Written by: Dario Argento, Enrique Cerenzo, Antonio Tentori, and Stefano Piani (screenplay), Bram Stoker (novel)
Directed by: Dario Argento
Starring: Thomas Kretschmann, Marta Gastini, and Asia Argento
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The creature is not human--it is a vampire."
The latest iteration of Dracula presents an unfortunate convergence of all-too-familiar source material and a director trudging through the motions, and it’s a collaboration with an expired shelf date. There was once a time when Dario Argento tackling Bram Stoker would have been a sublime pairing. Unfortunately, that time passed sometime around 1988, as the returns for the Italian legend have been rather diminishing ever since (and they’ve downright plummeted within the past half-decade) At this point, it might even inspire more genuine terror than excitement, a depressing sentiment considering just how legendary some of his work is.
I’m not sure if any of the old masters have fallen from grace as tremendously as Argento, who now inspires so little confidence that I can only hope that his latest is at least gonzo enough to be worthwhile on some level, even if it’s registering high on the unintentional comedy scale. And I’ll be damned if there’s even precious little of that to be found in his Dracula, which turns out to be a disappointing, lifeless bore.
As is often the case, the film isn’t a strict adaptation of Stoker but rather a highlighted Cliff’s Notes version with a few wrinkles tossed in. The usual bullet points arrive dutifully: Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde, somehow affecting an even more brain-dead riff on the character than Keanu Reeves) arrives in Transylvania (read: a bunch of small, cheap sets) to do some clerical work for Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann). Instead, he becomes the ancient vampire’s prisoner and is rendered helpless when the Dracula begins to target his wife (Marta Gastini) and her best friend (Asia Argento).
Argento’s Dracula achieved instant infamy when its sales trailer a few years back. Denial made it easy to assume that it was a work in progress—surely, he hadn’t sunk this low. Somehow, it’s even worse. The big takeaway there was the overall cheapness of the thing, and the final product doesn’t fare much better, what with the abysmal CGI (it’s so bad that it wouldn’t have been acceptable in 2004, much less 2014), the small-scale sets, and the over-lit photography. Argento’s been especially fumbling to recover his signature style ever since Mother of Tears, but that film feels downright garish compared to this. During his prime, Argento frequently exercised style over substance; now, he can’t even be bothered to do that.
Most frustrating is the fact that he has plenty of substance this time around, and he squanders it. One could perhaps forgive the film’s slapdash aesthetic had Argento found a way to work around his budgetary restraints and breathe some life into this well-worn but plush tale. Instead, every plot point feels obligatory and is trotted out exactly because it’s expected: Harker hastily falls prey to Dracula because it’s demanded that he has to be removed from the story (and by removed, I mean removed: dude practically disappears from his own story). Of course, Dracula seduces Lucy and begins to eye Mina. Yes, he plucks a local psycho to serve as his Renfield (sort of). And, right on cue, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) wanders in to help dispatch the Count during the third act. None of the events feel particularly connected, so the film takes on an episodic feel and never gains any sort of momentum.
Somewhat hilariously, the script incorporates some backdoor explanations in an attempt to gain some coherence and unity, but they range from lazy (Van Helsing describes an encounter he had with Dracula at an asylum years ago) to rehashed nonsense (Dracula’s infatuation with Mina is a direct echo of stuff found in Blacula and the Coppola Dracula). One interesting addition here is the hint that Dracula’s presence and true nature is known to many of the locals, some of whom are in league with the count; however, it’s just a cursory, unnecessary wrinkle that’s eventually tossed aside so the film can hurry to its predictable climax.
Everyone’s decision to sleepwalk through the proceedings doesn’t help. Kretschmann is one of the lamest Draculas to ever grace the screen—there’s nothing of Stoker’s charismatic count or even the more overt, predatory portrayals found in other films. He’s vaguely threatening in the sense that he resembles a perturbed high school math teacher. Like much of this film, his limp recitation of Lugosi's "Children of the Night" speech will remind you that this has all been done better before. Asia Argento’s Lucy is one of the few characters with a glimmer of life to her (and it’s promptly drained out, of course); there’s an interesting subplot here that sees her change from a prim piano teacher to one of the lustful undead, but her father’s not interested in it (he has no problem filming a gratuitous bathtub scene with her, though). Even Hauer is a disappointment as Dracula’s nemesis, here re-imagined as a guy who just happens to know the Count’s true nature due to that chance encounter.
Given the expectations going in, is it even possible to consider Argento’s Dracula a disappointment? That it manages to fall short of even those extremely tempered expectations qualifies it as one, I suppose. It’s also not even that tough to find the kernel of a fine idea buried in here somewhere, as the vibe here vaguely resembles classic Hammer, albeit unleashed and updated for a modern sensibility. Some flashes manage to tap into the deranged mix of violence and sexuality that especially defined the studio’s waning days, like Dracula’s savage, grisly attacks (there are some impressive practical gore gags mixed in with the CGI junk) and Miriam Giovanelli vamping out as a local girl that falls victim to Dracula’s fangs early on.
Neither is quite enough to overcome the fact that Argento merely knows the notes but can no longer play them with any sort of grace, as he forgets the elegance and atmosphere that also defined those Hammer productions. It’s easy to pick out and keep harping on the atrocious CGI here, but it’s entirely reflective of the film’s uninspired approach—sure, modern technology has enabled filmmakers to transform Dracula into a giant praying mantis, but who gives a shit if it’s nonsensical and looks terrible? Argento certainly gives few shits about either; of course, we’ve always known he could care less about logic, but he’s seemingly decided that actual craftsmanship is optional. Several moments in the film are so embarrassing that it’s tough to even embrace the inherent lunacy of what’s going on (seriously—I would have never imagined that I’d simply in indifference at a film with the audacity to turn Dracula into a giant bug).
Instead, there’s nothing here but the thudding, depressing realization that Argento has lapsed into becoming a name brand—is there any way this film gets made without his name attached? Sadly, I must also wonder if it might have been better without his involvement. As has been the case in recent years, his name hasn’t carried much currency with distribution; while Dracula won’t face the same legal challenges as Giallo*, it’s taken a while for it to hit American shores since its debut at Cannes 2012. IFC Midnight has done the honor with a nice Blu-ray disc that provides both 2D and 3D options along with a couple of lossless audio tracks. A 70 minute behind-the-scenes feature anchors the extras, which also include a “Kiss Me Dracula” music video and a couple of trailers. It’s a decent package, especially if you avoid the main feature. Trash it!
*As of this writing, no one’s threatened to sue over the release of Dracula, so it at least has that going for it.
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