Directed by: Dario Argento
Written by: Antonio Tentori, Antonio Testori, Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefanio Piani
Starring: Asia Argento, Marta Gastini, Rutger Hauer, Thomas Kretschmann
AVAILABLE ON: DVD and BLU-RAY Italian import
RUNNING TINE: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In a Transylvanian village, Tania goes out at night-time to meet up with her boyfriend, and, when he refuses to walk her home, is left alone and is bitten by Count Dracula. Meanwhile Jonathan Harker journeys from England to Transylvania to Dracula’s castle to catalogue Dracula’s huge library. At first enticed by Dracula’s gracious manner, Harker soon discovers that he has become a prisoner in the castle. While searching for a way out, Harker falls under the spell of Tanya, who is now Dracula’s bride, but it is saved by Dracula, who, after seeing a picture of her, is most interested in Harker’s fiancée Mina, the spitting image of his wife who died some four hundred years before, and who is now arriving in the village to supposedly join Harker……
One of the most depressing things as a film fan is seeing a filmmaker who you admire go downhill, to the point where you actually want them to stop making films. Dario Argento is not the only horror maestro to do this of late; you could say the same about some others, especially Argento’s friend and occasional collaborator George Romero, who can’t even seem to make decent zombie movies any more. It’s great that Romero and Argento still have the drive to make films. The trouble is, they aren’t much good at it any more. I remember that even during the 80’s there were those who were saying that Argento’s output was getting weaker, and there are many who claim that the quality of his work diminishing coincided with him deciding to feature his daughter Asia in his work, though I don’t think that’s entirely true: The Stendahl Syndrome was in my view a near-masterpiece and Argento was still capable of turning out enjoyable pictures. Something has seriously gone wrong of late though with the distinctly average mediocre quality of The Card Player and Giallo, and the distinctly abysmal quality of Mother Of Tears, a film which almost made me weep at what once was.
Now years ago, the idea of Argento filming Bram Stoker’s much-filmed novel would probably have had his fans hitting the roof with excitement, and in the 70’s he did consider doing a version of Frankenstein which from what I’ve read sounds like it would have been fantastic and another Argento classic. These days though, no one really expects an Argento classic, in fact some probably expect the opposite, and I received the news that Argento was doing Dracula with distinct trepidation. I almost couldn’t bear the thought of him thoroughly disappointing me again and ruining one of my favourite stories. Of course to be honest, there have been so many film versions of Dracula, some of them great movies, that it’s now very hard to put a new spin on it; it’s all been done before. Argento’s Dracula doesn’t even really do that. After much worrying, I did think for a short while that this project may reignite Argento’s mojo. The thought of Argento back at his best, applying his visual brilliance and unique sensibilities to Stoker’s novel, perhaps enhancing the sexual and violent aspects – bring it on!
Well, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the result is another loser. Imagine if Hammer had filmed Dracula not in 1958 but in the early 70’s, where their films retained a little bit of their early Gothic magnificence but were more bothered with upping the boobs and blood quote, and imagine that done badly, and you’ll get an idea of Argento’s movie. Along the way Argento and his co-writers alter a few things in the story, but seem more interested in re-playing things from previous adaptations, and usually quite poorly. Harker encounters a single ‘bride’ in Dracula’s castle, as in the 1958 Dracula. Mina goes to visit Dracula in his home, as in the 1979 one. Mina turns out to be the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife [1973 and 1988 versions]. And so it goes on, most of it handled in a way that, as I’ve said, resembles late Hammer. After a while I forgot Argento was directing this, and to enjoy it at all, I reckon you should do the same.
I mentioned the word ‘enjoy’, and this Dracula can certainly be enjoyed if you have a weakness for bad movies. Argento doesn’t seem interested in creating much suspense or creepiness, with the result that the film drags too much at times, but you can get much amusement from many things. Every single night-time scene is so ludicrously bright that sometimes you can almost see the stage lights beaming in off the edge of the screen. Crucial scenes are so clumsily staged they look unfinished. No attempt is made to hide the fact that the Transyvanian village is clearly an Italian one. The CGI effects, usually employed when Dracula changes into something, or back again, often look like old video game graphics [and you could really use some scenes in this film to show how in some cases the pre-computer way of doing special effects was better – compare the decomposing shots in it, for instance, with comparable shots in some Hammer films], and it’s weird that Dracula becomes various animals but not a bat. The worst, but in a way funniest, bit, a scene which made my jaw drop and I had to re-play to see if I had imagined it, is when Dracula becomes a man-sized praying mantis who seems to have escaped from A Bug’s Life or something. The animation is laughably unconvincing and it’s so random, but it’s certainly memorable, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of other stuff at the moment.
This film sees Suspiria and Tenebrae cinematographer Luciano Tovoli return to work with Argento and, despite the hilarious brightness of many scenes, he does at least make Dracula pleasant to look at, and a few shots, especially in a crypt, seem to evoke Mario Bava in the use of colours, a nice nod to the Father of Italian horror. This was in 3D in Italian cinemas but aside from a couple of things hurling towards the audience, you wouldn’t know it. Claudio Simonetti’s score uses so much theramin that, though I’m normally a fan of this weird musical instrument which is mostly associated with 50’s science-fiction films, I now don’t want to hear a bloody theramin again for weeks. His music seems on the verge of being tongue-in-cheek in a film which is almost sombre for long sections until the leisurely first two thirds give way to an action-filled final third with lots of gory mayhem where you see heads ripped off, fingers bitten off and spat out, and the like, and this stuff mostly look quite good. You also get to see some breasts, including Asia’s again, but the film often seems a little coy in its sexual elements; I would have expected Argento to really go to town on the ‘biting’ scenes.
The acting is mostly of the ‘get it over and done with’ kind, with Thomas Kretschmann [usually a fine actor and very good in The Stendahl Syndrome] a pretty dull Dracula who is never really scary, and Rutger Hauer’s weary Van Helsing able to unconvincingly dispatch vampires in seconds but seeming to have difficulty remembering his lines. At least Marta Gastini is very easy on the eyes and Asia is always worth watching though even she seems to be coasting. Is Dracula a good film? No, it’s clumsy and pointless. It’s weak film-making and adds nothing to Stoker. Did I enjoy it? Yes, in parts, but then again I enjoy watching Ed Wood films sometimes. It has a slight charm, and is certainly amusing at times, but the fact that I am using such terms, and struggling to say anything else good to say about the latest film from a director who really wowed me right from that time when I first put that video of Inferno into my player and immediately fell in love, is not good at all.
Dario, if you’re reading this; I did get some limited enjoyment out of your latest movie, but please, from a big fan of yours who is losing his patience, just stop now.