Monday, April 22, 2013

Dario Argento's Dracula

Original title: Dracula di Dario Argento
Directed by: Dario Argento
Italy/France/Spain, 2012
Horror/EuroGoth, min

Why is it that we always want so much for Dario Argento to find his way back the grand shape that he once had? Actually that’s a rhetoric question, we want him back to the greatness that we grew up loving him for, that’s a no-brainer. But if that is the case, why do we love to hate his later movies? There’s very little love for the films he’s made in the last decade… heck some even say it started going down hill after Phenomena almost twenty years ago. So what can one expect of "Dracula 3D" a movie that we’ve heard quite a fair del of and perhaps mostly groaning about.

Story wise, there’s nothing here that really hasn’t been told before, and despite being a free adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic, this is still the tale of the Count [Thomas Kretschmann] and his minions set against Jonathan Harker [Unax Ugalde] , his fiancé Mina [Marta Gastini], her friend Lucy [Asia Argento] and Vampire slayer Van Helsing [Rutger Hauer]. It’s safe territory; almost everyone knows the story, the characters and what goes down. There’s really nothing new added at all… oh, apart from a bloody big praying mantis!

Ok, so let’s start this off. The camera takes us on a CGI journey down towards and through a village into a house. This is exactly what one would expect to find in an Argento movie – flamboyant camera movement, so why not, even if it is CG and looks sort of like Lego. The music – something terribly important in Argento fare - warbles like something pulled off a horror cartoon. Just five minutes in there’s a woman spontaneously getting out of her kit and right into a session of posey, pose-shagging with her boyfriend… the third, rather unusual move for an Argento film…  wait I should be starting this piece somewhere else…  We should be starting with producer Giovanni Paolucci! Giovanni Paolucci may have produced some brilliant pieces of contemporary low budget trash cinema – especially the suite of films that became Bruno Mattei’s last flicks – but when Dario Argento has to turn to Giovanni Paolucci to finance his films, it makes me wonder over the sad state of Italian cinema.

I’m only blurting out gut instict with this theory, but during this film there’s several moments that make me cringe, wonder who the hell OK’d that moment, and come to the conclusion that this time original source material or themes, or genre isn’t being exploited, but it’s actually Dario Argento being exploited by the cunning Paolucci!

So the film then… I’d have to say that a lot of the FX is pretty good, even with the use of CG, there’s still a few grand moments. One effective scene sees Kretschmann’s Dracula speeding through a room slicing off heads as fountains of blood spray all over the place… so as for the gore and effects section, that’s got an OK from me. Well apart from one really shitty wolf to man transition that my kids could have done better with crayons and a notepad, and also the very flat CG train station. Actually the second time the 2D, 3D train station was used I laughed hard a the moment when the horses head moved as I was convinced that it was a mounted prop.

At times the film manages to tap into some kind of Hammers/EuroGoth groove and even if only slightly obtains a good atmosphere. There’s a few neat details have been worked in, or perhaps only one as that’s the one I recall, such as how Lucy hides her bite-marks away from friends who suspect that she’s been seduced by the fangster up in the castle. A moment in the bathtub reveals where and how she’s been drained and put under his spell.

Trying to sum the film up, Dario Argento’s Dracula has some pretty good effects; a couple of successful CG and practical FX combos, do give a decent amount of freaky and gory set pieces (hey we really don’t need very much more do we). The story is safely within the realm of what the title declares – The Dracula story, although it is a lazy adaptation as it all stays in the same location. I’d have loved to see Argento take on the seas, the plague of rats and Whitby. The sets look much better than I feared they would. Hell, even the obvious CG sets get the job done. A fairly familiar crowd surrounds Argento as several of the cast and crew have been with him on earlier productions.

The biggest flaw is that Argento never establishes, invest or develops his characters. He simply lets them run off their own reputations and legacies. There’s no attempt what so ever at bring complexity, dimension or even a vague attempt at actually creating these characters. Nothing is done to blow life into them, give them empathizing traits, or even make us give a damn. This leads to some pretty dull and flat characters and some piss poor acting that never really manages to engage the audience. The result is devastating and the movie really suffers from it.

Also, there’s never really any real value at stake, the threat of death never really feels present. Fights are over in a jiffy, Van Helsing is too cool for school, and Mina never really shows any fear when meeting the Count, her dead friend Lucy or anything else… and spontaneous nudity has never really been a part of Dario Argento’s movies… I know whom I’ll accredit that to.
Dario Argento’s Dracula has several unmistakable Argento traits, and at times his wonderful style shines through with such a powerful ray of light that it would burn any vampire to a cinder…. But the painfully dull characters totally ruin it all. There’s an problem with the film trying a bit too hard, but not managing to reach all the way through. Sure there’s gore, splatter, female nudity, some great moments, and I’m sure that if this one had been delivered somewhere between Tenebrae and Opera it would have been considered a cult classic from the last years of Italian Genre cinema. More importantly, perhaps Dario would have invested more in directing the actors than messing about with technology and trying to do fancy stuff with his camera. Because it’s true, the deeper you get into his filmography, the more his work becomes being about great camerawork and cool shots than great characters and cool story.

Dario Argento’s Dracula, not as terrible as I through it would be, but not as good as I wanted it to be… and believe me, I’ll watch and support Dario Argento no matter what kind of movies he makes. There are great moments, some cool effects, but way shallow on content, story, pacing and passion. In all honestly I don’t think he’s made this as a horror film at all, but as a Gothic pastiche. Style, tone, sets and the little atmosphere that there is, all strafes after some kind of Hammer/EuroGoth style, but in pastiche form.

I don’t think anyone can make Dracula as a period piece horror film these days, and especially not as a Dario Argento film. I’m basing that on the fact that there’s none of the classic Dario Argento sadism in the deaths here – as mentioned, action flashes past before you know the conflict is there, there’ no complexity to the deaths. The story just chugs on, it simply rolls forth without that classic Argentoesque last moment twist or trial. Nobody really seems to give a damn about what’s happening, and Claudio Simonetti’s constant, and somewhat annoying use of Theremin through out the movie, makes it feel like a Scooby-Doo episode. I kind of get the feeling that they played it safe, took a story that everyone knows and used it to see what they could do with modern technology. But taking your genre audience for granted is a deadly mistake.
Perhaps, and I’m only guessing, but perhaps this was a lightsome way for Dario and Luciano Tovoli to mess around with 3D cameras? Perhaps, and again I’m only guessing, but perhaps this was a way for Dario Argento and Luciano Tovoli to try out new technology, find out what can be done with 3D, what can be done with CGI, what can they get away with if they push it to the limit? Perhaps there still is one last great masterpiece in there?

I hope so, because Dario can do so much better that this. I feel that each time he brings new writing partners on-board, the story goes right out the window. I’d love to see my dream team constellation of say Luigi Cozzi, Daria Nicolodi, Franco Ferrini to bring story back home, and I also hope that he reconciles his relationship with producer/brother Claudio, because one thing is sure, we don’t need more cheap Dario Argento movies that merely exploit his name and the pure fact that he still wants to make movies.


R.Sterling Carody said...

I always tend to be let down with his newer work the first time, but then enjoy it a great deal more the second time around. Now, I just automatically think of watching a new Argento film as a two part process.

CiNEZiLLA said...

That's a really wise and respectful way to view Argento's later work. I think I'll adapt that philosophy myself.


R.Sterling Carody said...

Thanks! Feel free.
Like, I thought Mother of Tears was a diaster the first time. Second time, I was rather amused. Same thing with Inferno, though most dont agree with me on that one.

mopic said...

Well written review as always Jason! I agree to most. I think I need to see all his movies after Stendahl Syndrome again to make a second opinion to those movies since my gut feeling is that almost all of them are quite bad sorry to say. But lets see... ;)

CiNEZiLLA said...

Thanks Mopic.
Yeah, there's a few there that still don't really attract me at all... but then again, they may have aged better.

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