Dario Argento's Dracula
ZERO STARS/**** Image B Sound A Extras A-
starring Thomas Kretschmann, Maria Gastini, Asia Argento, Rutger Hauer
screenplay by Dario Argento, Antonio Tentori, Stefano Piani, based on the novel by Bram Stoker
directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw I used to love Dario Argento. Heck, who didn't? But at a certain point, it became clear that the quality of Argento's work is directly proportional (or it was for a while) to the quality of work he's riffing on. A shame that lately he appears to be mostly riffing on himself--the elderly version of a vital artist doing his best to recapture something he's lost. It was Hitchcock as muse, of course, initially, joining Argento at the hip for a while with Brian DePalma, who was doing kind of the same thing at the same time with about the same audacity in the United States. There was genius there in the Deep Reds and Suspirias, certainly in the logic-bumfuddling submerged ballroom the heroine must enter to retrieve a key in Inferno. Argento didn't really start to make bad movies until after Tenebre. Since, with notable half-exceptions like Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome, he's made almost nothing but. It all comes to a head--or a tail, as it were--with Dario Argento's Dracula: the worst entry in a filmography that includes stuff like Sleepless and Giallo, and frankly belonging somewhere in the conversation of the worst films of all-time. Until you've endured it, I can't quantify it. Coming from someone once revered for his innovative camera, for his groundbreaking work with music and production design--coming from the guy involved at some level with the conception/production of Once Upon a Time in the West and Dawn of the Dead, fer chrissakes (who, indeed, counted Leone and Bertolucci and George A. Romero as friends and collaborators), it's a fucking tragedy.
One scene (not the praying mantis bit, though that's a doozy), one scene tells it all. In a tomb where vamp hunter Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) and vamp innamorata Mina (Marta Gastini) are hanging around, suddenly fresh vamp bestie Lucy (Asia Argento) appears, leading to Van Helsing running off to find two branches to hold together as a makeshift crucifix. Lucy, hissing, kicks it out of his hands stiff-leggedly in a flat little montage so infantile, so amateurish, that it's actually almost charmingly naive. It's very much like something a child would write, choreograph, invite his friends to be in, edit with his Mac, and show to his parents. Dracula's set, picture it, meant to be overgrown and creepy, is as crisply lit and sterile as a Kinko's; the dialogue appears to be read off cue cards; and the performances are so uneven and wooden that it took me no kidding ten tries to finish the movie.
Dracula is a complete disaster. If meant as a joke, it's one of those jokes told by demented people that goes on for an hour and then trails off, punchline forgotten. If it's satire, what's being satirized? If it's serious--and I'm betting it's at least semi-serious--it's pathetic, truly. CGI is used copiously and to the great detriment of an artist who once painted in wide swatches of karo syrup. Shame, too, that the VFX are bargain-basement, Firefox-era embarrassing. So bad that a moment that seems homage in part to the bullet-and-knife-in-mouth-simultaneously gag from Argento's own Opera, featuring a man shooting himself in the face, makes a mockery of both in its irreverence and open ineptitude. If anyone else had done it, we'd be calling "asshole" for desecrating the legacy of a once-visionary filmmaker. Argento is the George Lucas of horror flicks.
Dracula this time around is Stendhal's Thomas Kretschmann, doing what he can, and hapless Jonathan Harker is someone called Unax Ugalde, who looks like a somehow beadier-eyed version of Jason Schwartzman, a somehow more marmot-like Tom Hulce. Instead of the traditional three brides of Dracula, here there's just the one--comely Tanja (Miriam Giovanelli, who is ridiculously not-shy). In the past, I've defended Argento against charges of misogyny and exploitation--something he does himself with Tenebre and Opera; I guess I'm done doing that at this point. I'm stupid, but I'm teachable. Dracula isn't erotic, it's leering, and it's all fun and games until he leers at his own daughter getting a sponge bath from Mina. Look at the discovery of bite marks on the back of Lucy's knee, how the camera makes a point of capturing the swell of Asia's bare buttocks for no other possible purpose aside from prurience. I'm not going far down this road, I'm just saying. Not helping is that this multinational disaster was dubbed--or plays like it was dubbed--in a language best described as reminiscent of English. At the end of the day, after all the attempts by guys like me who once urged hale colleagues to consider the real and vital connection between Antonioni's Blow-Up and Argento's Deep Red, to somehow rationalize that Dracula is not complete crap...the hard truth of it is that Dario should have hung it up a quarter-century ago. I'm not angry about Dracula, I'm embarrassed and I'm sad.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers IFC shepherds Dario Argento's Dracula to next-gen in a combination Blu-ray/Blu-ray 3D platter. One of the first things you notice about the film is that it's oddly bright--even dark shots catch the actors in tractor beams of light, while the majority of the action takes place in the daytime (here we have a Dracula who seems to be immune to sunlight)--and unapologetically sharp. I'm assuming these are 3-D considerations to compensate for the loss of luminance and definition to polarized glasses, but in 2-D it draws attention to what isn't there, i.e., money, magnifying the plasticity of a stagebound forest and an assortment of CG creatures. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is a tad noisy to boot, and dynamic range is flat at one end while running hot at the other, with whites often clipping or giving off a solarized appearance. Flesh tones and tweedy colours are infused with a purpleish cast that looks like a grading by-product, though greens are nice and robust. DP Luciano Tovoli, here reuniting with Argento for the first time since their landmark work on Tenebre, could be said to deliver a garishness that is appropriately Hammer-esque, but digital artifacts interfere with the homage. Attending the film is a surrounds-heavy 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that shows some attention to detail went into Stefano Di Fiore's soundmix, if not Claudio Simonetti's incongruous theremin score. As per most IFC releases, a lossless PCM stereo option is also on board, and the base volume of each is quite loud.
"Dario Argento's Dracula 3-D: Technician Interviews" (63 mins., HD) is an uncredited, subtitled mix of B-roll and behind-the-scenes talking heads that uses the term technician rather liberally to first describe co-screenwriter Antonio Tentori, who credits Argento with the "innovation" to add more animals to Dracula's shapeshifting repertoire. One of the editors interviewed, Danielle Campelli (a man), explains how the movie was shot with parallel lenses so that the intensity of 3-D convergence could be decided in post rather than on set, thus giving Argento the same shooting flexibility he'd enjoy on a 2-D production. (That's what I took, at least, from what was probably a difficult translation of wonkspeak.) Still, they couldn't take spatial dynamics for granted, and the imparting of these lessons makes for a pretty decent documentary if you think of stereoscopy as its subject matter as opposed to Dracula itself. Even at that, though, there's an interesting tidbit with set decorator Marina Pinzutti, and in the homestretch the actors are given more than enough rope to hang themselves, the camera sardonically importing their vapid comments with gravitas by going in for extreme close-ups on their faces. (Argento himself is seen but not heard.) The cheesy video for Simonetti Project's "Kiss Me Dracula" (5 mins., HD), featuring singer Silvia Specchio going the full Stevie Nicks, joins a couple of jokey HD trailers for Dracula in rounding out the special features. Ironic HiDef trailers for Plus One and Dark Touch (two IFC gems denied the Blu-ray treatment proper) cue up on startup.