Dracula – Pages From A Virgin’s Diary

cast: Zhang Wei-qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, Cindymarie Small, and Johnny Wright

director: Guy Maddin
71 minutes (15) 2002
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Tom Matic

It’s a good idea to watch the accompanying short film on this DVD, The Heart Of The World, as a foretaste of what is to come in Guy Maddin’s Dracula – Pages From A Virgin’s Diary.

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Imagine a ten-minute version of Metropolis directed by the unlikely team of Eisenstein, and Darren (Pi) Aaronofsky. Two brothers are vying for the affection of a female scientist, who is studying the Earth’s core. One brother is a mortician and the other is an actor playing Jesus, so they each represent opposing poles in the dichotomy of death and resurrection facing the object of their affections. She is torn between these two brothers, but then appears to be seduced by an older man, a bloated cigar-chewing capitalist, a liaison that precipitates the global cataclysm her researches have prophesied. In a visual pun on the ‘money shot’ in porn movies, we see the capitalist’s phallic engine spurt out coins.
Maddin’s Dracula echoes this short both stylistically, in the use of silent film style monochrome melodrama and witty intertitles, and thematically. Maddin playfully points out the inherent comedy of Lucy Westenra’s dilemma, another woman faced by multiple suitors (three this time). The balletic dramatisation of her stringing the three men along is pregnant with Freudian innuendo, as she takes the hats off one by one – talk about pulling the cap off the pope! Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing echoes the capitalist in The Heart Of The World, as an older male seducer creepily groping Lucy in the course of his medical examination of her condition. During the transfusion scene, blood becomes a double entendre for semen, as the suitors vie for access to Lucy’s supine form, with a red-tinted blush on her cheek. Van Helsing, in typically fanatical fashion, points out that Lucy has filled herself with tainted blood, reminding us that for Maddin, the legend of Dracula is a projection of British paranoia about immigrants from the East. While Bram Stoker’s Count was Eastern European in origin, Zhang Wei-qiang’s is from even further East, a provocatively Asian Dracula.
Maddin’s version of Dracula deviates from Stoker’s original – and most screen adaptations – by beginning with Dracula’s arrival in Whitby rather than the estate agent’s extended visit to Castle Dracula. However, in glossing over this episode and concentrating on Lucy Westenra’s tragedy, he vividly brings to life some of the novel’s most memorable scenes, such as the smothering cornucopia of garlic that fails to protect Lucy from the vampire. It is typical of Maddin’s deliriously over-the-top approach to the story, that Lucy’s mother throws open the window against doctor’s orders, not just because she finds it a bit stuffy. She has a terminal lung disorder that confines her to a sort of iron lung powered by a vast boiler. Van Helsing’s final destruction and mutilation of Lucy with the help of ‘her’ men-folk is her punishment for her inviting in the foreign intruder, for the professor points out that a vampire can only enter at the behest of a willing victim.
So ends the first ‘virgin’s diary’, that of Lucy Westenra. The second is Jonathan Harker’s, though the brief resume of his incarceration at Castle Dracula calls his virginity into question after his encounter with the voracious, succubus-like brides of Dracula. Harker is somewhat taken aback, when far from spurning him with disgust, his fiancée Mina becomes rather frisky when she has flicked through his diary. The film starts to flag a bit at this point, as though Maddin as used his best ideas on the Whitby scenes. One problem with the film is its basis in a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production, which gives the film a static, stagey feel, and Maddin’s cinematic flare and combination of silent film aesthetics with CGI-enhanced visual tricks only highlights the clash between ballet and film logic. On the plus side, the ballet provides the film with a majestic soundtrack courtesy of Mahler, and the film’s artificial theatricality is underpinned by some startlingly elaborate set-design, such as Dracula’s Gaudiesque castle, the convent with the giant, fallen head of Christ and Lucy’s vast boudoir with its crazy, green-glowing pipe organ. To sum up, Maddin’s Dracula is a visual treat for lovers of silent expressionist classics like Nosferatu, although it might disappoint addicts of more visceral vampire movies.
The DVD special feature, Making Of Dracula, provides a fascinating insight into the construction of this neo-expressionist wonderland, and other disc extras include Maddin’s own commentary, a CBS Arts Report with Maddin, a radio interview with producer Vonnie Von Helmolt, original theatrical trailer, TV spots, a four page booklet, World Cinema trailer reel and the option of either Dolby digital 5.1 surround or DTS.