Chicago International Film Festival and get to work on Kevin Olson's Italian Horror Blogathon, and wouldn't you know it, but I was given an absolutely perfect, gift-wrapped transition from one to the other in the form of Dracula 3D, the latest film from the most famous of all Italian horror directors, Dario Argento. This fits in even better, given that my intended them for this year's blogathon has been to tour the work of the leading lights of Italian horror, and put off scrounging for something obscure till next year as I picked one highly representative film for each of the genre's Big 3, and a couple of other key figures who aren't necessarily named in the same breath as Argento, Bava, and Fulci.
I do feel a little bad that my Argento pick turns out to be something as wholly awful as Dracula 3D, though not nearly as bad as I do that Argento has been cranking out wholly awful movies for so long that I can look at the terrible acting, stupid camera angles, dubious CGI, and deeply uncomfortable nude shots of Asia Argento, and without raising an eyebrow or blinking, say to myself, "yep, that is absolutely representative of fully half of the directorial output of the creator of Deep Red and Suspiria". It is possible, I suspect, that Dracula 3D is even his worst film; I haven't seen every last one of his late-period failures of both critical acclaim and fanboy enthusiasm, but I can't imagine that any of them have a moment as ill-conceived and shamefully executed as the one where Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) turns into a man-sized praying mantis with fangs to kill a villager in his home. Though at least the uniformly poor CGI in the film doesn't seem as out-of-place in the case of the mantis, which already feels like a cannon-fodder monster in a late-'90s survival horror video game.
So, besides jaw-dropping CGI insects, whatever does Dracula 3D add to the decades-long corpus of Dracula adaptations? Argento himself would say that 3-D is itself the only answer that question needs, though for myself, I only noticed two scenes in which the technology was used to do anything remotely interesting, and one of those was the credits sequence (the camera veering through the narrow streets of a 19th Century Eastern European village - it's actually pretty great, certainly the most visually involving part of the movie). The other was a gore-heavy scene that manages to suggest, in the loosest way, what graphic, picturesque horror translated into multiple dimensions could consist of, though even as a purveyor of messy gore, Argento isn't up to his old self, and while the big bloodletting sequence (the only one in the film to speak of) is certainly an exuberantly nasty mess, but it's not a particularly imaginative one (eye-gouging on loan from Fulci, quick editing to make everything seem more shocking), nor even gross enough to cheat its way into being over-the-top disturbing.
Otherwise, it's just another damn Dracula, largely abandoning Bram Stoker's novel (though it includes the moment when the count skitters up the exterior wall of his castle at night, a scene that doesn't make it into nearly enough adaptations), and significantly re-working character identities. The short version: Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) and his new wife Mina (Marta Gastini) are returning the village of her birth, where Jonathan has recently snagged a job as librarian to the eccentric count. He arrives several days before here, gets the customary hushed resistance from the locals, receives a jovial account of the local superstition from Mayor Kisslinger (Augusto Zucchi), and his daughter Lucy (Asia Argento), Mina's best friend, and heads off the castle where he receives a most awkward dinner. In short order, the count and his newest bride (Miriam Giovanelli) have reduced Jonathan to a near-catatonic state, Mina has arrived to wonder where her husband is, and Lucy has begun acting very strangely, sporting a distinctive pair of holes on the back of her knee (a nice touch, the vampire knowing that people are onto his usual tricks).
Not that Lucy acting strangely is all that easy to suss out, what with Argento fille giving one of her all-time worst performances in a dazed, head-lolling stupor that distinguishes between "pre-vampiric" and "hemi-vampiric" primarily in her willingness to, yet again, perform nude scenes in a movie directed by her father, one of those things that I am undoubtedly supposed to be accustomed to by now, but likely never shall be. Argento is the easy worst in show, and that's impressive considering the uniformly ineffective acting on display: Gastini has the hardest time handling the English language, and it takes up virtually all of her available energy; Ugalde is so visually anachronistic and disinterested in anything he has to do at any point that he very nearly makes Keanu Reeves look respectable. Lording over them all, Kretschmann's Dracula is a titanic and complete failure, not sexy enough to be dangerously alluring, not animalistic enough to be a legitimate threat, not suave enough to reek with Old World charms. He is the baked white potato, hold the butter, of screen vampires. There is a physical object there - the 3-D confirms it - but no personality, no soul, not even a vivid soullessness. The only thing that redeems the human element at all is Rutger Hauer's perfectly-pitched Van Helsing (a psychiatrist and paranormal specialist in this iteration), projecting just the right amount of "what the fuck did I get myself into?" bemusement and hammy without going full-bore Edward Van Sloan or Anthony Hopkins and turning the movie into a flood of overwrought theatrics. It is a terrible version of the character, but the right one for this film, introduced just at the exact point where it helps turn the tide from "this is so awful" to "this is so awful, but at least it's kind of funny".
So much for the human element. The arch visual stylist who gave the world all those masterpieces is nowhere in evidence, but there's at least an overriding sensibility to Dracula 3D that gives it the feeling of discipline, even if it's not very interesting. Basically, it wants to be a full-color, high-tech, blood-fueled version of a Universal film, as far as I can tell: Luciano Tovoli's cinematography and Claudio Cosentino's sets both tap into a vividly old-school ethos of making things good and atmospheric, even if they end up looking unabashedly stagebound along the way, and for all that the staging of scenes is usually dreadful - the most interesting blocking happens in the opening, during one of the most physically unconvincing sex scenes in many days - if you can take the time to look behind the clumsily-posed actors, the cheery artifice of the locations tends to give the film at least some kind of sense of fun. Certainly, the score by Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti (Argento's long-time composer), probably the only thing about the movie that actively works, contributes immeasurably to the sense that we're watching something proud to be old-fashioned, with all the bangs and creaks of a child's Halloween fantasies.
Still, "it feels like an 80-year-old movie with blood and Asia Argento's boobs" is, at a minimum, not what we want from the great maestro, and the whole thing is a deadly combination of laziness, incompetence, and disinterest. It manages, barely, to be stupid enough at enough points to be fun to watch beyond the retro-chic aesthetic, but even then the line separating a CGI mantis that is funny from a CGI mantis that I forgot about because I immediately started guzzling alcohol to block out the pain is a thin line, and porous. Really, the fact that I'm having a debate with myself in print as to whether Dracula 3D is dopey enough to be fun says it all. We are a long way from visual ingenuity and a real sense of macabre possibility here, and the spectacle promised by the phrase "Dario Argento in 3-D!" is as impossible to find here as decent acting or an original narrative beat.