For many, word that Dario Argento has made a bad film isn’t exactly news. I get it, even though I largely disagree with that stigma. I’m under no illusion that there’s a pretty sizeable gap between his greatest works (everything pre-1990) and “modern” output (everything after it). With the exception of Phantom of the Opera, I’ve found lots to like about his later canon: the lingering and haunting psychological devastation of The Stendhal Syndrome, the playful homage of Do You Like Hitchcock? and the gonzo what-the-fuckery of Mother of Tears. Sure, it’s lesser Argento, but I’ve always had fun.
Which is precisely why Dracula 3D is such a downer. It’s not only the worst film in the director’s career, it’s a banal exercise in terrible CGI, laughable performances and inept staging. A movie so embarrassing that I sunk so far in my seat that I was on the floor by the time it was finished.
I know that negative reviews have a tendency to be hyperbolic, but Dracula 3D really is that bad. And worse, it’s a lifeless chore. It opens with promise (which might’ve been my short-lived optimism): a young lover on her way home from a forbidden tryst is chased through a thick, fog-laden forest by a sinister entity. In these opening moments, there’s a healthy bit of exploitation shrouded with enough atmosphere to help offset the noticeably cheap look. It doesn’t last long and, if you’re even remotely familiar with the director’s work, all you can do is wonder what a younger Argento might’ve done with this.
The collected goodwill is smothered right off as it becomes abundantly clear that Dracula 3D is nothing more than a stillborn retelling of Bram Stoker’s novel. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times. Done better. And everyone has their favorite iteration, whether it’s Tod Browning, George Melford, Terence Fisher, John Badham or Francis Ford Coppola. Each Stoker adaptation has impassioned fans, and while I don’t love every one, I understand the followings. But this? Argento never manages to beat the aforementioned films at their own game, and so not only do you spend this film wondering what younger Argento might’ve done, but also how much better it’s been done before.
I’m not suggesting that we should expect directors to repeat their past successes ad nausea. Last week I praised Nicolas Winding Refn for aggressively steering away from doing a Drive retread with Only God Forgives. So I think it’s great that Argento wanted to step outside his usual repertoire of gloved killers and sexual trauma (although it’s becoming clear that perhaps he shouldn’t), but imagine what his ‘modern’ Dracula film might’ve looked like had it been nestled somewhere in between Tenebre and Phenomena. Ferocious energy, a pulsing Goblin synth score (to be fair, Claudio Simonetti gives this film a lighthearted, fun score) and beautiful, practical FX work.
I suppose that suggests I projected a lot of my own expectations onto Dracula 3D. Not really. I saw that laughable demo trailer a few years back so I’d argue that my expectations were perfectly tempered. But Dracula 3D even underdelivered on the promise of bottom-of-the-barrel fun. I’m not criticizing this movie for what it isn’t, even if I did spend the entirety of it wondering what it could’ve been.
It’s just sad. And I was more depressed at the end of Dracula 3D than anything else. It’s stagnant hackery and I simply can’t believe I’m saying that about Dario Argento. All traces of his former visual flare have been extinguished, leaving a movie that looks like the worst kind of languid television. Indifferently shot and incompetently staged, you’d be hard-pressed to find another film so blithely produced.
There comes a moment late in the film where an enraged Dracula massacres a roomful of villagers without breaking a sweat. It’s not an especially great scene – the choreography is clunky and the lighting nonexistent – but it throws enough gore around while mustering a modicum of energy. And for a second it looks as though Dracula 3D might spring to life in the 11th hour. But it doesn’t. Similarly, much has been made of Dracula’s ability to transform into any animal or insect, but the CGI praying mantis (which has become an ironic fan favorite) disappoints. It’s on screen for just a few seconds, wreaking the kind of inconsistent carnage where it appears to bite off a man’s head, only to show the intact body afterwards. And this comes from the genius who once made Suspiria.
The supporting cast is uniformly terrible and completely laughable. Unax Ugalde is so detached from this movie’s reality you have to wonder if he was even directed. Miriam Giovanelli is often topless and watching her assets burst from the screen in 3D brings an admittedly lowbrow moment of fun to the proceedings, but her performance is dire. Asia Argento is beyond awful, realizing her character with a mix of indifference and disdain (for the material, most likely). Then there’s the biggest names: Thomas Kretschmann is a presence I almost always enjoy. But he doesn’t care about this. Rutger Hauer pops in just when you’ve forgotten he’s a part of the cast, and seems determined to one-up Kretschmann’s indifference. The two of them have a climactic “battle” that is essentially Hauer pulling no less than two weapons out of his coat only to have them smacked aside while he’s trying to deliver an expository incantation. A fitting end to this mess.
Then there are flashbacks – an attempt to elucidate the rivalry between our hero and villain that ranks among the film’s sloppiest moments. Dracula and Van Helsing encountered each other once before, when the good doctor stumbled across a vampiric outbreak inside a sanitarium. But the scene abruptly ends as soon as Van Helsing finds Dracula among the patients. We never see the outcome of this confrontation, nor is it explained why Dracula didn’t simply kill him back then. The whole movie is illogical and it’s more evidence that no one involved in making this gave much of a damn.
If you’ve never seen an Argento film, if this is your first foray, then for the love of God don’t start here. You’ll never want to see another one. And that’s the biggest problem with Dracula 3D, it’s an embarrassing experience. Even Argento’s greatest apologists have to fess up and admit they wouldn’t show this nonsense to anyone. It’s a latchkey project in this director’s career, a movie that should be locked up and never spoken of again.
I’m sorry Dario. I still love you.