Straight out of Canada by way of Transylvania, "Dracula — Pages From a Virgin's Diary" ranks among the more eccentric wonders of the new-movie world. A wittily revisionist adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic and a passionate kiss to a lost cinematic past, the film was directed by Guy Maddin, performed by members of the Winnipeg Royal Ballet and looks like a lost silent-movie masterpiece — albeit one that would never have been shot. It's sexy, brainy and slightly nuts, and if it weren't playing at the Nuart Theatre it would be right at home at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Set in 1897 on the "East Coast of England," the film opens with the sounds of gulls and lighthouse bells capped with a flourish of Mahler. A maverick with a passion and talent for archaic cinematic vernacular, Maddin introduces his principal players in the manner of early movies. Among the characters are Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle), a coquette who relishes the attentions of her three suitors and lives alone with her ailing mother, a prisoner of an iron lung. As in the novel, Lucy falls under the vampire's spell, succumbing to Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) under the cloak of night when women of a certain age and class are meant to be as cut off from the world as her mother. But while Stoker's Lucy grows progressively weaker after she's bitten, Maddin's all but glows.
Stoker's original "Dracula" creakily unfolds as a series of diary entries and letters. Although the vampire enters the story as a bald old man with a long white mustache, that vision has long been subsumed by the flamboyant figure cut by Bela Lugosi in the 1930s. In the years since Lugosi twirled his cape, filmmakers have rarely deviated from Tod Browning's vision of the count as a matinee idol, a kind of weird uncle to Valentino. A sexed-up Dracula was likely a function of box-office pragmatism, but it's also what makes his story a movie perennial. Whether the count assumes the vigorous shape of Christopher Lee or a feral Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's film, the bloodsucker makes for a choice screen villain — a continental smoothie putting moves on virgins and looking for trouble.
You don't need to throw Stoker's imagination on the couch to get the symbolism of the novel's blood-engorged beasts and heaving female bosoms, but post-Lugosi most Dracula movies have tended to bypass the women altogether in favor of testosterone-and-gore fueled action. Coppola managed to insert some kink into his version, yet for all his film's erotic suggestiveness he never fully laid bare the novel's undertone of sexual panic. By contrast, Maddin embraces Stoker's panic and returns Lucy and her friend Mina to center stage, making them — rather than the vampire and his hunters — the focus. With the guys now off to the side, Maddin is freed up to seize on the novel's most embarrassingly dated aspects — the ravaged virgins, their ravenous hunger and the male anxiety about their hunger — and turn Stoker's subtext into text with a vengeance.
Beautifully shot to look like a silent movie with touches of Surrealist filigree — and gracefully danced from start to finish without a spoken word of dialogue — Maddin's film distills the essence of Stoker's narrative into a compact story of two young women struggling to come of sexual age. The first half of the film traces Lucy's descent into illness and the steps taken by Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) to cure her by any means necessary; the second follows the travails of Mina (CindyMarie Small). Like Lucy, Mina is a prisoner of her time and circumstance. Stashed away in a convent, she is engaged to a young man whose dealings with the count have left him haunted by sexual demons. Bedeviled by what these demons have stirred up inside him, he becomes even more horrified when he learns what they've roused in Mina.
In most Dracula movies the count and his handmaidens get their comeuppance, but only after they've vamped through the story, biting necks and turning heads. Anne Rice may have figured out vampires are hot, but few demon-lovers have gone as far as Maddin in admitting that an undead life of nocturnal gnawing isn't just sexy but far more enticing than a Victorian marriage. When Maddin's young women flutter across the stage, their long limbs and diaphanous gowns flowing, their every gesture — at once delicate, steely, mysterious — communicates the desire that Stoker dare not name. And when this Dracula materializes in Lucy's bedroom in the night, wafting through a pipe organ like smoke, there's no denying that this time the prey is every bit as hungry as the predator.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Heaving bosoms, bite marks and blood.
Zhang Wei-Qiang ... Dracula
Tara Birtwhistle ... Lucy Westernra
David Moroni ... Dr. Van Helsing
CindyMarie Small ... Mina Murray
Johnny Wright ... Jonathan Harker
A Vonnie Von Helmolt, Mark Godden and Guy Maddin Production, based on Mark Godden's "Dracula" adapted and choreographed for Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, released by Zeitgeist Films. Director Guy Maddin. Producer Vonnie Von Helmolt. Choreographer Mark Godden. Design, art direction Deanne Rohde. Costume design Paul Daigle. Cinematography Paul Suderman. Super-8 and Bolex deco dawson, Guy Maddin. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times