“DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA” (Movie Review)
In the opening scene of DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA, a peasant woman warns her voluptuous daughter against going out on this particular evening. “Walpurgis Night…I know,” the girl sighs, sounding bored of the subject. The malaise is catching; it drips from every frame of this new low in the career of one of horror’s once-great directors.
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (in select theaters and on VOD beginning tomorrow) is a title with so much promise, suggesting a fresh take on a horror mainstay from a filmmaker who has brought so much visual and aural distinction to his work in prior decades. One of the biggest disappointments of his latest offering is that it betrays no particular ambition in the adaptation; you never get a sense of why Argento, this late in the game, decided to cover this ground one more time. Despite the presence of four screenwriters including Argento, the movie has no fresh ideas about vampires in general or Dracula in particular, makes cosmetic changes that add nothing to Bram Stoker’s story and, despite the addition of the third dimension, offers little of the director’s traditional visual flair.
It also showcases a series of performances that are disinterested at best and embarrassing at worst, delivering dialogue that often echoes the awkwardly dubbed lines of European fright films past. In this iteration, Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) arrives in the rechristened village of Passborg not on real-estate business with Dracula, but to straighten up his library (an apparent homage to Harker’s alibi in HORROR OF DRACULA, part of the Hammer Films canon Argento weakly references here). This Count (a miscast Thomas Kretschmann, conveying neither menace nor passion) has no interest in moving out, as he has a good thing going in this town, snacking on its female population with impunity as he holds sometimes murderous sway over the authorities and other menfolk. Passborg is small enough that you get the feeling he couldn’t engage in this sort of behavior for very long without quickly running out of victims, but Argento seems more concerned with baring the girls’ boobs and severing the guys’ other body parts than applying logic.
Among the boobs Argento bares are those of his own daughter Asia, which is nothing new but is getting kinda creepy now that he’s been doing it for half her life. She plays Lucy, now surnamed Kisslinger, who gives piano lessons to just one pupil we ever see and is thrilled when her old friend Mina Harker (Marta Gastini, the only cast member who seems to be trying) arrives, attempting to find out where Jonathan has disappeared to. Dracula takes a shine to Mina, as she reminds him of a lost love, but as he either kills or vampirizes practically everyone around her and Mina realizes how badly things are sucking, she calls in nosferatu hunter Abraham Van Helsing, played by Rutger Hauer, sleepwalking through the movie as if tired out from all his HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN action.
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA doesn’t start off particularly well, and it just gets worse as it goes along. The second half proceeds in a series of scenes that just kinda happen, with no accruing tension, narrative drive or character development, and throughout Argento often shoots from the middle distance with little variety or visual spark. SUSPIRIA and TENEBRE DP Luciano Tovoli returns to the director’s fold and contributes some of his painting-with-light-and-shadow imagery, and the 3D is technically pretty sharp, but both the cinematography and the sporadic dimensional violence are undercut by some of the worst visual FX for a film of this stature in recent memory. The giant praying mantis Dracula transforms into is just as ridiculous as you’ve probably heard (mercifully, its scene only lasts about half a minute), but even the simple effect of blood pooling on the floor beside a throat-slashed victim is done with distractingly artificial CGI. Claudio Simonetti’s music attempts to be lush but too often incorporates giggle-inducing use of a theremin, and is still not quite as silly as his “Kiss Me Dracula” song that accompanies the end credits.
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA is identified in both the opening and closing credits as “a film of national cultural interest,” which is both risible and dispiriting, as it coulda been true. What might have been a grand gesture from a veteran filmmaker in his twilight years instead collapses into a pile of schlocky excesses and bad laughs. The sad thing is that certain critics have interpreted all this as intentional kitsch. The sadder thing, to these eyes, is that it evidently was not.