Wednesday, June 18, 2003

[MOVIES] Dracula x 3

This is mostly going to be about Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, in part because it's the best of the three versions of "Dracula" that I saw during the past four days at The Brattle Theater's "Dracula On Screen" program, as well as being the one that's not, at the very least, forty-five years old. I don't think seeing it first gives it an unfair advantage, in that the versions I saw later just felt like more of the same - it's legitimately incredible.

Guy Maddin directs. I've run sort of hot and cold on him - his short film "Heart Of The World" is one of the most exciting short movies I've seen, but his features just tended to peter out. He'll have a vision, and some quirky characters, but after an hour both Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs and Careful just stopped holding my interest, and napping ensued no matter how beautiful the stuff on-screen was. D:PFaVD avoids that by being fairly short - about an hour and fifteen minutes - and by having someone else do the story work. Maddin takes Bram Stoker's story (and Mark Godden's ballet adaptation) and rearranges things, adding some things uniquely his own, but there's a strong structure in place for him to work his magic on.

And he does work magic. Shooting with mostly Super 8 and digital video, and primarily in black and white, lets Maddin put the audience into another time. To be sure, you could do that while using 35mm color stock, but making it look like it was shot in the early twentieth century gives him some latitude for unusual sets to accomodate the ballet, while also not requiring Maddin to soften certain characters. Van Helsing and Lucy's suitors can be quick to react violently despite that not necessarily being palatable for a twenty-first century audience, the underlying fear of immigrants feels more real and immediate, and Lucy's overt sexuality and interest in playing the field seems daring, instead of merely ahead of her time.

He also knows when to break the rules during the action sequences. As beautifully as the ballet works for seduction, when Van Helsing opts to open a can of whoop-ass on the vampires, the characters don't quite stop dancing, but Maddin allows the sound effects of swords and stakes finding their marks to enter the soundtrack as blood flows (and gushes) red. As much as the film sneers at the repressed Victorians, it doesn't make heroes out of the vampires, either - they're monsters and get their just desserts.

Seeing Tod Browning's Dracula two days later was kind of underwhelming. No question, this is a deservedly iconic version of the story - Bela Lugosi gives a great performance, with elements of the noble whose sophistication attracts women despite his age and an otherworldly stare that is genuinely unnerving. It is also, however, clearly based on a stage play: Even for its period, the camera remains very stationary, forgoing close-ups and reverse angles; characters describe things happening off-stage which could be shown in a motion picture.

Still, it's much better than Hammer's Horror Of Dracula. The screenwriter basically takes character names from Stoker's novel, and strings together a story that mostly works. One thing that irked me was that the good guys fire the first shot, so to speak - the movie opens with Van Helsing and Harker already out to destroy Dracula. I sort of like the idea of being proactive where vampires are concerned, but it makes everything that happens feel like little more than the plot of a movie - this is all happening because Van Helsing needs to fight Dracula, not because of what drives the characters. It's got a lot of energy, but not a lot of passion.

All in all, Pages From A Virgin's Diary is my favorite of the three, although I wish finances had allowed me to see Nosferatu on the big screen again. I like my Dracula to be a monstrous figure of walking death; vampires with sex appeal always seemed off to me. (And, when I saw it at The Movies in Portland, it wasn't framed correctly - they tried to fill their 1.85:1 screen with a 1.33:1 Academy-ratio film. Lots of heads were cut off, and even some of the intertitles)


Aside: Usually the new Brattle schedules are available by now, with only 8 days left on the current one, and I'm getting antsy. I know Le Cercle Rouge will be the first thing on it, but I've taken to trying to guess what the other programs will be based upon the posters hanging in the lobby (In The Mood For Love, Bob Le Flambeur and Ghost In The Shell).

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