Dreams Become Nightmares in ‘Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary’
By Sara Century
Since its release in 1897, the world has been inundated with a stunning number of adaptations and homages to Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. We’ve seen a terrifying, parasitic vampire transform into an aloof, dreamy hunk, and his uncomfortable, one-sided sexual infatuation with Mina shift into a tragic love story. The hapless Jonathan Harker, once a nervous narrator, occasionally steps into the role of being a bonafide hero, while Van Helsing has been the star of a number of series and movies in his own right.
Still, through the many versions of this story, there is always room to innovate. With as much influence as the novel has had, it is perhaps a slight surprise that it took until 1997 to see a ballet version of the story. In 2002, a filmed version was released of a Canadian ballet performance, and by utilizing a number of subversions, it has become one of the great underrated gems in the Dracula canon. This, of course, is Guy Maddin’s Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, a title that hints at the sexual repression and temptation that the ballet versions of the story have very much leaned into while likewise refusing to allow this to simply be another adaptation.
Throughout his many works, director Guy Maddin never delves entirely into the realm of horror, but he never helms a film that is totally free of it, either. Even at his dreamiest or his most satirical, each work is in some way tinged by the more disturbing elements of the world. Even when leaning into the absurd, there is a haunting knowledge that any dream could just as easily become a nightmare. Described by critic Roger Ebert as “Metropolis in hyperdrive,” Maddin’s silent film stylism is perfectly suited to a Dracula retelling of any kind, but the collaboration with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was a stroke of genius. Initially released on television via the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Pages received a wider theatrical release the following year. This is, to date, Maddin’s last collaboration with the experimental filmmaker Deco Dawson, whose presence is felt here in the presentation of theatrical performance to film.
The ballet follows much the same plot as the novel, but there are a number of creative choices. To begin with, Jonathan Harker is no longer the principal narrator, and we hear very little about his time at Dracula’s castle, which appears only through hazy flashbacks. Likewise, his relationship with Mina is important, but it’s clear that they are a sexual mismatch, adding a great deal of depth to her attraction to Dracula. Indeed, Mina is no less sexual than Lucy, and her dance with Jonathan, in which she uses his diary as a platform to explore her own fantasies only to be rejected by him, is what opens the door to Dracula to begin with.
In contrast to other takes, here, for the first half of the film, Lucy is effectively the protagonist. She exists without an overarching commentary from Jonathan or Mina, neither of whom interact with her in the story beyond vague references. Though other takes have generally portrayed her as a woman doomed by her own lust, there is a more sympathetic turn, here. Lucy’s desire is respected, as is her pain, and her death is given the emotional weight that is often missing from retellings of Dracula. Further, this film seems to silently acknowledge how badly she’s been treated in other versions by placing her in the center of the narrative for much of its runtime.
It’s important not to underestimate how much a ballet version of the story brings to the table. When Dracula comes to Lucy’s room, their union is both violent and magnetic, and her attraction to him has an obvious effect on how she moves through the scenes. Lucy practically leaps from the screen in many scenes, be it from the early moments of girlish infatuation to the vibrant later scene when she fights Van Helsing and her suitors in her own crypt. The fight is indeed one of the best scenes in the film as she grabs two men by the throat and gracefully throws them to the ground only to tiptoe backward away from a cross in the next moment. Following the incredible dance that is her transformation into one of Dracula’s brides, Tara Birtwhistle grants us what is easily one of the best takes on Lucy ever to grace popular media.
Meanwhile, the symbolism here is both rife and mostly without comment, which is typical of Maddin’s productions. While nearly everything is in black and white, the bite marks on Lucy’s neck as well as the blood when she is staked are both bright red. Importantly, the inside of Dracula’s cape, seen in a quick flash as he flees her bedroom after an interruption, is also red. Yet, red is not the only color to appear and then reappear in a different context. Noxious green smoke disperses through the air early in the film, only to later find a counterpart of its own when Dracula’s hidden trove of money is colored bright, flashy green. There is no small irony when Dracula is accused of being in possession of “stolen British money!” considering the textual allusions to British Imperialism and intolerance toward immigrants.
In fact, the “otherness” of Dracula is pronounced here, with emphatic declarations placing him as an unwanted outsider among the British regardless of his vampirism. This story plays up the erotic appeal of Dracula, giving us an alluring portrayal by Zhang Wei-Qiang. He represents much more a welcome exploration of sexuality than a predator here, and there is no argument that Lucy allowed him to enter her room freely. When he is killed, it is by being surrounded by several men and then stabbed in the back, which is hard to see as a heroic move under any context. Dracula isn’t particularly fleshed out here, but it’s hard not to root for him when he crams money down Jonathan’s throat, using a knife to push it down.
Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is brief, clocking in at around 75 minutes, and it leaves a fair amount of the original story on the cutting room floor. Whether that is to your taste is a personal preference, but in doing so, it opened up the narrative to explore other themes. It may not have had the inclination to fully explore them, but the act of highlighting the parts of the story that so often fade into the background is what makes it such an interesting work. While a standard ballet or musical would feature plenty of long shots to grant space to the physical performances, Maddin’s take utilized close-ups regularly and allowed the actors more emotional space than another director might have. Arty and experimental, there is still a surprising level of depth to this version of this often-retold tale, and that’s what makes it one of the greats among a legion of Dracula-based books, films, comics, and more. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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