Dario Argento's Dracula – review

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Would be more accurately titled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (as the title appears on screen) is nowhere near as laughably ridiculous as his previous foray into costume bedecked Gothic Horror, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), but that is still a long way from good. Fans who take a look out of a misguided sense of loyalty may find a few drops of gory glory in Luciono Tovoli’s luscious cinematography, but like the titular character, the film itself presents a handsome appearance hiding a corrupt, empty soul – animated by blood but devoid of any true life.
The screenplay, loosely cobbled together from Bram Stoker’s novel, feels as if it were written by someone who had read the original text, then scribbled down some fragmentary notes while half awake after suffering a fever dream in which bits and pieces of the source were jumbled together with other adaptations. That may sound off-the-wall enough to be interesting; unfortunately, the finished film feels as if it did not go before the cameras until the fervid dreamer’s mental state had been counter-acted with a heavy dose of valium. Dario Argento’s DRACULA is not only insane; it’s insanely dull.
The story restricts itself to the environs surrounding Dracula’s castle, including a village that owes its prosperity to the Count (though at a terrible price). Jonathan Harker (an unimpressive Unax Ugalde) shows up to catalog Dracula’s library (a plot device lifted from 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA), but it turns out that the vampire is not really interested in getting his books in order. What he is interested in does not emerge until various other stuff has happened, little of which shows Dracula acting in a way designed to bring about the goal he eventually reveals: getting Mina Harker to his castle because she is the reincarnation of his lost love.
That’s right: Argento re-roasts the old garlic-laced chestnut previously used in DARK SHADOWS; SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; Dan Curtis’s 1974 telefilm version of DRACULA; and Francis Ford Coppola’s overwrought (and embarrassingly mis-titled) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. That, however, is not the real problem.

Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!
Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!

The real problem is the same one that plagued THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Argento randomly inserts a series of expository scenes and violent set pieces that overshadow the original narrative. You would think that a story about blood-drinking vampires that can be destroyed only be staking and decapitation would provide ample opportunity for sanguinary delights, but that is not enough for Argento, who takes time out to show Renfield splitting someone’s head open with a shovel and another Dracula acolyte hacking someone to death with an ax. As if that were not enough, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) is given a back story via flashback, in which he first learned about vampires when he witnessed Dracula attacking the patients of his mental hospital (um, why?); and later Dracula manifests as a giant praying mantis that impales a human victim on its pinchers before eating his head – a scene whose irrelevancy suggests the film should be retitled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”*
Consequently, when the scenes from Stoker’s Dracula do arrive (such as the staking of Lucy, played by Asia Argento) they are anti-climactic, their impact diluted by the gore that came before. At times, these bits seem simply shoe-horned into the film at random, as when the famous scene from the book of Dracula, scaling the castle wall like a lizard, flashes by for a second – just long enough for us to wonder why it’s in the film. (For dramatic effect, he pauses to hiss – at nothing in particular, unless perhaps it is the audience.)
It’s not only the onscreen blood that’s thinned by this approach; Stoker’s narrative beats are dulled as well, rendered as obligatory after-thoughts. A major element of the novel is Lucy’s transformation from innocent British lass to sultry vampiress. Argento’s DRACULA, however, begins with a local village girl, Tanya (Miriam Giovanelli) bitten by Dracula and turned into the vampire bride who greets Jonathan Harker when he reaches the castle. Since we have already seen this human-to-vampire transformation take place once, when Lucy’s turn arrives it has a been-there-done-that quality to it, with Argento tossing it off as quickly as possible.
It hardly helps that Argento goes out of his way to sexualize Dracula’s female victims before they fall under his spell: Tanya gets lusty sex scene with her married lover; Lucy and Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) get a nude bathing scene (yes, Dario films his daughter naked once again).  With the women already sexy, there is no opportunity for a startling transformation from virginal innocence to voluptuous wantonness, further undermining the story. (This might have worked if Argento had deliberately inverted expectations, suggesting that the more sexually liberated characters are less likely to be seduced by Dracula’s erotic allure, but no such luck.)
All of this underlines one of the film’s major failings: the story has been ripped out of its original context, robbing scenes of their effectiveness, and little if anything substantial has been added to replace what was lost. Stoker’s Dracula is about an ancient evil that invades modern London, transforming everything it touches with a bloody version of the Midas Touch, spreading a contagion that could potentially sweep the entire country. Argento’s DRACULA is about some guy who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend and doesn’t mind who he has to kill to do it.
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)

Unlike London in the novel, the European setting of the film, the village of Passburg, is mere background; Dracula’s impact on it barely registers. There is talk of a pact between the villagers and the Count – presumably a non-aggression pact, though what the villagers get out of it is not clear, and the idea seems to exist only so that there can be a scene wherein some villagers talk about breaking the pact, whereupon Dracula kills them all, providing another opportunity for carnage not related to the main story (including a grizzly throat-ripping and a nicely rendered though completely gratuitous scene of the Count telepathically inducing a victim to blow his own brains out with a gun).
I know what you’re saying: It’s a Dario Argento film – who cares about the plot? It’s the bravura visuals that count! Aye, there’s the rub. Argento’s DRACULA superficially simulates the look and approach of classic Hammer horror films, with a familiar narrative dressed up in colorful new accoutrements, erotically charged and splashed with blood, but the similarity ends there. The staging of the action is lethargic, lacking the gusto of director Terrence Fisher’s work in HORROR OF DRACULA (compare the Count’s interruption of Harker’s brief encounter with vampire bride in both films, and you’ll see what I mean).
In fact, with its more overt sex and nudity – not to mention directorial indulgence – Argento’s DRACULA more resembles a Ken Russell film, but the flamboyance here seems more scatter-shot than enjoyably excessive. The same pictorial beauty is there, the same unfettered urge to overthrow MASTERPIECE THEATRE-style reticence in favor of explicit eruptions of disreputable imagery that would be proscribed in more “respectable” fare. The difference is that, as wild as he was, Russell usually seemed to have a point, and unlike Argento, he knew when he had overstepped the boundary of outrageousness into deliberate camp, inviting the audience to laugh along with him at the material (e.g., THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Argento, on the other hand, seems merely clueless. As a result, DRACULA feels like a more lavishly produced version of 1970s Euro-trash, or a more beautifully photographed version of a Paul Naschy film (think FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) but without the joyful exploitation energy that made that kind of cinema fun, regardless of whether it was “good” by conventional standards.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that this approach drains the actors of any dramatic blood. Not only do the English-language vocal performances sound phoned in by bored thespians; the cast tends to act as if they never read a script but simply had it explained to them over the phone, after which they arrived on set and Argento simply said, “Do that thing we talked about.” If you hadn’t seen Thomas Krestschmann, Rutger Hauer, and Asia Argento doing better work elsewhere, you might think they were the most untalented actors on the planet. Krestschmann (who was frighteningly deranged in Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) is most ill-served, rendering a static Dracula who lacks the hypnotic seductivness of Bela Lugosi, the predatory dynamism of Christopher Lee, and the romantic allure of Frank Langella; hell, he even makes Gary Oldman look good!
For all the film’s faults, DRACULA does feature Claudio Simonetti’s best non-Goblin score, an orchestral work that ditches the composer’s usual synthesizers in favor of theramin and violin solos; sadly, he squanders the dramatic effect of the background music by adding a goofy song over the closing credits, “Kiss Me, Dracula.” which borders on the embarrassing.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.

Also, there are a few nice old-fashioned effects – simple jump-cuts and dissolves, used to depict Dracula’s appearances and disappearances – mixed in with more modern computer-generated imagery that turns the count into an owl, a wolf, and an insect (but never a bat, strangely enough – guess that was too old hat). The computerized effects are variable, at times bad. Probably the best use of the digital process is that it allows Argento to fool around with the visual palette in a way we haven’t seen since the post-production Technicolor trickery of SUSPIRIA. On this level only – creating a surreal dreamscape of wooded forests worthy of an adult fairy tale – can Argento’s DRACULA be reckoned a success.
Argento’s career has been hit and miss since the mid 1980s (starting with PHENOMENON). After the dreary low-point of the 1990s, he at least somewhat returned to form in the new millennium, with SLEEPLESS (2001), THE CARD PLAYER (2004), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007). If we can take any solace from this erratic trajectory, it is that a sharp downswing need not be permanent. If Argento could recover from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, then perhaps he can recover from DRACULA.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ scale of zero to five stars: a strong recommendation to avoid.

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TRIVIA

For those interested, here are some bloody bits that Argento’s DRACULA culls from other Dracula movies – not from Stoker’s text:

  • Dracula wears an outfit that suggests NOSFERATU (1922).
  • Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula not to wrap up a real estate transaction but to catalog the Count’s library. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
  • Jonathan Harker is bitten by Dracula in Transylvania. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA. Something similar happens in DRACULA (1931), but it is Renfield rather than Harker who travels to Castle Dracula.
  • Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire who is destroyed by Van Helsing. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA and in the 1974 telefilm DRACULA with Jack Palance.
  • Count Dracula has only one vampire bride instead of three. Taken from HORROR OF DRACULA.
  • Count Dracula is seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. This happened in the Jack Palance telefilm and in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). The concept had previously been used in DARK SHADOWS and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. Its origin goes back to THE MUMMY (1932), a sort of unofficial remake of DRACULA, starring Boris Karloff.
  • The action never moves to England, instead remaining in Europe. Again, from HORROR OF DRACULA.

FOOTNOTE:

  • This is not entirely a joke. In my interview with Argento regarding MOTHER OF TEARS, he summed up his goal as a filmmaker by saying, “This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.” As if his goal were simply to take what was in his mind and put it on the screen.

Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")
Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (a.k.a., ARGENTO’S DRACULA, DRACULA 3D, 2012). U.S. Release theatrical release in October 2013, home video release on January 28, 2014; distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori; based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by Claudio Simonetti. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Cast: Thomas Krestschmann as Dracula; Marta Gastini as Mina Harker; Asia Argento as Lucy Kisslinger; Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker; Miriam Giovanelli as Tanya; Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. 150 minutes. Not rated. In 3D.

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