Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dario Argento's Dracula 3-D

Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D (2012)
Dir. Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori
Starring Thomas Kretschmann, Marta Gastini, Asia Argento, Unax Ugalde, Rutger Hauer

Man, just what the world needed: another adaptation of Dracula. You know, pretty much the most adapted story in the history of the world. IMDB lists over 400 film and TV iterations of the character (only Sherlock Holmes has more), and since the first film adaptation (1921’s Hungarian DRACULA’S DEATH) it seems like barely a decade goes by between new attempts by various auteurs to make the definitive Dracula film. Dracula’s been played by Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, Paul Naschy*, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Udo Kier, John Carradine, Leslie Nielsen, Gerard Butler, Judd Hirsch, Denholm Elliott, Frank Langella, Rutger Hauer. He’s been a romantic anti-hero, a mindless monster, a seductive villain, a demon, a comic foil, a duck. He’s been to England, America, China, Africa, Russia, India. To space, to the future. He’s tangled with Wolfman, Frankenstein, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, Scooby-Doo, Batman, and I’m gonna go ahead and guess a luchador or two. Obviously someday I’d like to make the definitive version of the Dracula story, but until then I’m not sure that human culture was really hurting for another adaptation to throw on the pile. And what the hell, if we’re bound and determined do it anyway, why not make things all the more dubious by hiring a once-great director, now clearly in a later-career phase of artistic decline, who at his career zenith was most apt at crafting wildly violent, sleaze-art nonsensical dream logic set pieces, and hence would obviously even in his prime have been a terrible choice for an adaptation of anything, let alone Bram Stoker’s understated Victorian novel of gothic atmosphere.

Given all that, you’re gonna approach this one with cautiously lowered expectations. But somehow Dracula’s first sojourn to the 3rd dimension (there would be another the same year, and another in 2013) is still a pretty depressingly crappy film. First of all, it’s a disappointingly safe adaptation; there’s (almost) nothing too weird or unexpected here, it’s mostly a fairly direct adaptation of the various semi-direct movie adaptations that have preceded it, changing around a few minor details (setting the whole thing in Romania, for example, probably done tax purposes rather than artistic ones) but nothing that really has a significant impact on the traditional story beats. This is a problem for Argento, because it means that the vast majority of the runtime is dialogue scenes, drama, and plot setup, all things he openly never cared about, let alone had a propensity for. With its dodgy international cast standing around in period costumes on nicely lit Victorian sets prattling on about this or that, it actually has the distinct feeling of a low-effort Hammer film, or perhaps one of their mid-60s Italian derivations, like THE WHIP AND THE BODY or something.

That’s not in itself a disaster, although it’s about 40 years too late to be cool. It’s probably Argento’s best-looking film since… I dunno, 1998’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA? 1993’s TRAUMA? Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who shot Argento’s SUSPIRIA and TENEBRAE, as well as Julie Taymor’s magnificent TITUS) indulges only occasionally in some lovely deep-focus multiple-plane chicanery which makes use of the added dimension, but he paints his images with an unusually vivid palette, not aping his surreal monotones from SUSPIRIA but instead washing everything in bright flecks of high contrast orange, blues, greens, and (of course) reds.

Alas, a pretty picture does not a film make, and unfortunately way too much of DRACULA 3D is squandered on direly uneventful mumbling. Thomas Kretschmann (KING KONG 2005, DOWNFALL, BLADE II) is about as middling a Dracula as the role has ever had, mooning around mournfully without even the faintest hint of intensity or interest. I think he’s trying to make the legendary villain feel sympathetic and humanized, but if there was ever a time this would have been a good idea (and, judging from the toothless DRACULA UNTOLD, there isn’t) an Argento film definitely is not it. He looks lost and confused a lot of time, like he’s waiting for someone to come along and direct him (ain’t gonna happen on an Argento set, pal). Partly this is because the script gives him almost nothing to do; for the whole first three-quarters of the film, it’s his hot-blooded and frequently naked lady friend Tania (Miriam far as I can tell no prior significant film roles) who does most of the horror heavy lifting. But the other part is that the script gives no one else anything to do either, so you’re faced with an absolutely unforgivable amount of standing around and handwringing with actors who range from utterly forgettable (Marta Gastini, THE RITE, as Mina) to the staggeringly inept, (Unax Ugalde, CHE PART 1, as Jonathan Harker). It probably doesn’t help that every actor is from a different country, and they seem to all be trying to attempt their own unique idea of… I dunno, a British accent? Romanian? Suffice to say the result is only a hair away from the final sequence of CLOUD ATLAS, or maybe the all-Esperanto William Shatner masterpiece INCUBUS, in terms of authenticity.

Complaining that an Argento film has bad acting and writing (the scripting process appears to have adopted the mantra of, “why use one writer to adapt one of the most adapted stories in history, when you could use four or more?”) is kinda petty and pointless, like complaining that a David Lynch film has some plot holes or that a Michael Bay film makes you bleed from your eyes and ears. I mean, you know what you’re buying by this point in this auteur’s career. But if I’m gonna forgive that stuff, you gotta give me something else to pay attention to instead, and this DRACULA seems to forget that far too often, leaving you with no choice but to actually attempt the impossible task of paying attention to the actors and plot and stuff. And on that topic, I have no choice but to single out this guy Unax Ugalde for giving what may be the single worst performance I’ve ever seen a human being attempt (non-porno category). I realize that sounds like shameless hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. Look back at my hundreds of previous reviews and see if you can find another one where I make a claim like that. I would not pull out that sentence unless I really meant it, but Ugalde more than earns it. Granted, he has the advantage in that regard of playing Jonathan Harker, a part with a rich and storied history of bringing out the worst in actors, but I swear watching this guy maniacally fail to capture even the vaguest vestigial hints of human behavior would cross over into uncanny valley territory were it possible to observe for any extended period without nodding off.

That’s a lot of bad news, and it’s more than enough that you would be forgiven for just writing the thing off based on those obvious and damning flaws. But fortunately the bad news ends around the 70 minute mark, when Rutger Hauer (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) finally shows up. Hauer is an actor who is incapable of being uninteresting, even when he sometimes tries really, really hard at it, and his historic turn as the first actual Dutchman to play the famously Dutch vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing** in the entire history of cinema seems to have energized him mildly more than you sometimes see these days. Or maybe playing Van Helsing is a way of helping him deal with the trauma of having played Dracula in DRACULA 2000 III: LEGACY. Either way, he’s the liveliest thing in here, so go just go with it. Since there is no Dr. Seward here, Van Helsing has even less actual link to the human drama, but it doesn’t matter because as soon as he shows up he jumps right into the action, and after that the film starts humming along at a nicer clip with way more violence and craziness. There’s a sequence where Drac turns himself into a gigantic 3D-CG praying mantis, which will either be the definitive nail in the movie’s coffin or the obvious artistic highlight, depending on your temperament towards such things (I think you can guess which side of the equation I fall on). Another where he shows up unexpectedly at a town hall meeting and just kills the absolute hell out of everyone there. And a finale which --with its graveyard setting-- recalls the posthumously published short story/deleted chapter of the original Dracula, Dracula’s Guest. So while it’s front loaded with boring stuff, there’s a solid 40 minutes at the end which are full of charm, especially if you get the chance to see it in its original stereoscopic 3-D.

As poorly executed as it is, there are a few grains of genuinely interesting ideas in here. It's at its best when it strays from the familiar threadbare beats of typical adaptations and wanders into less well-trod territory, i.e. giant 3D praying mantises, etc. There's two particular ways in which it does so: First, it introduces (and then ignores) the tantalizing idea that the local villagers are well aware of Dracula’s vampirism, and are actually in cahoots with him, feeding him strangers in exchange for his magical good fortune (judging from the condition of this backwater village, I’m not sure they were getting a very good deal, but hey, you’re going to go up there and complain?). Nothing comes of this, but I eagerly look forward to some future movie version of the story which incorporates this detail in a more interesting way (the cinematic Dracula story, of course, has a way of accruing details over time since no one ever actually reads the original novel but everyone has already seen a few dozen film versions).

The more interesting idea here is that despite the late boost things get from an incoming Van Helsing, this is a curiously female-centric iteration of this story. There’s an interesting tension between Dracula’s conquests of Mina and Lucy and his relationship with his vampire brides, in this case played significantly more assertively and personified by Giovanelli, who as I mentioned earlier really is a more active villain than the Count himself for a good bit. Argento and his fellow writers (wisely) shuffle Harker to the background fairly quickly, and in the absence of suitors for Lucy (Asia Argento, xXx, failing to live up to her promise of not appearing nude anymore), the conflict ends up being between the gals: Lucy, Mina, and Vampira. This little variation does manage to pique the imagination somewhat, and it really makes you wish they’d just dumped the Count altogether and focused on this somewhat less-explored angle.*** Dracula the novel is very much about patriarchal ownership, essentially a story of who gets the girl, so it’s nice that this version, intentionally or not, plays with that notion a little and sets the girls, vampiric and otherwise, at the center of attention for a good chunk of time (admittedly, the boring half).

It would be foolish at this point to expect a late-career resurgence from Argento, and this one does very little to shake that assumption. But still, if one were the sort to irrationally look for signs of such a thing, there are a few flickering indications that Argento is still intermittently putting some effort in. Getting back together with Luciano Tovoli is a huge step in the right direction, obviously. Claudio Simonetti (formerly of Goblin, and as such part of the classic scores for PROFONDO ROSSO, SUSPIRA and DAWN OF THE DEAD) is always a welcome presence as composer, though truth be told he seems to be running a little low on creative juice too (fun fact: the last time Goblin wrote a score together was also the last time Argento made a 100% great movie, in 2001 with SLEEPLESS. Let’s get the whole group back next time). DRACULA 3-D proves that age has not heightened Argento’s interest in acting or scripting, but at least it still proves he’s capable of getting one great actor who doesn’t need his help to be interesting and engaging, a trick which has served him well in the past. And finally, even if this material is now well over a hundred years old, the addition of stereoscopic 3-D suggests that the old guy hasn’t completely given up the ambition and experimentation that led him to some of the most influential horror movies of all time. Is that reason enough for hope? Probably not, but fuck it, I’m gonna be hopeful anyway. The world may not need any more Dracula adaptations, but it sure could use a few more masterpieces from one of horror’s great modern luminaries.

*I actually didn’t even know that for a fact, I just stands to reason so I wrote it down and then went back to check later on. Sure enough, he played the Count in 1974’s El gran amor del conde Drácula.

**So says IMDB, I have no way of actually checking this information, but come on, just go with it. This is definitely (as near as I can tell) legit the first 3-D Dracula film so why wouldn’t it be a trailblazer in Dutch casting too?

***One thing I’ve been noticing this Chainsawnukah is that while we reasonably don’t usually think of Italian film as being especially enlightened on the subject of sexual equality, by the same token they also seem a lot more comfortable than American filmmakers with making women the primary protagonist. It would be kinda a big deal to have an American film with this much focus on female characters.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Semi-faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel.
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: Obviously there have been about a million versions of this novel, but this is not credited as a direct adaptation of any of them.
  • FOREIGNER: Italian
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Thomas Kretschmann is in THE AVENGERS, and Rutger Hauer has been in his share big-ticket movies.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Rutger Hauer, Asia Argento
  • BOOBIES: Yep, mostly from Miriam Giovanelli but Asia Argento proves once again unable to avoid appearing nude in her dad's movies.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Unwanted vampire sexiness, but nothing rapey.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Head lopped off!
  • MONSTER: No, unless you want to count the many laughable CG animals Drac turns himself into.
  • THE UNDEAD: Vampires!
  • POSSESSION: Some of that old villainous hypnotic vamp stuff.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Man into vampire, vampire into wolf, owl, bat, praying mantis.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Not much theatrical release, but a fairly big deal to those in the know.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Stop. Fucking. Remaking. Dracula.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Dracula is present, in 3-D (if you have a 3-D TV.)
This is me being generous again, because a lot of it is quite crappy. But there's just enough real talent there to make it worth the effort.

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