Ballets would probably be more popular if they contained more beheadings.
Or at least that’s my opinion.
In my ongoing efforts to complete a viewing of all of the available films in the Rue Morgue’s 200 Alternative Horror Films You Need To See, I decided to sink my teeth into Guy Maddin’s Canadian production Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002) before it left The Criterion Channel. With this viewing, I can confirm that this is probably the most unique performance of an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel that I’ve ever seen. And I mostly mean that in a good way.
Produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Maddin’s film is even unique as a dance film in the use of jump cuts, close-ups, and speed changes that in combination with being in mostly in black and white (with some monochrome sections) and the use of German expressionist sets made this feel very “avant garde” to me. At times, it made me think of Haxan and Faust, especially during Lucy’s night terrors. Also used to fair effect is the occasional splash of color that reminded me of the style of color enhanced black and white photos and videos in the mid-to-late 1980s.
With the opening title cards and cuts, we are set to fear an immigrant invasion from the East. I found that to be oddly specific and a bit spot on given that the Dracula of this production is skillfully performed by Wei-Qiang Zhang. Our Renfield possesses “clairvoyant” abilities that allow him to sense and see where his master is during Dracula’s journey to England. While dear Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) selects from her three suitors, Dracula comes for her during the night, and for the most part the story unfolds in the usual manner we are used to viewing with regards to Vlad.
Where this production stands out for me is in the editing and some of the changes made to the story. If you watch this, note that when Dracula goes into bite, the literal plunge into his victim’s neck is accelerated with the cutting of frames in the sequence. I felt it gave it a more animalistic and violent sense of Dracula in those moments. In contrast, when Lucy has been transformed and begins taking blood, her bite is a slowed down and almost sensual assault, yet it also uses the editing technique of cutting frames.
One of the standout horror moments for me was late in the film when Dr. Seward is trying to use Renfield’s ability to location Dracula. It took a second glance for me to realize that Seward was using a sounding probe and essentially tuning in Renfield by giving him a temporal lobotomy! The staking and beheading of Lucy are also stand out and well-choreographed. Speaking of the choreography, the dancing is superb and performed by The Royal Winnipeg Ballet. There does become a point where the amount of crucifix related choreography made me feel like I was in an old school Madonna video though.
And this is where I clarify why I started out by saying “mostly in a good way.” Too much of a good and different thing begins to feel stylized and overdone for me at a point. Even with only a 73-minute runtime, this film did hit that point through a chunk of the second act but rebounded in the finale. Your own mileage may vary if you choose to check this one out.
(Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, FilmRise, and currently YouTube.)