Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003)

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fourstar

Director Guy Maddin is a weird little cookie. Admittedly I’ve only seen a small sampling of his work, but I’ve yet to fall in love with another one of his features quite as hard as I did with his beer-themed black comedy The Saddest Music in the World. His films are always interesting, though, if a little exhausting. Last year’s The Forbidden Room was a beautiful set of interconnected, humorous vignettes that worked really well for me as isolated short films, kind of like high art sketch comedy, but were especially tiring as a full-length collection. Looking a little further into Maddin’s catalog, though, the director has plenty of full-length experiments dedicated to a single idea; his ballet horror Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, for instance, is a much more focused & disciplined effort that matches his trademark visual aesthetic to its most logical genre structure. By fully committing to a single narrative & matching Maddin’s deliberately aged visuals to a silent horror era aesthetic, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary proves to be a much more digestible exhibition of the director’s peculiar talents than any of his vignette-structured works. This is a film with extremely limited commercial appeal and it’s one that might take the full context of his career to fully appreciate what he’s doing with the material, but it’s just as beautiful and amusing and flippantly high brow as anything he’s ever accomplished. I love seeing him indulge a single idea at a feature’s length and Pages from a Virgin’s Diary exemplifies exactly why that kind of extended focus is ideal for his directorial style, even when the main conceit is so narrowly minded.

Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is not a ballet-themed horror so much as a horror-themed ballet. The film finds Maddin shooting a straightforward ballet production of the Dracula story in a cinematic context. Instead of hanging back to display the dancers’ full bodies & artistry, he cuts the frame in very tightly and adds silent film era intertitles to advance the plot instead of conveying story entirely through dance. The playing-to-the-back-row stage play expressiveness of the ballet works really well in tandem with Maddin’s style, though, which requires a broad physical performance to recall the vaudevillian days of early cinema. Often, Pages from a Virgin’s Diary plays like a high art horror comedy. It makes a weird joke out of the details of Dracula lore: drowning the frame in cartoonishly large piles of garlic, mirroring Love & Friendship‘s character introduction gags with details like “Eater of Bugs,” playing the bumbling hubris of men for humor (like when Van Helsing performs the most inefficient & smugly disgusted gynecological exam of all time on Dracula’s prime victim). Maddin’s sly humor is contrasted with the dead babies, decapitations, and sexual violence of the source material to make for a truly horrifying, but strikingly flippant viewing experience, one that’s sex jokes & vampire kills are made oddly delicate by its very nature as a ballet. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary might be the kind of high faulting art film pretension that rolls eyes & changes channels at first glance, but it’s also playfully subversive in its prankster humor & genuine horror thrills, making for a very worthy entry in the director’s catalog, despite its deceptively slight premise.

Of course, as with all Guy Maddin projects, the flashiest aspect of Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is the director’s dedication to visual craft. Deliberately degraded film, tinted color changes, a screen segmented into tight parallel lines: Maddin seems to be working in a digital medium here, but his trademark throwback to ancient cinema past matches the material exceedingly well, making me desperately curious about what a high budget version of this movie would look like. The ballet aspect of the film is the only dynamic that distinguishes it from a genuine silent horror, but that aspect does feed into Maddin’s aesthetic as a traditionalist. I also had great appreciation for the way he played with the film’s pacing, speeding up comedic bits to a movie trailer tempo for greater humorous effect and slowing down certain ballet flourishes for moments of lyrical contrast. You won’t find many horror comedies this visually interesting or poetically minded, with giant pipe organs spewing green gas & perverted sex demons filling the frame between subtle gags about modesty & desire. Even if it isn’t his best film, you also won’t find a much more concise argument for Maddin’s distinct talents as a director, as he transforms traditional mediums like ballet, silent film, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula into something entirely new & oddly fresh. I’d love to dig up more of his features that are dedicated to exploring a single concept for the entirety of their runtimes. He seems like a director who has too many ideas at once and too little time or funding to follow them all at length, so I should probably be exceedingly grateful for the times such as this, when he finds inspiration to break out of his usual short film format and follow one spectacularly weird idea (say, a traditional ballet shot as a high art horror comedy) to a feature length. It’s his best self.

-Brandon Ledet

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

fourhalfstar

campstamp

I’m not sure how much of my ecstatic reaction to the 1960 Italian horror cheapie The Vampire and the Ballerina had to do with my pitifully low expectations going in, but the film bowled me over. Where I expected lazy, thoughtless schlock, I happened to find something deliriously strange and carefully made. The Vampire and the Ballerina resembles so much cheaply made cult classic trash of its era, from the burlesque horror of Cat Women of the Moon to the vampiric kills & stock footage reliance of Plan 9 from Outer Space to the rubber mask monsters of The Brainiac. And yet, for a film so silly & so rooted in the context of its time, this throwaway horror title paradoxically feels ahead of the crowd in terms of where horror was going to go in the future. Hammer House horror, style over substance giallo, and, especially, over-sexed European vampire films of the 60s & 70s all feel somewhat indebted to the weirdly off-kilter shocks, scares, and titillation lurking in this strange little genre film. This is the exact kind of rare gem I’m looking for when I’m digging through piles of trash cinema and, as usual, I found it in a place I least expected it.

A group of young, attractive, scantily clad dancers are “preparing a ballet” while guests at a wealthy man’s estate near a remote village. There are several mysterious murders coinciding with their stay, explained by local superstitions to be the work of a vampire. The film’s rules adhere to traditional vampire lore: deadly sunlight, stakes through the heart, garlic, crosses, the whole deal. It only adds the caveat of the monsters needing to feed under a full moon to that dynamic, a little flavor borrowed from werewolf pictures. At first, the girls’ wealthy host (who wears capes & seems to know an awful lot about vampire history) or one of their macho beaus seem like prime suspects for these murders, but this film is anything but a murder mystery. As soon as the vampires appear onscreen, posing as gracious hosts of a crypt-like castle, you know for a fact that they’re the perpetrators. Where The Vampire and the Ballerina (a title that really should be pluralized) gets weird is in the strange revelation of how the two vampires’ relationship works. It’s a bizarre glimpse into one of cinema’s most toxic codependent relationships, a weirdly unromantic back & forth that’s far more satisfying than any who’s-the-undead-killer mystery could have possibly been.

The film’s thematic weirdness is only amplified by its strikingly thoughtful (although cheaply produced) cinematography. Images of silhouettes growing on cave walls, passing sky & falling dirt seen from the POV of a freshly bit victim being buried “alive,” and the vampire’s legitimately upsetting rubber mask & plaster visage all combine to make for a much more striking visual experience than you’d typically expect from this kind of work. Where The Vampire and the Ballerina shines best, though, is when it combines this visual thoughtfulness with the tawdry horniness that drives its most base thrills. The movie makes no excuse for oggling at the dancers as they lounge around in flimsy underwear and perform in revealing tights.The shameless butt shots in the dance scenes, which fuse ballet with world music & burlesque, crowd the screen in a leering cacophony of hip shaking, leg flashing filth. This combines in other scenes with the film’s more lyrical ambitions to make for some truly strange, sexually charged imagery: a victim shot from between her killer’s legs (a la Slumber Party Massacre), stock footage trees thrashing in the wind as hypnotized women writhe in sexual frustration, a woman sunbathing on a rock as a background waterfall flows the frame’s attention directly to her crotch. The Vampire and the Ballerina is in every way cheap, artful filth and I’m in awe of how much memorable imagery it was able to generate in spite of being such a slack jawed work of horror-minded eroticism.

I don’t want to make this sound as if it’s some long lost masterpiece that could rival the heights of a Bava or a Corman-Cycle Poe. It’s a deeply silly movie, one that features several nonsensical minutes of women chasing each other through the woods to big band music for reasons I couldn’t explain if I tried. I do, however, believe that The Vampire and the Ballerina has some strong, untapped cult classic potential. Cynically made as a cash grab in the wake of Christopher Lee’s Dracula finding popularity in Italy, this is a deliberately over-sexed work that anyone under the age of 16 was banned from watching at the theater. You can feel those trashy origins in every frame of The Vampire and the Ballerina, but the film still manages to be a surprisingly artful experience for me. Anyone who regularly enjoys a slice of cheap black & white schlock should get a kick out of the film’s creature designs & shameless, theremin-scored burlesque. What’ll really stick with you if you’re on that wavelength, though, is the strange relationship dynamics between its vampiric killers & the artfully odd images the film manages to pull out of a seemingly nonexistent budget. If you watch enough of these kinds of horror titles, they start to blend together and everything begins to feel monotonous; The Vampire and the Ballerina is an exciting reminder that there’s still weirdo outliers out there waiting to be discovered. There’s still gems lurking in cinema’s discarded trash.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (1977)

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fivestar

I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.

Thus, I didn’t begin my journey into the Dario Argento oeuvre with his earliest work, I started with Suspiria. In fact, before beginning this project, I had not seen Argento’s films that preceded this, his most well-known picture. I Netflix’d the DVD of Crystal Plumage sometime in 2008, but never got around to watching it before sending it back, a casualty in my mad, gluttonous rush to consume every episode of Veronica Mars. The other films of his that I did uncover and watch, like Phenomena and Opera, all came from the middle of his career, after he had forsaken pure giallo and before he moved on to making the mediocre miscellanea of his later career. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, Suspiria was a revelation to me then and a revelation to me now.

The story follows young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in the Black Forest of Germany. She arrives during a torrential downpour, and makes her way to the school just in time to see another young student flee into the woods, screaming about secrets. This same young woman is later murdered, brutally, and the friend with whom she took refuge is also killed. The following morning, Suzy meets school’s vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final film role), and dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who appear to be strict but matronly. She also befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini), who was friends with the murdered girl and continues her investigation into the strange goings-on about the academy. Strange events begin to happen: Sarah experiences an unusual fainting spell that forces her to relocate to the school’s dormitories from an off-campus apartment, maggots rain from the ceiling after having infiltrated “spoiled food” being kept in the attic, and disoriented bats fly into open windows while faithful service dogs turn on their owners. It’s hard to describe the film’s plot without it sounding like a standard haunted house movie, but it’s so, so much more than that.

What is a movie? Or, perhaps a better question, what should a movie be? In the West, we have been trained to have certain expectations of films, to be receptive to a particular cinematic style with a mostly-linear structure, to recognize certain constants and feel secure in them. As a comparison, think about how you were first introduced to poetry as a student: poems were words arranged in a particular pattern, with meter and rhyme. You were likely given something palatable to read, something not too dissimilar from nursery rhymes, with an easily-identifiable structure. Then, you were introduced to something completely different, something that wasn’t recognizable as a “poem” within the limited context that you were taught. Films are much the same, as studios make the majority of their money from regurgitating the same kind of mediocre pablum over and over again across all genres: Meg Ryan is a relatable career-oriented everywoman who doesn’t realize that there’s something missing from her life, every superhero has to learn the hard way that with great power blah blah (I won’t even bother finishing that thought because you’re already ahead of me), and every generation has a raunchy sex comedy to mislead them about the birds and the bees. But sometimes, a movie comes along that doesn’t just repeat the same ABAB CDCD EE rhyme scheme of other movies you’ve seen before. Auteurs earn their credibility by taking the same things we’ve seen over and over again and tearing them to pieces, or forsaking them altogether, or using them in a transcendent way by playing with or manipulating audience expectation.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that movies which forego some element of cinema in order to exalt another aspect of film can be a worthwhile endeavor, and that putting narrative consistency on the backburner in order to focus on aesthetics or mood doesn’t necessarily make a film less successful than the median anymore than ee cummings was a lesser poet than Robert Browning. Suspiria is a movie that does just this, by honing in on atmosphere and tone rather than plot, and the film is well-served by this attention to detail. That’s not to say that the plot is irrelevant (this isn’t The Five Days, after all), but color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.”

Daria Nicolodi, who has a co-writer credit on the film, stated that she based her contribution on stories her grandmother had told her as a child, like the misadventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and, supposedly, the elder woman’s discovery that the faculty of a school she attended was secretly into occultism. Argento has claimed that this story is false, but I prefer her whimsical lie to his pragmatic honesty, as it’s a fun and intriguing fiction that’s better than the truth; that’s one of the things art is for, in my opinion. Argento has also said that he initially wanted the film to star adolescents, but that this was quickly nixed (watch that first murder scene and imagine that the victim is twelve years old, and you can see why this change was necessary); to maintain that viewpoint, the set was designed with all doorknobs at eye level so that the subconscious recognizes the actors as being smaller and more childlike. This kind of set detail, along with the omnipresence of bright, vivid colors, contributes to the film’s overall surreal ambiance. It’s a movie that’s experienced and felt more than it is one which is interpreted, and it’s all the better for it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of the main character, Suzy. Suzy spends a great deal of her screentime being sedated each night while the heavy-lifting of the mystery is largely performed by others around her. Pat, the girl who flees the school in the opening, kept notes about the faculty’s suspicious behavior and practices; Sarah listens to the steps being taken by the teachers at night and records them so Suzy can use this information to discover the coven later; Suzy’s disappearance leads Sarah to Dr. Mendel (Udo Kier, of all people), who introduces her to exposition-laden Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler). Suzy is a character who is acted upon more often than she is one who has agency, but isn’t that so often the case with dreams? In another movie, this would be a detraction, but here it’s actually a feature. If you haven’t seen this movie already, what are you doing here? Stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it, right now.

Additional notes:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t address this above, but this was prog-rock band Goblin’s second time collaborating with Argento, and the movie’s score is absolutely phenomenal. Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Suspiria includes a copy of the soundtrack, which has long been out of print but must be heard. It’s like the apotheosis of what a horror film score should be, at once delicate and disquieting, unsettling but eerily beautiful and vaguely mystical. Halloween’s may be the best-known horror score, but Suspiria‘s is technically and thematically superior and one of the best scores of all time.
  • When I first saw this movie, I had never seen any previous Argento films, so I didn’t know what his recurring motifs were. Although this is not a giallo film in the strictest sense of the word (obviously, the “mystery” here is much less important than visuals and mood), his trope of a character witnessing something at the beginning of the film that they struggle to comprehend is present here. As in Deep Red, a mirror holds an important clue and plays a key role in the resolution of an investigation. Most amusing to me, however, was the fact that Suzy’s ultimate defeat of the evil coven queen requires her to use a crystal-handed dagger that is part of a sculpture of a peacock, presumably the same genus as titular Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
  • He doesn’t factor into the film all that much, but Suzy’s love interest Mark (Miguel Bosé) is a total babe. Yowza.
  • A minor quibble: Why do the witches even care to bring Suzy into the school in the first place? In a more standard Hollywood film, they would probably be looking to use her in some way (see: Rosemary’s Baby) or convince her to join the coven, but there’s no real reason given or explored here, further adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. We never get an answer, but if this frustrates you, you may be missing the point.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ballet 422 (2015)

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threehalfstar

Although I don’t remember seeing the first 421 Ballet movies, I found the 422nd entry in the franchise to be remarkably accessible. Now that I’ve gotten that horrendously unfunny joke out of the way I can at least echo a similar sentiment in the way the documentary Ballet 422 indoctrinates outsiders into its tightly controlled world of professional dance. As if the film were a triple digits sequel for a franchise that’s been running strong since 1948 (when the New York City Ballet company where it’s set was established), the world it depicts is already well-established & lived-in. Instead of explaining the art of ballet as a whole, however, the film is smart to remain pinpoint-specific. This is not a film about ballet, but about the production of a specific ballet and that specificity allows it to reveal more about the artistry as a whole than broader strokes ever could.

Ballet 422 documents a world in which all of the participants are already on the same wavelength, communicating abstract ideas to each other almost wordlessly as they work together to create a new ballet. It’s strikingly intimate. The central subject is Justin Peck, a 25 year old dancer from the New York City Ballet’s Corps de Ballet (layman’s term: background dancers). Although Peck has been a dancer with the Corps for seven years, he’s still a relative youngster as far as choreographer goes (maybe? I’m guessing there; sounds young to me) and the film follows him as he pieces together the company’s 422nd production in just a few months’ time. There’s a mostly dialogue-free fly on the wall approach to documenting these few months, which is entirely appropriate for an art form that is so physical, so visually based. It’s a rare treat to actually watch the ballet culminate slowly on film without its machinations being described by needless voiceover. After Peck’s production hits the stage, he immediately returns to his secondary role in the Corps de Ballet. It’s an oddly sad, abstractly affecting moment that the film allows to remain open to your own interpretation.

Ballet 422 sidesteps interacting with ballet’s historical or critical significance as an art form & instead reduces the dance into its most basic elements: music & movement. There’s a little insight into the physical tax, the backstage primping, and the politics in the interactions between the dancers & musicians involved in the production being documented, but those moments are mostly fleeting. The real meat & potatoes of the film is when the dancers are talking shop without talking at all. There’s a physical communication at the heart of Ballet 422 that reveals a great deal about the physical communication of ballet itself. It’s fascinating stuff without being flashy or pedantic. Like the ballet documented in the film, Ballet 422 is simple, straight-forward, and effortlessly elegant.

-Brandon Ledet