This week, all true movie lovers will rush to see a violent and fantastic special-effects thriller, in which a character endowed with uncanny powers rips through the veil of illusion that is normal life. The movie I refer to, of course, is Guy Maddin’s new, mostly black-and-white silent film, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, starring Zhang Wei-Qiang. A similar-sounding picture, The Matrix Reloaded, happens to have opened simultaneously, but I will withhold comment on it until next week. I’d rather focus for now on the more daring and visionary film.

Imagine a pale virgin lifting forward in bed, tilting from supine to upright with her head, torso and outstretched arms fixed in entranced unison. This is how poor, flighty Lucy Westernra ought to float toward her demon lover–as if she were already severed from earthly ties. This is how she drifts up somnambulistically in Maddin’s Dracula, an effect that’s all the more startling for being achieved without wires or camera tricks. Like most of the film’s characters, Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) is played by a dancer from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, whose evening-length production of Dracula, choreographed by Mark Godden, is the egg in Maddin’s cinematic soufflé. The dancers rise as if weightless, and so does the movie.

Escaping the pull of narrative gravity from the very first shots, this Dracula begins in the middle of the story and within no defined space. The plague ship is already nearing its English harbor; Lucy is already flying beyond her suitors, toward death’s embrace; and mad Renfield is already rattling the bars of his cell, crying out to his master, “I hear you coming!” Of course, since this is a silent film, he’s wrong–he hears only the soundtrack music, by Gustav Mahler. But Renfield’s delirium is general in the film, which cuts agitatedly among disparate views and unexplained events, glimpsed in the flashes given off from an unseen lighthouse. The focus is gauzy, the contrast between light and dark exaggerated, the field of vision often contracted by an iris to give the effect of a dream picture; and it’s a dream with the obsessiveness of fever, which sends jitters through the rhythm and calls up images again and again.

At this point, you might guess that Maddin has excused himself from the burden of exposition, knowing that everyone is familiar with the story of Dracula–and you would be half right. Maddin wants to transport you immediately to the edge of your seat, as if you, too, were Lucy, rapt in the dark. And yet, although he cuts away the connections that would help make sense of events, Maddin also spells out explanations, and does so to a fault. Intertitles printed in screaming capitals announce the presumed cause for anxiety: immigrants! others! from the east! The invaders are from so far in the east, in this case, that Dracula is Chinese.

Even if these intertitles looked less alarming, you might guess that their explanations had gone too far. “Others” is the decisive tip-off. Only a present-day viewer would think of using the word. It suggests a sense of superiority toward Bram Stoker and his late-Victorian readers. It makes you wonder: Can we keep Dracula at a safe distance by historicizing him? The question, implicitly flung out amid the first storm of montage, goes to the core of Maddin’s art.

Put it this way: To what degree does Maddin laugh at a now-obsolete cinema, with its peculiar atmosphere, assumptions and style, and to what degree does he adore it? When he first broke into the art house circuit with Tales From the Gimli Hospital, the answer seemed obvious, since the year was 1988 and everything modern had supposedly become post. According to all the best gasbags, only the antiquated could seem new anymore, and then on condition that it not be taken seriously–so Maddin was typed as an ironist, who joked about a past era in order to mock his own. But by 1992, when he came out with Careful (his incest-haunted mountaineering film, made in imitation of early sound and early color pictures), it was becoming clear that bygone cinema really moved him, as a fetish moves a true believer. He found gorgeous possibilities in old films–so gorgeous that the lovingly engineered hisses on the soundtrack, the smeared colors, the dopey acting, the grotesquely overstated moralism, could all be felt as a confession of his work’s inadequacy before its model, rather than an exposure of an earlier cinema’s failings. Careful is ridiculous not because people back then were stupid and clumsy but because we can’t live up to their dreams. (Neither could they.)

In short, Maddin is too engaged to be an ironist. He’s really a practitioner of fully charged ambivalence, which emerges most strongly in Dracula in his approach toward the title character. In the early years of Dracula’s career, audiences were expected to recoil from him; stage directors and filmmakers assumed that viewers’ fear and hate would overpower their fascination. More recently–beginning with the Hammer cycle and the television series Dark Shadows and culminating in Coppola’s film–audiences have been expected to sympathize with the vampire, or even to root for him as he wreaks havoc on a smugly mediocre world, and especially on its sexual taboos. Maddin is willingly caught in the middle of these attitudes.

To do justice to the one side, he plays up the theme of patriarchal oppression (as those familiar with “the Other” might say). Lucy’s suitors don’t just stab her through the heart, once she’s become undead; they penetrate her with undisguised fury, after which Van Helsing (the veteran dancer and ballet pedagogue David Moroni) lifts her severed head and breaks into a gloating smile. Here, Maddin makes the story’s normal men into villains. On the other side, he restores Dracula’s creepiness. There’s a chill when Dracula takes Lucy from her grave, dancing with her in the cemetery under a soapflake snowfall, beneath trees that resemble giant mushrooms. (The music, which is appropriately grotesque, is the “Frère Jacques” funeral march from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.) I felt a similar unease, much more than erotic rapture, during Dracula’s later pas de deux with the nearly insubstantial Mina (Cindy Marie Small), who appears to be all eyes and cheekbones. She starts the scene by fumbling at the crotch of her fiancé (Johnny Wright), trying to give him something she thinks he needs. She ends at Dracula’s breast, getting something she doesn’t much seem to want. “I see Dracula as not even existing,” Maddin has said in an interview. “He’s just a big, pleasurable lust fluttering around from woman to woman.” To which I will add, not always so pleasurable.

Can we keep Maddin’s Dracula at a safe distance? Fortunately, the answer is no. However much it seems toylike, handmade and patently affected, this film is no more silly than one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. It’s haunted by the past because we’re haunted, too. It’s in some measure unintelligible because we, too, don’t make sense.

I needn’t explain why it’s ridiculous.

Short Takes: While Maddin’s Dracula begins its US theatrical run, the theater where it premieres (New York’s Film Forum) is also showing the highly praised, Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, directed by Jeffrey Blitz. Shot on video in locations from Tampa to San Clemente, the picture follows eight kids as they compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The subjects, who were among the competition’s 249 finalists, represent a true cross-section of the country: male and female; urban, suburban and rural; affluent and just scraping by. The range of hyphens is wide: Mexican-American, African-American, Indian-American, you-name-it-American. About the only demographic group to be excluded is stupid people–and even they show up, when a high school in Missouri puts up a congratulatory sign to its spelling “CHAPM.” Having watched Spellbound in a packed house of civilian moviegoers, I can report that audiences find the film irresistible, even though Blitz took the risk of devoting the entire first hour to introducing his kids, one by one. My only quibble is that when the action moves to Washington and the national finals, you begin to see the unevenness of Blitz’s interest in his subjects, or perhaps of his access to them. He gets remarkably close to some of the children, such as Angela, a genuinely inspiring young woman from Perryton, Texas; with others (such as Ashley, from Washington), he scarcely breaks the surface. But in Harry–one of three boys in the film, and the only one who has not yet reached puberty–he’s got such a delightful Alfred E. Neuman figure that the subject’s willingness to be candid is no longer even an issue. Harry is about as self-conscious as a waterfall; and though he doesn’t win the competition (forgive me for spoiling some of the suspense), he’s clearly the audience’s choice for smart-nerd chapm.

Nerds, some of them smart, are also the subjects of Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak’s documentary Cinemania, which is now opening in New York after a screening in the Tribeca Film Festival. Although I’d like to say of the characters, “There but for the grace of God,” there have been periods when I could have abbreviated my response, to “There go I.” The reason: Cinemania is about five New York residents who devote their time, energy and money to going to the movies, to the exclusion of all other activity. Those of us who have a plausible excuse for frequenting the art houses and all-media screenings know these people on sight and often wonder about them. Now, thanks to Cinemania, I have seen their packrat apartments, worried about their diets, listened to the chronic anger and anxiety in their well-educated voices, puzzled over the narrow profundity of their interests. The film, too, might feel narrow, if you don’t have a relationship to this strange little scene. But if you’ve ever been tempted into an obsession with anything–stamp-collecting, pornography, baseball, soap opera–Cinemania might provide an hour and a half of awful fascination.

This week, all true movie lovers will rush to see a violent and fantastic special-effects thriller, in which a character endowed with uncanny powers rips through the veil of illusion that is normal life. The movie I refer to, of course, is Guy Maddin’s new, mostly black-and-white silent film, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, starring Zhang Wei-Qiang. A similar-sounding picture, The Matrix Reloaded, happens to have opened simultaneously, but I will withhold comment on it until next week. I’d rather focus for now on the more daring and visionary film.

Imagine a pale virgin lifting forward in bed, tilting from supine to upright with her head, torso and outstretched arms fixed in entranced unison. This is how poor, flighty Lucy Westernra ought to float toward her demon lover–as if she were already severed from earthly ties. This is how she drifts up somnambulistically in Maddin’s Dracula, an effect that’s all the more startling for being achieved without wires or camera tricks. Like most of the film’s characters, Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) is played by a dancer from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, whose evening-length production of Dracula, choreographed by Mark Godden, is the egg in Maddin’s cinematic soufflé. The dancers rise as if weightless, and so does the movie.

Escaping the pull of narrative gravity from the very first shots, this Dracula begins in the middle of the story and within no defined space. The plague ship is already nearing its English harbor; Lucy is already flying beyond her suitors, toward death’s embrace; and mad Renfield is already rattling the bars of his cell, crying out to his master, “I hear you coming!” Of course, since this is a silent film, he’s wrong–he hears only the soundtrack music, by Gustav Mahler. But Renfield’s delirium is general in the film, which cuts agitatedly among disparate views and unexplained events, glimpsed in the flashes given off from an unseen lighthouse. The focus is gauzy, the contrast between light and dark exaggerated, the field of vision often contracted by an iris to give the effect of a dream picture; and it’s a dream with the obsessiveness of fever, which sends jitters through the rhythm and calls up images again and again.

At this point, you might guess that Maddin has excused himself from the burden of exposition, knowing that everyone is familiar with the story of Dracula–and you would be half right. Maddin wants to transport you immediately to the edge of your seat, as if you, too, were Lucy, rapt in the dark. And yet, although he cuts away the connections that would help make sense of events, Maddin also spells out explanations, and does so to a fault. Intertitles printed in screaming capitals announce the presumed cause for anxiety: immigrants! others! from the east! The invaders are from so far in the east, in this case, that Dracula is Chinese.

Even if these intertitles looked less alarming, you might guess that their explanations had gone too far. “Others” is the decisive tip-off. Only a present-day viewer would think of using the word. It suggests a sense of superiority toward Bram Stoker and his late-Victorian readers. It makes you wonder: Can we keep Dracula at a safe distance by historicizing him? The question, implicitly flung out amid the first storm of montage, goes to the core of Maddin’s art.

Put it this way: To what degree does Maddin laugh at a now-obsolete cinema, with its peculiar atmosphere, assumptions and style, and to what degree does he adore it? When he first broke into the art house circuit with Tales From the Gimli Hospital, the answer seemed obvious, since the year was 1988 and everything modern had supposedly become post. According to all the best gasbags, only the antiquated could seem new anymore, and then on condition that it not be taken seriously–so Maddin was typed as an ironist, who joked about a past era in order to mock his own. But by 1992, when he came out with Careful (his incest-haunted mountaineering film, made in imitation of early sound and early color pictures), it was becoming clear that bygone cinema really moved him, as a fetish moves a true believer. He found gorgeous possibilities in old films–so gorgeous that the lovingly engineered hisses on the soundtrack, the smeared colors, the dopey acting, the grotesquely overstated moralism, could all be felt as a confession of his work’s inadequacy before its model, rather than an exposure of an earlier cinema’s failings. Careful is ridiculous not because people back then were stupid and clumsy but because we can’t live up to their dreams. (Neither could they.)

In short, Maddin is too engaged to be an ironist. He’s really a practitioner of fully charged ambivalence, which emerges most strongly in Dracula in his approach toward the title character. In the early years of Dracula’s career, audiences were expected to recoil from him; stage directors and filmmakers assumed that viewers’ fear and hate would overpower their fascination. More recently–beginning with the Hammer cycle and the television series Dark Shadows and culminating in Coppola’s film–audiences have been expected to sympathize with the vampire, or even to root for him as he wreaks havoc on a smugly mediocre world, and especially on its sexual taboos. Maddin is willingly caught in the middle of these attitudes.

To do justice to the one side, he plays up the theme of patriarchal oppression (as those familiar with “the Other” might say). Lucy’s suitors don’t just stab her through the heart, once she’s become undead; they penetrate her with undisguised fury, after which Van Helsing (the veteran dancer and ballet pedagogue David Moroni) lifts her severed head and breaks into a gloating smile. Here, Maddin makes the story’s normal men into villains. On the other side, he restores Dracula’s creepiness. There’s a chill when Dracula takes Lucy from her grave, dancing with her in the cemetery under a soapflake snowfall, beneath trees that resemble giant mushrooms. (The music, which is appropriately grotesque, is the “Frère Jacques” funeral march from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.) I felt a similar unease, much more than erotic rapture, during Dracula’s later pas de deux with the nearly insubstantial Mina (Cindy Marie Small), who appears to be all eyes and cheekbones. She starts the scene by fumbling at the crotch of her fiancé (Johnny Wright), trying to give him something she thinks he needs. She ends at Dracula’s breast, getting something she doesn’t much seem to want. “I see Dracula as not even existing,” Maddin has said in an interview. “He’s just a big, pleasurable lust fluttering around from woman to woman.” To which I will add, not always so pleasurable.

Can we keep Maddin’s Dracula at a safe distance? Fortunately, the answer is no. However much it seems toylike, handmade and patently affected, this film is no more silly than one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. It’s haunted by the past because we’re haunted, too. It’s in some measure unintelligible because we, too, don’t make sense.

I needn’t explain why it’s ridiculous.

Short Takes: While Maddin’s Dracula begins its US theatrical run, the theater where it premieres (New York’s Film Forum) is also showing the highly praised, Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, directed by Jeffrey Blitz. Shot on video in locations from Tampa to San Clemente, the picture follows eight kids as they compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The subjects, who were among the competition’s 249 finalists, represent a true cross-section of the country: male and female; urban, suburban and rural; affluent and just scraping by. The range of hyphens is wide: Mexican-American, African-American, Indian-American, you-name-it-American. About the only demographic group to be excluded is stupid people–and even they show up, when a high school in Missouri puts up a congratulatory sign to its spelling “CHAPM.” Having watched Spellbound in a packed house of civilian moviegoers, I can report that audiences find the film irresistible, even though Blitz took the risk of devoting the entire first hour to introducing his kids, one by one. My only quibble is that when the action moves to Washington and the national finals, you begin to see the unevenness of Blitz’s interest in his subjects, or perhaps of his access to them. He gets remarkably close to some of the children, such as Angela, a genuinely inspiring young woman from Perryton, Texas; with others (such as Ashley, from Washington), he scarcely breaks the surface. But in Harry–one of three boys in the film, and the only one who has not yet reached puberty–he’s got such a delightful Alfred E. Neuman figure that the subject’s willingness to be candid is no longer even an issue. Harry is about as self-conscious as a waterfall; and though he doesn’t win the competition (forgive me for spoiling some of the suspense), he’s clearly the audience’s choice for smart-nerd chapm.

Nerds, some of them smart, are also the subjects of Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak’s documentary Cinemania, which is now opening in New York after a screening in the Tribeca Film Festival. Although I’d like to say of the characters, “There but for the grace of God,” there have been periods when I could have abbreviated my response, to “There go I.” The reason: Cinemania is about five New York residents who devote their time, energy and money to going to the movies, to the exclusion of all other activity. Those of us who have a plausible excuse for frequenting the art houses and all-media screenings know these people on sight and often wonder about them. Now, thanks to Cinemania, I have seen their packrat apartments, worried about their diets, listened to the chronic anger and anxiety in their well-educated voices, puzzled over the narrow profundity of their interests. The film, too, might feel narrow, if you don’t have a relationship to this strange little scene. But if you’ve ever been tempted into an obsession with anything–stamp-collecting, pornography, baseball, soap opera–Cinemania might provide an hour and a half of awful fascination.