It seemed inevitable that Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin would get around to Dracula sooner or later, having perfected a kind of neo-German Expressionism that's sometimes overlayered with kitsch (as in 1992's "Careful") but is always a startling blend of re-creation and originality. In Maddin's films, the actors either move as though in a trance, speaking deliberately disembodied post-dubbed dialogue, or strike heated Romantic poses against hyperstylized backdrops. The results are like F.W. Murnau filtered through the sensibility of David Lynch -- the creaky but effective passion of silent movies spiced with touches of the surreal.
This particular version of Bram Stoker's famous novel started as a dance piece, and Maddin has opted to film it mostly silent (though outfitted with portions of Mahler's first two symphonies) and largely in a fuzzy black and white that alternates with period piece-like tinted sequences. Despite the ostensibly antique form, this is a modern Dracula, with two of Stoker's supposed subtexts brought to the surface: The vampire (played by Zhang Wei-Qiang) is explicitly presented as both a form of alien infestation and a sexual predator -- though it should be noted that Dracula's preferred mode of "penetration" is closer to the surgical than the sexual definition. Lots of people have sex without creating new holes in their partners.
Still, you can't keep a serviceable metaphor down, and the idea that the vampiric bite is Stoker's sublimated version of Victorian male sexual rapaciousness has great appeal these days. So there's much leering and writhing, as well as homoerotic interplay among the would-be saviors of the suffering heroines (Tara Birtwhistle, CindyMarie Small). Personally, I prefer the drug-addiction metaphor and the class-exploitation metaphor but the sex one is, at least, entertaining.
Maddin's style is uncharacteristically hyperkinetic -- good news for those who might be put off by the piece's origin as a ballet. There's dancing, but it's the camera's point of view that dominates, sets and shifts the mood while keeping things strange. With its intensely aesthetic approach, the movie is a long way from being scary, or even (as with most Maddin films) particularly creepy. Instead, it's a throwback to the days when horror movies often had a certain visual grandeur. And while one may miss a modern frisson or two, there's still a great deal of dreadful beauty to relish.
(Opens Friday, May 7, at D.MAC, the Downtown Media Arts Center)