Despite the vampire fiction genre taking its place in the mainstream — and the movies that have followed — in the 21st century, one vamp still reigns as the granddaddy of them all: Dracula. But is that just because he’s become a classic monster? Is he still relevant? Can he still be compelling? Offbeat, acclaimed filmmaker Guy Maddin — Icelandic by descent and from Winnipeg, to boot — tackles those questions in his adaptation, with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary.
Once bitten, twice Guy
Maddin, RWB reinvent classic vampire
A character like Dracula comes with a lot of baggage. Despite the relatively recent explosion of vampire fiction (and keep in mind this review was written in 2003, before the explosion of Twilight — DJF), Bram Stoker’s incarnation of the blood-sucking count, followed hard by Bela Lugosi’s screen portrayal, looms large in the popular conception of the ultimate creature of the night.
That hasn’t stopped filmmakers from sallying forth to capture Dracula — but given the heavyweights who have left their mark on the mythos (F.W. Murnau, Terence Fisher, even Francis Ford Coppola), you might think all has been said and done.
Fortunately, Guy Maddin doesn’t think so. His new film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, spans a filmic vocabulary going back to 1922’s Nosferatu. As well, it’s filled with comic touches that puncture the often overblown horror of vampirism. All this, besides being an essentially silent film done almost entirely as a ballet. Not many could accuse Maddin of being a traditionalist.
The film is based on Mark Godden’s Dracula, adapted and choreographed for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Zhang Wei-Quiang stars as the eponymous count, Tara Birtwhistle as Lucy, David Moroni, C.M. as Van Helsing, Cindy Marie as Nina, and Johnny Wright as Harker. Shot in black and white (with occasional drops of colour), the atmosphere is simultaneously beautiful and eerie.
But Maddin doesn’t let that get in the way of the humour, using rapid edits to catch multiple reactions, or allowing Van Helsing seem a wee bit off his rocker, a sort of supernatural Captain Ahab.
Godden’s choreographer is nothing short of outstanding, encompassing not only the hypnotic allure of Wei-Quang’s “vampyr” but also the dementia of Lucy as she falls more and more under his sway, or the desperation of her friends and servants who try to help her. And through the action, we hear the passionate strains of Mahler, taken from his first two symphonies.
For any unfamiliar with the story, each character is introduced via yellow text on the screen; this is also how all the dialogue is done. Here again Maddin tweaks Stoker’s nose; for example, the mad Renfield, thrall of Dracula, is introduced partially as an “eater of bugs.”
We also meet Lucy’s bedridden mother, in full nightgown and cap, inexplicably shut in a sort of aquarium. But it’s not all irreverant. Lucy’s efforts to resist both Dracula’s pull and the assistance of her well-wishers is allowed a sense of tragedy; like a fly in the spider’s web, she can’t get free. So too are the erotic undercurrents between Dracula and his victims, whether that be Nina, her fiancé Harker, or the “vampyr harem” that ambushes Harker in Transylvania.
It’s a testament to Maddin’s skill that he can apply so many filmic elements to an old story without cluttering the end result. The dreamlike quality of what Maddin does isn’t the overwhelming star of the show, though it has a strong presence.
The artistry of the dance, the ethereal design, and simplicity of the sound come together to produce what at first glance seems unattainable: a truly original take on Dracula.
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
- Directed by Guy Maddin
- Featuring the Royal Winnipeg Ballet
- Four and a half stars out of five
Originally published in Uptown Magazine, August 11, 2003