contamination, not to mention the more overt fear of the libidinous disturbing Victorian propriety from outside. Suppressing female sexuality also gets emphasised in a telling scene in which the suitors and the vampire hunter force open Lucy's coffin and subdue the undead yet lusty, wanton creature she has become! Van Helsing's and the suitors' piety reeks of vengefulness and zealotry.

The second part of the picture finds Dracula pursuing Lucy's best friend Nina (Cindy Marie Small) until the vampire is tracked down and confronted by Harker (Johnny Wright) and Van Helsing. Dracula's final fate, although he is dangerous and does threaten the social order, registers as poignant, his sensual and heroic demeanour, even when impaled on a spike, makes him a martyr and a victim of anti-sexual xenophobia. All this intense turmoil and emoting gets some comic relief leavening, punctuated by offstage cutaways to Dracula's fly-consuming, delightfully loony lackey Renfield (Brant Neale).

Lush; atmospherically rich; visually compelling with its period sets and costumes; clever cinematography (many nods to Nosferatu here); lovely dancing and expressive acting by the highly trained performers - describe qualities that grace and invigorate this unusual version of the vampire oeuvre. Mark Godden's and Guy Maddin's dense, fascinating, mesmerising, memorable and singular interpretation of Stoker's tale and all its resonances makes previous cinematic productions of Dracula seem pale and anaemic in comparison. This Dracula dares to be truly different and dazzling!
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

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