Combustible Celluloid
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With: Zhang Wei-Qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, CindyMarie Small, Johnny A. Wright, Stephane Leonard, Matthew Johnson, Keir Knight, Brent Neale
Written by: based on Mark Godden's ballet and Bram Stoker's novel
Directed by: Guy Maddin
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 75
Date: 02/01/2002

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2003)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To commemorate their 25th anniversary, the Toronto Film Festival asked several Canadian filmmakers to contribute short films to the 2000 festival. Such luminaries as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Michael Snow complied. But one film shattered all expectations and went on to become a worldwide sensation, Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World. This seven-minute masterpiece plays like a silent film, moving at breakneck pace with extreme beauty. It's almost completely overwhelming. So much so that it has come to be regarded as one of the great short films, sharing space with Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon and Duck Amuck.

And so Maddin's newest feature film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary came with great expectations attached. And maybe that's why when it fails, it fails miserably and completely. Fleeting parts of this black-and-white film move with that same immediacy and poetry as The Heart of the World. Maddin presents it as a slient film complete with title cards and splotches of color to represent red blood or green money. But the bulk of the film is simply a filmed ballet, which continually halts the movie dead (undead?) in its tracks. I know very little about ballet, but what I do know is that it's almost impossible to duplicate the feel of a live ballet on film. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger did it successfully by choreographing the ballet specifically for film with their masterpiece The Red Shoes -- in other words, it's a ballet that could never be performed on a stage. But for Dracula, Maddin follows the time-tested PBS route, giving the dancers a stage instead of a film set and using cornball dissolves and fog machines. In addition, the dancers may be terrific at dancing, but not so much acting -- they're not good enough to get any emotions across. True, Dracula is not exactly King Lear, but it would be nice to have someone charismatic like Bela Lugosi or Klaus Kinski in there.

The whole mix is truly disappointing, coming from such a film connoisseur as Maddin. He's a man who knows his film history; The Heart of the World has references to Lang and Griffith, and he contributes to the highbrow film magazine Film Comment on a regular basis. So for him of all people to suddenly use an older, more respected art form to "enhance" his film art -- instead of relying on the power of cinema itself -- is a huge betrayal. Surely Maddin was aware of the many cinematic Draculas that he could have referenced. Imagine a bizarre collage of F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Tod Browning, Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, the Hammer Films and even "Buffy" -- and you'll get an idea of what could have been. For now we have a baffling failure, a smattering of good ideas smashed by one big, bad one.

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