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Bloody Hell 

In adapting one of the most familiar terror tales ever told, bloodsucking ballet dancers would definitely be one way to go. Silent-movie succubi would be another. Canadian director Guy Maddin decided to try both in his alternately sanguine and sucky Dracula -- Pages From a Virgin's Diary, a silent treatment of the Bram Stoker book as performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

All of the usual suspects are here: the Transylvanian vampire, the pervy Van Helsing, and juicy Lucy and her feckless friends Mina and Harker. But for all its adherence to the original, this dream-world Dracula has an identity problem -- it's a silent movie that's not always without sound, a black-and-white motion picture that frequently features saturated colors, and a filmed ballet that lacks the immediacy of a physical performance or the visual coherence of a cinematic effort. Like the undead it strives to bring to life, Maddin's Dracula wanders between worlds; there are feverish flashes of brilliance, but the shadows threaten to swallow them whole.

The ballet idea, for instance, is not all bad. Mark Godden's frenzied choreography frees Lucy, as danced by Tara Birtwhistle, and Mina, as danced by CindyMarie Small, to boldly explore the often-ignored sexual hysteria at the very heart of Dracula. But attempts to turn the vampire himself into a dark-lord-a-leaping are laughable at worst and, at best, tolerable. It's not just him, either; when the time comes to safeguard Lucy's home against nocturnal invasion, pretty, pirouetting chambermaids are a bit too Nutcracker.

The black-and-white silent-movie shtick would work also, if that were all there was. Paul Suderman's cinematography is exquisite, and Maddin's shot selection makes for a few truly stunning visuals. The players over-emote admirably, but one cannot help but wonder why their voiceboxes are stricken when sometimes footfalls sound and lanterns scratch against coffin lids. Similarly, Maddin introduces color to great effect, as when Dracula reveals his cape's crimson underside; at other times, the hue of the entire film -- from blue to rosy to orange -- annoyingly changes like a mood ring.

Dracula's innovation and Maddin's eccentric ambitions have been well received. The film boasts a slew of honors, including the 2002 SITGES Film Festival's Best Film award, Best Performing Arts Program and Best Director of a Performing Arts Program or Series from the 17th Annual Gemini Awards, a selection as one of the top 10 Canadian feature films of 2002 by the Toronto International Film Festival, and a 2002 International Emmy Award for Best Performing Arts Program. And there is something nice about this movie's messy, operatic overreaching, but, in the end, its pretentious extravagance will drain you dry.

HEADLINE: Grave Concerns

The Burial Society (NR)

Directed by Nicholas Racz

Starring Rob LaBelle and Jan Rubes

3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12

Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St., 891-2787

C

In his lovely meditative tome The Talmud and the Internet, author Jonathan Rosen offers the age-old story of Yochanan ben Zakkai, a Jewish scholar whose pragmatism caused him to fake his own death and be smuggled out of a Zealot-controlled Jerusalem in a coffin in 68 C.E. Ben Zakkai knew the Zealots would never surrender to Rome, and so his prearranged death and rebirth got him out of the City of David, after which he managed to convince conqueror and Roman-emperor-to-be Vespasian to set aside a school at Yavneh, a promise kept that ensured the survival of Jewish study despite the turbulence of the times. Rosen uses the adventure story to make a much larger point about the evolution of the Jewish faith.

It's hard not to think about Rosen's beautiful telling of this tale when viewing The Burial Society, a very different story about an equally desperate Jew who ends up exploring the same unconventional means of transportation. The saga of loan manager Sheldon Kasner (Rob LaBelle) who steals millions from his Jewish Mafia bosses and then looks for a way out, The Burial Society sadly makes no such larger point and gets lost in its own telling.

Kasner, ably portrayed by Roberto Benigni look-alike LaBelle, is a mouse of a man with the scheme of a lifetime. No ben Zakkai, Kasner's first priority is saving his own skin. And so, to hide out from his former bosses, he heads for the Chevrah Kadish, super-secret Jewish burial society. Among the society's elderly members (Jan Rubes, Allan Rich and Bill Meilen) schooled in the preparations for a proper kosher burial, Kasner will bide his time, count his money and find a corpse to help fake his own death. Nothing happens the way he plans it.

Writer-director Nicholas Racz misses his greatest opportunity when he fails to linger on the rites of the Chevrah Kadish, a treasure trove of meaning and metaphor that could have added much depth and texture to this film. Without that advantage, Racz's tissue-thin tale very nearly plays like an episode of the new Twilight Zone. He helps himself out, however, with a somewhat unconventional, nonlinear construction and a modestly daring directorial style, both of which make Kasner's caper immeasurably more interesting than it really ought to be. Winner of the New Orleans Film Festival's Narrative Feature Award, The Burial Society is an amazing first draft whose greatest asset, sadly, remains unearthed.

click to enlarge Open wide: Zhang Wei-Qiang and Tara Birtwhistle - dance around an innovative-if-irritating adaptation - of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
  • Open wide: Zhang Wei-Qiang and Tara Birtwhistle dance around an innovative-if-irritating adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
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