There is a lot of debate over when this slump began, and I credit it much later than most. Some go as far back as 1985’s PHENOMENA. Ridiculous, I’m a tremendous fan of that film which married the surreal fantasy of his Three Mothers trilogy with the suspense of his giallos. Others state it began with OPERA. Again, no sale. TRAUMA was a step down but still contained plenty to be enraptured by, as did his segment of TWO EVIL EYES. And if you’re going to talk smack about THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave, sir. Most credit 1998’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA as the beginning of the end. Indeed, when I saw it, I was appalled at what a shoddy piece of work it seemed to be. Keep in mind however that this was back in the mid-90s on a lousy cropped transfer – the only way America has seen it, officially. So, I’ve been meaning to give that one another shot. Still, Argento’s work has been spotty for the last fifteen years. SLEEPLESS was a decent giallo, recalling many of his films from the 1970s. There were also good notices given to his TV movie, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? And though it’s considered a controversial position to take, I found 2009’s GIALLO to be thoroughly inventive and entertaining. But even in that crop, there is the depressingly disappointing MOTHER OF TEARS. And there can be absolutely no defense given to THE CARD PLAYER, by far Argento’s worst film to date.
I would like to tell you that his newest film, DRACULA 3D re-animates his filmography. That he embraced both the gothic setting and the 3D technology to create something beautiful and bizarre. When the film started, composer Claudio Simonetti seemed to know something was up. His score makes use of a theremin and seems to be a throwback to the days when vampires lurked on the screens of Saturday matinees. Towards the beginning of the film, I wondered if this was Argento’s intent. The early scenes presented the possibility that this is more than a throwback to classic gothic horror but that it was even a sly wink to the audience. Sadly, as the film progressed, I realized that I was making excuses. DRACULA 3D is neither a take-off nor a send-up. It’s just bad.
DRACULA 3D is as notable for its departures from the Bram Stoker novel as it is for what it keeps of that classic. The film opens with Tanja (Miriam Giovanelli), a pretty young girl having an illicit rendezvous with a married man on Walpurgis Night. On her way home, she is bitten by Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) and later becomes his vampire bride… er, sort of. Certainly, a live-in groupie if nothing else. To satiate her bloodlust, Dracula even bewitches the lunatic Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni), freeing him from the insane asylum so he can serve as a dedicated blood bank to Tanja. Once he escapes from the asylum, there is little concern about recapturing Renfield. He seems to roam the town freely without running into any trouble.
Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) travels to Dracula’s estate in order to catalog the many volumes in his extensive library. Much like the book, he is seduced, this time by Tanja who substitutes for the three brides until Dracula tears into the room and puts the bite on Harker himself.
The whole thing was a ruse to lure Jonathan’s bride, Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) to Dracula’s lair, in a complicated seduction. Somehow, Dracula has learned of Mina’s resemblance to his long-dead wife. He seduces Mina’s friend Lucy (Asia Argento), which leads Lucy to recommend Jonathan to Dracula, knowing that Mina will eventually follow and Mina and Drac can be together and blah blah blah….
Are you confused? You’re not the only one. The film is in fact so confusing that dialogue seems to have been haphazardly inserted into the beginning of the third act to explain how we got to this point. Since the film isn’t done confounding the audience at that point, more dialogue is inserted at the very end of the film to explain exactly what kind of hold Dracula had on Mina. This is quite simply terrible screenwriting. And let’s not forget that when it comes to Argento films, we forgive a lot. Italian fantasy narratives are different from American narratives, which tend to have an overbearing fascination with logic. Even so, there are limits and this is just sloppy.
The screenplay does contain quite a few items of interest. For instance, the town elders are very much aware of who Dracula is and what he is capable of. Nevertheless, they have allowed him to go about his activities unencumbered in exchange for his mercy and his generous financial donations. Keeping Renfield in Tanja’s thrall rather than Dracula’s was also an interesting touch, as was tying Lucy’s occupation of teaching piano to children into what becomes of her later.
Also impressive is Rutger Hauer’s turn as Van Helsing, which is great casting anyway. The big surprise in the role comes with how Hauer reads the character. Hauer’s Van Helsing is very low-key, and while he is resourceful, it would be a mistake to say that he is always two steps ahead of Dracula. He has a dry humor that sneaks up on you and is much more subdued than say Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.
Another thing to note is that the film looks good, provided you view it as a series of still pictures. There is a great production design here that plays well with the mise en scene. It’s hard to know how much of this had Argento’s input. In the olden days, there would be no question. Argento would be working in explicit concert with the cinematographer. DRACULA 3D reunites Argento with Luciano Tovoli, the same DP who accomplished such amazing feats with SUSPIRIA and TENEBRE. But on those films, Argento’s camera movements and directorial choices played with the general look of the thing in a symbiotic relationship. In the case of DRACULA 3D, the framing is nice but the direction is uninspired. Argento has the wherewithal to include a few nice touches with the story here and there. But behind the camera, he seems to have not put as much care into this film. The only film where he seemed as disinterested was – dare I say it – THE CARD PLAYER.
Argento makes some dubious choices in his execution that will have just about everyone throwing up their hands in frustration. A sign of the times is that while there are some simple practical effects, the majority of the more fantastic sequences are handled via CGI. Not just any CGI, but some of the worst CGI in recent memory. Much of this stuff wouldn’t pass the smell test on a Syfy Original, much less a gothic horror film from a respected director. We are subjected to one of the worst wolf-to-man transformations I’ve seen. Worst of all is a scene that is sure to live on in horror film infamy, as Dracula takes the appearance of a giant praying mantis. It is as ridiculous and ineffective as it sounds.
The performances are nothing to write home about, with Hauer the only one able to do anything with the material. Asia Argento does a passable job as Lucy, though there is a great age discrepancy which makes her casting as Mina’s young and playful friend misguided. It’s not that Asia Argento looks bad, I don’t think that’s possible. But when you place the 37-year-old Argento next to the 23-year-old Gastini, it’s difficult to regard them as childhood friends. Kretschmann makes for an inoffensive but forgettable Dracula. Most of the other performances are terrible.
DRACULA 3D seems to be grasping at anything it can, trying to find its own voice. It seems torn on how it wants to present its own characters. We witness it lumber from one thing to the next, trying to solve problems that should have been resolved before cameras rolled. The four screenwriters (which include Argento) each seem to have contributed something, but none of it seems to have been incorporated into a decent film. DRACULA 3D is a film without scares, a slow-moving bore where the only suspense is how it will disappoint you further. ★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Not rated, but the equivalent to a hard “R” for graphic violence and nudity
– Running time: 1hr 50mins.
* NOTE: I viewed this film in its 2D version, hence I have not commented on how well it managed to utilize the 3D technology.