Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Zeitgeist Films VHS screener
If you’re reading this review and are unfamiliar with the basic plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you should probably read more, or, better yet, rent a movie or two. Almost every film adaptation of Stoker’s novel, no matter how loose, is better than the actual book. Guy Maddin’s film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of the ballet based on the novel and choreographed to the music of Gustav Mahler is not a strict adaptation of the novel but a feverish visualization of two key episodes from it. The first half of the film (and the ballet) concentrates entirely on Dracula’s seduction and transformation of Lucy Westerna. There is a brief interlude that recaps the events of Jonathan Harker’s stay chez Drac and his recovery in a convent, then the second half concentrates on Dracula’s less successful seduction and transformation of Mina Murray, Lucy’s best friend. Despite its brief 75-minute duration (a running time I can get behind) and its compression of events, the film tells the story far more effectively than Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated version and in about half the time.
During the first five or so minutes of the film, I was a little doubtful that this film would live up to its own hype or to Maddin’s noteworthy reputation. The computer generated titles and a few shoestring budget video effects initially gave the film a (forgive me) rather cheap look. Once Dracula storms into Lucy’s bedroom and pops those fangs into her neck and once she starts dancing as if she is alive for the first time, all fears were allayed and Maddin’s total absorption and mastery of silent film technique became evident. In addition to Maddin’s idiosyncratic use of such archaic devices as irises, tinting, stenciling, and partial wipes, and not-so-archaic devices as cross-cutting, the film is packed with visual surprises such as the set of Lucy’s bedroom/parlor that includes her mother’s outlandish iron lung with pipes that traverse the entire set and the impish little gargoyles that cavort at night around Lucy’s garlic-laden bed.
Maddin (and Mark Godden, the choreographer and producer of the ballet), make excellent use of Mahler’s music, comprised of excerpts from his first and second symphonies. You’d be forgiven for thinking the music was composed especially for the film and not more than 100 years ago, so natural is the connection between music and image. I can’t comment on the quality of the dancing as it’s one of the few art forms for which I have little appreciation or enthusiasm, but it certainly didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the picture and much of it was quite beautiful to watch. Red-blooded he-men should not panic — there are plenty of beheadings and bloody impalements to make sitting through a few minutes of ballet worthwhile.
The film’s Dracula is played by Zhang Wei-Qiang, who makes an positively ravishing Count. He’s prettier than any of the women in the film. When he first approaches Lucy from behind in preparation to bite her, it’s startling yet also gorgeous — so much so that the shot is reproduced on the poster advertising the film. That moment, and the rest of the similar moments in the film, is not necessarily erotic (as some reviewers have asserted), but it’s quite saucy nonetheless.
Guy Maddin makes films like no one else. It’s difficult to classify him, (and why would you really need or want to anyway?). If I had to, though, I could say on the basis of this film that he is at the very least the stylistic heir of Josef von Sternberg. There’s such an urgency and expressiveness in his baroque technique and style that you have to continually remind yourself that you are watching what is essentially a silent film using a manner of filmmaking that died over seventy years ago. Very impressive and well worth seeing twice.