“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under Tod Browning‘s direction, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. Lon Chaney, Jr., as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).
By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.
Christopher Lee‘s animalistic performance highlighted Terence Fisher‘s spirited takes on the character for the Hammer horror Dracula franchise (1958-1974). However, under other directors, Lee was the only redeeming quality in increasingly unimaginative films. By the time the series petered out, Lee wasn’t even that. Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog succeeded with a remake of Nosferatu (1979) that can stand with the Murnau original. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Oldman delivered a uniquely opulent interpretation, which, despite flaws, inspired an entire school of makeup and costume design. However, these were rare exceptions, and the bulk of films produced on the subject of Dracula (and vampires in general) only confirmed how dull, silly, and repetitive the mythology had become.
Just when it would seem that nothing new could be done with the character, along came Guy Maddin‘s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002). For those familiar with Maddin’s work, it should come as no surprise that his approach is completely revolutionary or that his postmodern originality springs from antiquated classicist art forms: silent film and the ballet.
Browning actually made an eccentric choice to use excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” as incidental music in his Dracula. Forgoing actual ballet music, Maddin utilizes Mark Godden’s choreography (performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), which instead utilizes excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies. Not surprisingly, Mahler’s Freudian baggage is an asset. Set to the often violent and macabre dancing, Mahler’s music here seems more related to Bela Bartok’s perverse ballet “Miraculous Mandarin” than to his own “Resurrection” Symphony.
Maddin is aware that silent cinema at its best is a stylishly erotic, poetic art form, awash in an otherworldly Art Noveau milieu. The theatrical makeup, lack of dialogue, and overwrought choreography transports us to a plane separate from reality. Maddin, dialed into rudimentary cinema, often invites television-fed audiences to question the validity of his art as a “real“ movie. Dracula is as much fugue as it is moving picture, akin to a theater of the absurd homage to silent film.
Maddin concentrates on the vampire’s seduction, with the first half devoted primarily to Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle). Dracula (dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang) is Asian, lusty, vulnerable, and agile. In the first part, Mina and Jonathan Harker are relegated to minor characters (we don’t miss them). Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) is, as usual, apt to spoil the fun. It has been said that all literature is about sex, death, and God. Maddin’s Dracula likens blood to semen, which of course inspires much melodramatic Christian apprehension in the chaste, xenophobic doctor. There’s plenty of symbolism, too, about lust for money, the hypocrisy of Christian capitalism, celibacy, and martyrdom.
Despite its familiar source, Maddin’s Dracula, crepuscular and icy, is as startling as the productions of Murnau and Herzog, and perhaps even more so. It is paradoxically the coldest and most fiery interpretation of Bram Stoker to date. Knowing our familiarity with the narrative, Maddin wisely does not set out to spin yet another retelling; rather, it’s all about the aesthetics, baby. Primarily black and white (mixed with blood red and various tints) and filmed on super 8mm, and 16mm, Dracula is a director’s film, employing every fetishistic gimmick from the Expressionist bag. The choppiness is intentional and frantic, much in the same vein as Maddin’s justifiably famous Heart of the World (2000—probably his best film). The dull naysayers and vampire fans are actually right about one thing: Dracula is not a moving picture as much as it an overtly erotic icon.