Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary Review
There are a few modern directors whose complete disassociation from mainstream cinema makes their highly individual work, while often experimental and disorientating, nevertheless always a surprise and a joy to see. Guy Maddin, whose latest film The Saddest Music in the World gets a theatrical release this month, is one of those directors – unconventional, fiercely idiosyncratic and completely unpredictable with little regard for commercial success. Such is as good a description as any for Maddin’s silent-movie, ballet version of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary.
Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle) finds it hard to choose between the three suitors who vie for her hand in marriage – the doctor of the local lunatic asylum Jack Seward, the Texan Quincy Morris, or Lord Holmwood. But she also has one other mysterious gentleman caller who visits her during vivid fevered dreams and has left two puncture wounds on her neck. Dr. Van Helsing (Dave Moroni) recognises the mark of the vampyr, but despite his efforts to protect her from this creature, Lucy succumbs to the demons that terrorise her. Van Helsing interrogates the lunatic Renfield to track down the vampyr responsible and learns that the creature’s next victim is to be Mina Murray (CindyMarie Small), the fiancée of Jonathan Harker (Johnny A. Wright). On a visit to Castle Dracula to finalise a property sale, Harker has been terrorised by strange creatures. Writing his experiences down in a diary, he recounts his visit and his escape to Mina, who is quite aroused by the story. Soon she is also visited by the Vampyr (Wei-Qiang Zhang). Van Helsing and his team – Lucy’s former fiancé and suitor, set off to rescue Mina from a terrible fate.
Producer Vonnie von Helmott convinced experimental Canadian director Guy Maddin to make a film version of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Dracula as a TV movie and the collaboration bore astonishing results. Using the silent-movie techniques for which he has become renowned, Maddin filmed the ballet piece as a black & white silent-movie with intertitles on German Expressionist-influenced sets, using grainy Super 8 footage, blurring effects, colour filters and even added scratches and jump-cuts for added “authenticity”. Although the idea sounds barmy, in practice it’s a fairly conventional modern ballet of a perhaps less conventional subject. However, rather surprisingly, the highly expressive nature of ballet gesture and movement to musical accompaniment (an inspired use of excerpts from Mahler’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies) is ideally suited to the silent movie format. It’s such a perfect combination that the marriage of the two art forms is nothing less than a stroke of genius.
Ironically, despite the strangeness of the enterprise on paper, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is perhaps the closest film version yet of Bram Stoker’s novel. While the film must score highly for originality alone, it also is just as effective in certain scenes as any more conventionally filmed version of the story, the unusual filming techniques here emphasising the melodramatic content of the novel, bringing the themes and the very real fears behind the fictional horror much closer to the surface – xenophobia, the male’s fear of female sexual empowerment and his desire to exert dominance over women. Certainly, it will not appeal to everyone and its eccentric nature will make it a hard sell – but it is a fabulous piece of work and one that will stand up to repeated viewings.
The image is extremely grainy, shots are over-exposed, faces and movement are often blurred, tramlines and scratches are visible and there are several missing frames causing the picture to jump in places. In other words it’s perfectly as the director intended! Seriously, the 1.75:1 anamorphic picture quality is impressive and if there are any faults (I thought I detected some shimmer in places) then it is impossible to tell whether they are intentional or not because of the filming techniques used. Blacks are strong and crisp, even if the image is not always intended to be and colour-filters and CGI colouring effects are faithfully transferred. Maddin refers in the commentary to the lovely olive green tint in one scene and that is exactly the colour we see (although Maddin quips that he had to settle for that as they couldn’t make it look yellow). An impressive picture transfer.
Three audio tracks are included and they each merit some examination. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks seem the obvious ones to go for, but I found their performance less than satisfactory. Both have a slight hum audible in the background and a flatness of tone that, when the music score hits louder passages, reaches an uncomfortably high pitch. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounds clearer and is the only soundtrack that is bearable at higher volumes. As the film was made for TV, this is perhaps how the film was meant to sound. Tartan have promised recently (see news item here) to include DTS tracks for all their releases, so it’s a bit worrying that this policy could also extend, like Anchor Bay have been doing, to remixing film soundtracks that don’t need them. I don’t know if it is the case with this film, but there certainly doesn’t seem to be any discrete sound separation of the Mahler score to 5.1. On the plus side, the Dolby Digital 2.0 track is included, and to my ears, is the one to choose.
Guy Maddin Commentary
Maddin’s commentary track for the film is an absolute treat. As you might expect from this unconventional director, his commentary is laced with humour and dry wit, while also being very enthusiastic about the material and informative about the silent-film references employed in the film. As well as supplying an amusing description of what is going on, he talks about how he got involved with the project, how he approached the ballet and the original novel and talks about how the film was put together, from the filming and editing techniques to the difficulties of working with dancers instead of actors, who could only perform for 6 hours a day. A highly entertaining and informative commentary.
The Making Of (9:00)
The making of is silent, set to Mahler music, showing the building and preparation for each of the film sets.
The Heart of the World (6:37)
Guy Maddin’s short film is included here – the story of two brothers, Nikolai and Osip, in love with the same woman, Anna, the State Scientist who has discovered that the earth is dying of heart failure. As the world is about to come to an end, she must make a choice about who she really loves. Filmed characteristically in grainy black & white with numerous cuts and double-exposures, the film comes across like a demented Sergei Eisenstein and is deliriously insane.
The remainder of the extra features are Canadian Broadcasting Corporation promotional material for the film – the film was commissioned by CBC. Included here are a CBS Arts Report with Guy Maddin (3:55), a well put-together news report covering the ballet company, Maddin’s work and the themes and treatment of the story, with a few on-set takes of the film under production. Two Original TV Spots (0:50) and the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:05) are also included, as well as a CBC Radio Interview with Guy Maddin (8:38) and a CBC Radio Interview with Vonnie von Helmott (6:53), both interviewees sounding almost breathlessly excited by the project.
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is, like any Guy Maddin film, almost impossible to describe in a way that will not make it sound like the work of a maverick lunatic director. While it will certainly not appeal to anyone who likes either their vampire movies or their ballet to be filmed more conventionally it is nevertheless a rich cinematic experience and a bold experiment that bears unusual, yet brilliant results. Tartan’s DVD release is impressive and, barring some concerns with soundtracks, a sign of better things to come from the company.