There was a time when “directed by Dario Argento” meant something wonderful. There’d be wild visual play, inventive deaths, remarkable set pieces, and a memorable score by Goblin (or at least Goblin frontman Claudio Simonetti). Classic Argento operates with the logic and the energy of a fever dream, and even today I enjoy the reckless bravura in movies like Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebre, Opera, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and, still my favorite, Deep Red.
But the maestro is no more. Dracula 3D is worse than his 1998 version of Phantom of the Opera. It’s just more confirmation that Argento’s best years (or even watchable years) are far behind him. Not even Rutger Hauer can save this movie; it appears Argento was bitten by the dreaded Count Hack-ula.
You just read that in Gene Shalit’s voice.
Argento’s Dracula 3D
Director: Dario Argento
Country: Italy / France / Spain
Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (Theatrical, VOD)
At the height of his powers, Argento enthusiasts proclaimed that the director could out-Hitchcock Hitchcock. Was it mostly hyperbole? Sure, but the suspense, voyeurism, and style were there in his films, so it’s an idea I can at least get behind in spirit. (“Out-De-Palma’d Hitchcock” may be more accurate, but whatever.) Argento’s hardly trying these days. Dracula 3D is like the work of James “Birdemic” Nguyen at his very best. Perhaps with this film, Argento has successfully out-Nguyen’d Nguyen.
Argento’s laziness must have infected most of the cast, who deliver their ADR’d dialogue in stilted English through a goulash of European accents. As Van Helsing, Hauer seems to be reading his lines off cue cards without second takes. Asia Argento appears bored and just doing a favor for dad. Unax Ugalde’s take on Jonathan Harker is like Tommy Wiseau doing an impression of Keanu Reeves in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula movie (on the note of directors fallen from grace). Thomas Kretschmann’s Dracula lacks menace and is mostly just there to don plastic fangs probably bought at a Spirit shop. He repeats Bela Lugosi’s line about the children of the night line and the music they make. At that moment I realized just how great Tod Browning’s Dracula was and how drecky this dreck was.
So much about Dracula 3D is bad because it’s so unremarkable, as if the movie was made by the anti-Argento. Rather than creative lighting schemes and camera rigs from hell that navigate moody/hallucinatory spaces, this retelling of the Dracula story is told almost entirely in medium shots on bland period sets. Many of the interiors are lit like dental spas rather than castles or cottages — occasionally warm or cool, superficially inviting, obviously fake. The 3D itself is sub-pop-up book and the overall mood of the piece is as flat as the 3D. The schlock in this movie, however, is as stacked as one of the buxom female leads.
Want a giant praying mantis in a vampire flick? Done. Nevermind that the CG is bad for 1998. This is the biggest laugh in a movie full of unintentional laughs. Bosomy vampire honeypot undoes her blouse to seduce Jonathan — snort. Generic “spooky” music that’s chock full o’ theremin — guffaw. Cleavage close-up as a woman throws a crucifix at the camera too fast to make a difference in 3D — snicker. Bad simulated sex in a barn — giggle. Here’s an actual note I took: “She’s either got a mid-thigh vagina or he’s hung like a Clydesdale.”
And yet I don’t think the movie works as well as a kitsch marvel in the same way as Troll 2 or The Room. Both of those movies contain some ounce of bizarre sincerity while Dracula 3D mostly feels like a couple tons of meh. All the Van Helsing action in the movie is quick and not all that exciting. There are no drawn out intrigues that test our vampire-hunting hero, nor is there a sense of an epic clash between good and evil. Instead, Hauer throws a punch or gets punched and then kills a baddie in about two or three seconds. Maybe he was only available for a weekend.
One scene of low-rent mayhem features two riffs on Argento’s better works: the flies from Phenomena, and the bullet through the mouth from The Stendhal Syndrome. Well, to be more accurate, it’s like those two movies if they were cheap, uninspired garbage. It just made me wish I was watching Phenomena; it also made me wish Argento was still capable of making movies at least as watchable as Phenomena or The Stendhal Syndrome. Maybe one day Argento will return to form. He’s set the bar low enough already, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Then again, Dracula 3D is a very low new low. A step up from this film would still be objectively abysmal.