THe undead are dancing in Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire yarn that was financed by Canadian TV and stars the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. While this may sound like the deadliest concept of all time, the movie has a saving grace: it was directed by Guy Maddin, the wiggy-brilliant Winnipegian (Archangel, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) who's one of world cinema's genuine originals—he makes David Lynch look about as mainstream as Steven Spielberg. Both fiercely romantic and hilariously off-kilter (his silent-film aesthetic comes wedded to a supremely modern irony), Maddin's genius is so inescapably idiosyncratic that his work seems destined to remain a cult taste. Although Dracula won't change that, I hasten to add that this is the most inventive vampire picture of the past 80 years.
In adapting Mark Godden's ballet, Maddin finds something fresh in the material, spotlighting the paranoias that lurk in Stoker's original. He plays up the way that Dracula is laced with late Victorian fears of invasion from the East ("Immigrants!" shrieks one of the subtitles), a point echoed in the casting of Zhang Wei-Qiang as the Prince of Darkness. Traditionally, Dracula is played by an imposing figure—scary-faced Bela Lugosi or looming Christopher Lee. In contrast, Zhang is a lithe and ethereal fellow whose impassive features take us back to an earlier, more mythical day when vampires weren't yet campy wiseacres or tragic romantics à la Anne Rice. Maddin's Dracula is less a monster than a liberator, or maybe an enabler: His bite unleashes the suppressed eroticism in his female victims, and it's these young women's untrammeled sexuality that really terrifies all those righteous Victorian men around Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. And you can understand Dr. Van Helsing's terror when you watch Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) dancing after she's been bitten. She toys randily yet contemptuously with her three suitors, engages in a ravishing pas de deux with Dracula in a graveyard amidst falling snow, then teases her pursuers, racing feverishly from man to man in the moments before her grisly extermination.
Maddin has said that he worked hard "to put some of [his] own DNA" into a project that already contained Stoker's novel, Godden's choreography and symphonic music by Mahler. He's succeeded magnificently. This Dracula isn't simply Maddinesque but utterly cinematic, from its deflationary comic close-ups to its punctuation of the gorgeous black-and-white photography with sudden bursts of color—a drop of blood becomes an explosion of red. Where Boyle employs digital technology to give 28 Days Later a contemporary visual pop, Maddin uses it to endow his footage with the worn, slightly decayed look of an old film whose images are radiant and slightly haloed.
Still, for all of Maddin's stylistic panache, the movie's real power lies in his skill at making us feel the story's unruly emotions: this Dracula contains some of the most ecstatic filmmaking since the orgiastic concert scenes in Oliver Stone's The Doors. Maddin's real triumph is the way he captures the delirium, erotic thrill and sanguinary passion of the vampire myth. He knows that what unites the living and the undead is the inexhaustible need for fresh blood.
28 Days Later was directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland; produced by Andrew MacDonald; and stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. Now playing at selected theaters. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary was directed by Guy Maddin; ballet written by Mark Godden, from the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker; produced by Vonnie Von Helmot; and stars Zhang Wei-Qiang and Tara Birtwhistle. Now playing at the Nuart, West Los Angeles.