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It's been 400 years since Count Dracula's (Thomas Kretschmann) beloved Countess Dolingen passed away, leaving the immortal bloodsucker forever abandoned. But, when he discovers that local newlywed Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) bears a striking resemblance to the Countess, his furious yearning is reawakened as he believes Mina to be a reincarnation of his beloved. Luring her husband Jonathan away to his castle with the help of his minion (and Mina's best friend) Lucy (Asia Argento), Dracula embarks on a bloody quest to reunite with his long-lost love and live forever with her in hellish immortality. Only the arrival of vampire expert Abraham Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) can put an end to the fiend's unholy plan. (From IFC Midnight’s official synopsis)

 Argento's Dracula 3D
At this point in time, it isn’t a matter of if Dario Argento started making bad movies, it’s a matter of exactly when his output soured and if it’s possible to evaluate his more recent work in a new context. The ‘quality’ of Argento’s films has always been extremely subjective (as if any art criticism wasn’t). Most folks tend to agree that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria were important genre achievements. From here, Argento’s fans seem to think that things were working pretty well all the way through Opera (1987), though opinions on Phenomena (1985) vary. The Black Cat (his half of Two Evil Eyes, 1990) and Trauma (1993) were problematic, especially because they represented the director’s most earnest attempts at making a Hollywood-style thriller. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) is incredibly awkward, but it is still a conceptually unique work, representing a dulling of Argento’s technical skills, rather than his creative flair. It was the last time he challenged himself.

For me and likely plenty of other fans, Phantom of the Opera (1998) was the first overwhelming disappointment. From material to concept to cast and even composer (Ennio Morricone), Phantom of the Opera should’ve been a slam-dunk. It even had a decent budget for an Italian production. Argento wasted every ounce of that potential and devastated his fanbase. Non ho Sonno ( Sleepless, 2001) was a step up in technical quality and a perfectly entertaining film, but also represented a retreat into the familiarity of gory giallo. From here, Argento’s remaining feature-length output falls into one of three categories: the unequivocally banal ( Il Cartaio/The Card Player, 2004 and Ti Piace Hitchcock?/Do You Like Hitchcock?, 2005), the jaw-droppingly daft ( La Terza Madre/The Mother of Tears, 2007), and the unequivocally, jaw-droppingly daft and banal ( Giallo, 2009). The one Argento ‘film’ that approached the gonzo heights of Suspiria and Inferno was Pelts (2006), his second entry in the Showtime series Masters of Horror (his first, Jenifer, was modestly entertaining). The story of haunted raccoon hides that make people do horrible physical damage onto themselves, Pelts had a campy appeal and a blazing disregard for good taste. It was the best I could hope for from Dracula, following early glimpses of the film’s trailer, which looked utterly dreadful.

 Argento's Dracula 3D
Unfortunately, it seems that even campy appeal was too much to ask for. Dracula looks and acts like a spoof, minus the appeal of jokes or the knowledge that the filmmakers understand that they’re playing with genre conventions. It also looks like it was made for a couple of bucks in Dario’s basement. The compositions are flat and dreary (ironic, since it was shot for 3D), recalling the stifled, over-produced look of a daytime soap, not a ‘real movie.’ The camera movements are mundane and stiff, aside from a handful of oddly endearing overhead shots. The sets are either flimsily constructed (Dracula’s castle looks more like a country villa from the inside) or awkwardly extended by unconvincing green screen effects. The only thing worse than the film’s excessively over-lit, unattractive look is the utterly rhythmless, sometimes downright nonsensical editing. Sometimes, Argento will cut from one location to another before a narrative thought is finished, while, other times, he’s keen to linger on the most repetitive and uneventful shots as long as possible.

At a much earlier point in his career, the director claimed he was going to make a version of Frankenstein that took place in Nazi Germany. That’s the kind of inventive angle one would expect a brilliant weirdo like Dario Argento to take a legendary, oft-told tale. Like his lacklustre version of Phantom of the Opera, Argento makes only minor, superficial changes, opting to follow the basic beats of Bram Stokers’ already over-adapted story, leaving me to wonder what the point of the exercise was. I mean, beyond shooting it in 3D. The script, which apparently took four people to write – Argento himself, Antonio Tentori, Stefano Piani, and Enrique Cerez – is built around longstanding genre clichés and constantly hindered by stiff descriptive and expositional dialogue. The cast is forced to crawl through arthritic banality, unable to muster the kind of hammy performances that make soap operas entertaining. Argento seems to want to evoke the Hammer horror tradition with heaving cleavage and stagey gothic sets, but he somehow failed to convey these expectations to his cast. Thomas Kretschmann chews a little scenery as Dracula (he actually gets better as the movie goes on), but Rutger Hauer and Asia Argento both appear to have been rousted from naps.

 Argento's Dracula 3D
Sometimes, I think that separating movies like Trauma or Non ho Sonno from Argento’s legacy as a horror master would do them well, since both are generally entertaining thrillers. But even if we pretend Dracula was made by a random amateur with access to an expensive digital camera, it doesn’t meet the usual standards of a ‘so bad, it’s good’ horror film, because it’s also incredibly boring. The best it can manage for unintentional laughs are some really awful digital effects and some adorable dogs that we’re supposed to think are frightening wolves. Even the gory bits – the saving grace of Phantom of the Opera and The Mother of Tears – are underwhelming. These brief set-pieces are the closest Argento gets to approaching creative vigor. I will admit that the glimpse of a giant Dracula-mantis is amusing. I only wish there would’ve been more of that thing ( Argento’s Dracula-Mantis 3D!).

 Argento's Dracula 3D

Video


Dracula is presented here in 3D and 2D, both 2.35:1 and 1080p. Because my set up doesn’t support the 3D version, this review will pertain to the 2D version only. Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who worked with Argento on Tenebre and Suspiria) shot the film using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras (in 3D, not with post-conversion), which is, I believe, a first for both men. I get the feeling that the movie’s weird, unfilmic look is a result of neither man being particularly familiar with either the digital or 3D formats. I also get the feeling that these strangely flat compositions would look better in 3D.

The good news is that, even with two versions of the movie crammed onto one disc, the picture quality is spectacularly sharp with minimal compression effects during only a handful of shots. The occasional digital grain is similar to that seen in similarly shot films (I’m specifically thinking of Dredd) and never appears to be the result of a MPEG defect (some of the dream sequences are altered to appear grainier). At times, the image is a little over-sharpened, leading to haloes, while the bafflingly bright photography leads to blown-out whites that tend to bloom out into other elements. In order to make the 3D effect work, Tovoli shot with deep-set clarity, so the crisp, complex details aren’t undone by stylized shallow focus. The only thing Tovoli and Argento-esque about the film is its elaborate and ever-changing colour palette, which certainly looks spectacular here as well. The vivid hues either blend gracefully into or cut crisply against each other, depending on the kind of effect the filmmakers are looking for. It’s a nominally interesting look into an alternate universe, where the Argento that made Suspiria still makes wild and beautiful movies in the digital era.

 Argento's Dracula 3D

Audio


Dracula is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and sounds about as good as we can expect from the material. The problems with this track are usually the result of bad mixing habits. Like Phantom of the Opera and Mother of Tears, this soundtrack is a weird mix of dry, set-captured sound and canned effects used in instances where scenes were shot without sound. The aural design wanders between utter emptiness and overly aggressive compensation (for example: a character will exit through the left side of the frame, then can be heard wandering back around to the right rear channel for no better reason than it was possible). The stereo and surround channels are given plenty to do, thanks to constant threats, like owls, wolves, and, well, vampires, but the mix sounds consistently artificial and thin, due to a lack of layering and ambience. Besides reuniting Argento with Tovoli, Dracula also sees him working with Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, though the two worked together as recently as Mother of Tears. Simonetti’s score isn’t among his best work, but it does have a retro appeal that adds a much-needed touch of class to this relatively classless motion picture. Unfortunately, the low budget and bad mixing leave the music thin and almost exclusively keyboard-created, despite Simonetti clearly composing for real strings (though, for whatever reason, some cues do feature real strings).

Extras


The extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette (1:03:50, HD) that is made up of raw, on-set footage and technical interviews with the cast/crew (not including Argento), a ‘Kiss Me Dracula’ music video, and trailers for other IFC Midnight releases.

 Argento's Dracula 3D

Overall


It’s heartbreaking enough to see an older Dario Argento trying and failing to make good movies in the shadows of his past greatness, but to witness his descent into movies as badly made as Dracula is a nightmare far scarier than the former master of horror ever conjured. The only consolation is that I assume Argento simply didn’t care about this production. On the other hand, if, like me, you’re a rabid enough fan to want to own all of the man’s films, IFC Midnight has at least done a fine job with this 3D/2D Blu-ray release. It looks fantastically sharp, sounds as good as possible, based on the source material, and features a decent collection of behind-the-scenes interviews.

 Argento's Dracula 3D

 Argento's Dracula 3D

Argento's Dracula 3D

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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