Known for his eccentric features and acclaimed short films, Canadian helmer Guy Maddin comes up with another striking fan-pleaser in "Dracula, Pages From a Virgin's Diary," a vampire ballet. Maddin uses silent movie conventions -- framing, masks, etc. -- to film the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as it dances through the tale.

Known for his eccentric features and acclaimed short films — most notably the furiously paced, six-minute tribute to silent films “The Heart of the World” — Canadian helmer Guy Maddin comes up with another striking fan-pleaser in “Dracula, Pages From a Virgin’s Diary,” a vampire ballet. Inspired by Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film classic “Nosferatu the Vampire,” Maddin uses silent movie conventions — framing, masks, etc. — to film the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as it dances through the tale. Though it sounds like an offbeat idea even for horror fans, the tech work is so well done that it could disarm unwary buffs attracted by the campy title. It will make a succulent treat for fest audiences before finding its way to TV.

The heart of the film lies not in the ballet itself (mostly uncomplicated solo work), but in bringing a dead film language back from the grave, for which the vampire tale is a clever pretext. Such outmoded cinema conventions as the constant use of circular masks to highlight action in the middle of the screen automatically revive a bygone era. Like “The Heart of the World,” pic puts an ironic, modern spin on this old stuff that often gets a laugh.

In 1897 England, title cards warn us of the arrival of “immigrants from the East!!” And in fact, an Asian Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) appears to do mischief. His first victim is the wealthy Lucy (Tora Birtwhistle) who poses glamorously in Joan Crawford makeup, dancing with her maids and suitors in a millionaire’s mansion. Her mysterious fainting spells bring vampire hunter Von Helsing (David Moroni) to the scene, but his blood transfusions are ineffective. Only after her death and return as the murderous “Bloofer Lady” is it realized that she’s become one of the Undead.

In the last half hour, the vampire’s attention turns to Lucy’s convent-bound friend Mina (Cindy Marie Small). The tale’s sexual symbolism comes to the fore in a dance in which Mina makes advances to her fiance Jonathan Harker (Johnny Wright), only to be prudishly repulsed. The handsome Dracula, who is virility personified, steals her away to his cavernous lair, where he and Von Helsing wage a final battle over Mina’s body.

Paul Suderman’s black-and-white images are punctuated by occasional notes of color — green money, red blood — for dramatic effect. Like editor Deco Dawson’s use of numerous, rather fast cuts, the camerawork shows the film’s will to reinvent rather than blindly adopt silent film conventions. Deanne Rohde’s set design reaches deep into the Stoker novel for such intriguing details as the womb-like corridors where the vampiresses live. Maddin’s use of silent film music is the one overly traditional note in the film that could have been profitably updated.

Dracula, Pages From a Virgin's Diary

Canada

Production

A Vonnie Von Helmut Film/Mark Goddin/Guy Maddin production in association with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (International sales: Rhombus Intl. Television, Toronto.) Produced by Vonnie Von Helmut. Executive producer, Robert Sherwin. Co-produced by Lesley Oswald. Directed, written by Guy Maddin, based on a ballet by Mark Goddin.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, video), Paul Suderman; editor, Deco Dawson; production designer, Deanne Rohde; costume designer, Paul Daigle; sound, Russ Dyck, Bruce Little; ballet master, Bruce Mark; associate producer, Danishka Esterhazy. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Video Competition), Aug. 9, 2002. Running time: 75 MIN.

With

Dracula - Zhang Wei-Qiang Lucy - Tora Birtwhistle Von Helsing - David Moroni Mina - Cindy Marie Small Jonathan - Johnny Wright
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