Bram Stoker’s Dracula is such a key text that it can be endlessly reimagined and restaged in versions which bring out multivalent readings. Maddin’s version is at once among the most bizarre Dracula movies and the most faithful to the letter of the original. Mark Goddin and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet did the groundwork by adapting the book into a ballet, and Maddin came in to film the pre-cast and pre-choreographed work, though adding a great deal of his own sensibility by making it into a lushly-scored but silent movie-styled work that uses many of the film-making conventions of Murneau and Browning to present a modernist take on the novel more extreme in its juggling of sympathies even than the Coppola version. Here, we notice the sly smug smirk of Van Helsing (David Moroni) as he declares the need to repress and destroy the vampires, Lucy’s three suitors become a chorus of comical boobs far less obviously appealing than an exotic and sensual Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) and Jonathan (Johnny A. Wright) shrinks more in terror from the sexual advances of Mina (CindyMarie Small) than anything else he experiences.
Realising that many Dracula adaptations start off with the strongest material – Harker’s visit to the castle – and then fall off, this radically rearranges the story so that we begin with Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) wooed away from the conventional, jolly, boring trio of typical male authority-status figures (wealthy Texan, society doctor, aristocrat) by a vampire who arrives in England as a phallic spill of blood on the map accompanied by tabloid-style headlines about ‘immigrants – from the East!’ Later, Maddin hilariously doubles back to pick up the plot by having Mina read Jonathan’s diary and doing the entire first act of the book as a hasty, one-minute montage with serial-style intertitles and vivid, hallucinatory images.
There are moments here from the novel rarely seen in movies – like the wealthy Count ‘bleeding’ gold coins when stabbed – and familiar scenes and sequences are staged in a manner which naturally seems classical even as it couldn’t be done by any other filmmaker. The look is shimmering, hallucinatory black and white, perfectly replicating the feel of a lost silent classic, with vivid splashes of colour that emphasise themes and images: red for blood, of course, but also gold and green for money (Stoker’s emphasis on wealth is played up). The performances are at once broad and subtle, with Zhang among the screen’s most seductive Draculas, and the general tone manages to respect the original work, question its sexual and class politics, make light fun of the stiffness of some of Stoker’s stabs at respectability and rediscover the powerful, universal matter that makes the book worth revisiting.