There are precious few landmark filmmakers still working in horror. Wes Craven, a major force behind the explosion of the slasher during the Eighties and its renaissance during the Nineties, is all but retired these days; William Friedkin is hardly consistent in terms of quality or output; Tobe Hooper, auteur of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, has helmed very little in recent decades; and Clive Barker has long been dormant as a director, disillusioned by a studio system that systematically butchered his creations. In modern horror, there are depressingly few working to distinguish themselves as truly interesting filmmakers, and we should cherish those who do – Ti West, Mike Flanagan, and others. One of the few directors who could rightly be considered iconic, and who is still prolific even today, is Dario Argento. His filmography is enviable, arguably the most consistently brilliant collection of genre classics of any director – ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’, ‘Deep Red’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Tenebrae’, ‘Phenomena’, ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ – so when a new movie arrives with little fanfare or promotion, should alarm bells be ringing?
In the forest around the rural village of Passo Borgo in the Carpathian Mountains, a young local girl is found murdered. When her body goes missing, and local hermit Renfield is taken into custody, everything returns to normal. However when Jonathan Harker, a young librarian, is engaged by mysterious Count Dracula to catalogue the books in his castle, a series of progressively weird and dangerous events is set in motion. When Harker is joined in Passo Borgo by his wife Mina and her friend Lucy it becomes apparent that the Count has plans beyond his library for the Harkers. Under threat from an ancient evil, charismatic stranger Van Helsing is drawn to the area and the battle for the souls of all is joined.
Based solely on the summary above, it would be easy to see Dracula as being an exciting interpretation of a classic text by one of horror’s greatest maestros, stuffed full of his trademark nudity, graphic violence, and hysteric sensibilities, but you would be sadly mistaken; ‘Dracula 3D’ is awful. This begins with the screenplay written by a party of five, Argento himself counting among them. The story of the vampiric count is well known in all corners of the hemisphere, whether through Stoker’s original text or from the Hammer movies of the Seventies, so it is fair to assume that the story would be familiar, and it is – up to a point. However, even within such a well-worn tale, there are huge plot holes; events occur in odd sequences, characters behave in baffling ways, and there are enormous leaps of logic that defy all common sense. It appears very much as a film butchered by censors or an interfering studio but, from all available information, this is Argento’s vision exactly as he saw it; when coupled with some of the most stilted and wooden dialogue outside the adult market, this becomes very worrying indeed. As mystifying as the script is, however, it is the least abject element of the travesty that is ‘Dracula 3D’.
The biggest consequence of the script, other than the sanity of the audience, is the extent to which a decent cast are thrown to the dogs, and it is here that the first of Argento’s bizarre production decisions becomes apparent; the film, despite being a Euro production, featuring a largely Italian cast, is in English. This creates the same problem, to varying degrees, for everyone; the performances are terrible as they grapple with pronunciation and vocabulary that is largely alien. Thomas Kretschmann, Captain Kurt in entertaining TV show ‘The River’ and new member of the Marvel ‘Avengers’ universe, is criminally wasted here as Dracula himself. In all honesty he does the best that he can with such underwhelming material, trying desperately to add nuance to a thinly developed character, but there is no doubt that, in this role, he is horribly miscast; he lacks the physicality of Dracula and, though he tries to wade manfully through the muck, he is ultimately swallowed up by it. Similarly wasted are the talents of ‘Borgia’ Marta Gastini who, whilst both beautiful and innocent as Mina Harker, is forced to perform in English too, robbing her delivery of any emotional heft it may have had, and giving her portrayal a sadly robotic quality. In Argento’s version, Dracula only gets one bride; in this instance, the alluring Tanja, played by Miriam Giovanelli, whose is limited to being naked and trying to remember lines outside her native language. As this is an Argento movie, daughter Asia appears too, in her trademark good-until-she-has-to-act role, as Lucy and succeeding only in appearing disinterested and bored. The cast is rounded up by its tent pole member Rutger Hauer who I imagine spent longer counting the cash he got for the role than he does on screen and, whilst always watchable, his character is so poorly fleshed out he is essentially playing himself in a fancy coat. Predictably, there is a smattering of toplessness here and there, placed strategically to wake the male audience up, but this feels wholly unnecessary; when Asia Argento goes topless in a film by her father, yet again, it takes on a slightly grubby feel too. These are all talented people, Asia Argento excepted, who are working hard but are suffocated by an abysmal screenplay and by a director who seems to have reached the absolute nadir of his career.
Argento is a genre legend and, whilst his movies are not to everyone’s taste, there is no doubt he understands horror and filmmaking in general; it is impossible to see any evidence of this in ‘Dracula 3D’. It is singularly dreary, lacking the director’s trademark visual flair almost entirely, and the three dimensions are completely and utterly pointless. Gorehounds will be disappointed too; for a man who has concocted some of the most brutal and memorable kills in modern horror, ‘Dracula’ is almost completely blood free, although there is one sequence in a tavern that is reasonably gory. Even the sets are appalling, looking flimsy and cheap throughout; even the outdoor sequences appear to have been filmed indoors.
Argento makes liberal use of special effects throughout ‘Dracula 3D’, mostly in the form of computer graphics, and it is these that provide the final cherry on top of a thoroughly nasty cake. According to the production notes, the budget for the movie was somewhere in the region of five million euros; evidently, the effects budget was in single figures. The stall is set out early; the opening sequence, an animated sequence swooping between the buildings of Passo Borgo is laughably poor, looking for all the world like a tech demo from the launch of the Sony Playstation 2 in 2000. It gets no better; CGI insects jerk inexpensively around the screen and Dracula’s powers manifest in laughable fashion as he warps cheaply into an owl, then into a wolf, before growing slightly longer fingernails. The low point has to be the visualisation of Dracula’s speed – a weird black blur – that doesn’t just look poor by today’s standard, but by the standard set out by ‘The Flash’ television show in the early Nineties. Add in sound effects that seem to have been taken from a stock effects CD, and a score that is part Stuart Gordon’s ‘Reanimator’ theme, part concerto for musical saw, you have the full package of technical ineptitude. There’s also the demo track from a Casio keyboard circa 1993 in there for good measure.
‘Dracula 3D’ is a depressing experience. By the standard of anyone working today, except maybe Bill Zebub, it would represent an inept and shockingly poor movie; when the fact that one of the godfathers of the genre, the legendary Dario Argento, is at the helm is taken into consideration it becomes a catastrophe of epic proportions. Horribly miscasting Dracula, and wasting talented actresses Gastini and Giovanelli, is just the tip of the iceberg. With rubbish sets, a terrible script, an irritating score, pathetic effects, and the single worst use of three dimensions ever attempted, ‘Dracula 3D’ is a cinematic travesty on an epic scale; there is some fun to be had in a ‘Manos: Hands of Fate’ way, and the lead actresses are easy on the eye, but beyond that there is absolutely nothing to recommend it. ‘Dracula 3D’ is akin to the payday comebacks of once great boxers; the legacy of their greatness is increasingly tarnished by their failure to call time on a once-storied career. If this is the best that Argento can do with a reasonable budget and a talented cast he should stop immediately, and if you have any love for the man, his classic films, and his legacy in the genre, avoid ‘Dracula 3D’ and pretend it never happened.
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