Hey, Girl, Hauer You Doin'?: Dario Argento's Dracula 3D (2013)
Usually in this portion of a review I synopsize the movie, but if you don't know the story of Dracula, then I don't know if I can help you. As there are a few variations in Argento's version, and just in case, I'll run it through. Jonathan Harker (the impossibly named Unax Ugalde) is in this version a librarian called to the Carpathian mountain home of Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) to catalog the books in the castle's massive library. Harker is menaced by The Count's vampire bride before succumbing to the vampire himself. Meanwhile, Harker's wife Mina (Marta Gastini) arrives in the neighboring village to visit her friend Lucy (Asia Argento), who is already under the thrall of The Count. Of course, Mina is Dracula's actual target as she resembles his lost love. The Vampiric activities rouse the interest of Van Helsing, a vampire expert who learned of the Count's existence while working in Carfax Sanitarium, arrives on the scene to aid Mina and rid the world of the scourge of Dracula.
As with any interpretation of Dracula, there's a laundry list of items from Bram Stoker's novel that have been left out and just as much as been invented. By no means has Argento made a faithful version of the Dracula story. For starters, the action never even leaves the Carpathian Mountains, there's a Renfield-esque character, but no direct correlation, and Lucy's suitors are only referenced without ever being seen. Those are merely surface notes that I picked out without even really trying, but I could easily expound on the changes and missing material in such a way you'd think I had been elected and was on a filibuster. So I will spare you all that. Suffice it to say that as much as Browning, Coppola, Hinds, Franco, or Badham stayed faithful with their versions, Argento did the same. What is interfering about the story of Dracula is not the base story because, as I mentioned, it is so well known. Why the tale can be told over and over again is because the execution of the tale through the writer and director can be so fluid. I didn't sign on to this movie to see Dracula or unearth new facets of the tale; those have been expounded on through film for ages, but rather to see Argento's Dracula.
Saying that, it means that the entire, or at least most, of the justification for the film must weigh heavily on what Argento brought to the plate for his adaptation. Anyone who has seen Dario's Phantom of the Opera knows that good source material does not ensure an Argento victory. In many minor ways, I believe Dario has managed one this time around. Firstly, I'd like to mention what doesn't work, the 3D moments. I can imagine them in 3D, and rather than add anything to the spectacle, I'd have rather seen Argento use a practical effect for staking or a spike through the head rather than a CG effect. It took away from several moments where I wanted old school Italian bloodiness. Apart from that, Dario kept the film on the rails by deviating from the story, but not wildly, the choices he made restrict the number of locations and therefore worked within his budget with little to no effect on the basic premise. The style of the film beyond the three dimensional moments is where it gains its biggest strength. There are several breathtakingly realized moments where set decoration, mood, lighting, and the score by Carlo Simonetti come together in such a way that it feels like the vital Argento of the 70s has come again. The problem comes that much of the style feels modern while the sets look like overwrought Hammer horror locales. In many ways, it is a beautiful film to look at. I just wish the stylishness had transcended into the horrific moments. For example, there is a scene where a vampire is immolated. It turns into a CGI mess, but I could imagine it in a more visceral painful light that Argento once had in him.
Of course, while Mr. Argento was driving the ship, the reason we came aboard is Rutger Hauer. It takes almost an hour for Hauer's Van Helsing to arrive on the scene (which seems right according to the plot's pacing), but where Anthony Hopkins played the role like a man nearly at the leave of his sanity, Hauer's vampire hunter is more serious and reserved. His portrayal actually brought to mind Edward Van Sloan from Browning's Dracula rather than a modern performance. Truth be told, while Hauer seems to be at least partially phoning it in, he is easily still the best part of the film. Before his arrival, we are stuck with Ugalde's Harker, a one dimensional drip, and Gastini's Mina who is all worry and fret until she meets up with Dracula. Speaking of the Count, Kretchmann acquits himself well enough without ever really embodying the sexual power or danger associated with Dracula. I actually liked him better in another re-imagining of a famous horror/Universal character when he played Victor Helios (Dr. Frankenstein) in the TV movie Dean Koontz's Frankenstein. Last but not least, in continuing nepotism, Asia Argento continues to act in her father's film. Creepily, she also continues to get naked. At least this time she doesn't get raped. So, small favors. Pretty as she may be (she don't float this Bugg's boat), I just don't think she's much of an actress as evidenced here in spades.
Dario Argento's Dracula 3D is one of those ideas that sound good on paper. Well, excepting the 3D part. There's a time when Argento could have made this film and it would have been different and daring. I imagine a mixture of Jess Franco's Count Dracula with the lighting of Susperia and the camera work of Deep Red. The movie I have in my mind is well better than what I saw. That's not to say that Dario's Dracula is bad. In the scheme of Dracula movies, it's definitely one of them. You could see better or worse, but anyone appreciative of the director Argento used to be will find some flourishes to admire here. Perhaps, if you squint really hard, there might even be some hope. Dario Argento turns 73 this year. To put that into perspective, Martin Scorsese is 70 and fellow Dracula director Francis Ford Coppola is 74. Neither of those men has made important films in decades, and the same can be said of Dario.
With age, relevance often wanes, but the reason I brought up those two heralded directors is that even now their films are awaited and dissected by fans looking for a glimmer of their classic style. Yet for some reason, horror fans are incredibly quick to diminish vaunted creators new works sight unseen rather than look for signs of what they once loved. Directors like Dario and George Romero (who, admittedly is on worse footing than his Zombi/Dawn of the Dead cohort) are dismissed offhand without a thought by many. I think George should take a page from Dario's playbook. Browing's Dracula, with it's heavily German expressionist influenced lighting, surely made an impact on young Dario's life at some point, and playing around with something he loved and had a passion for, seemed to reignite something in him. The same could be said of his last project, the mediocre but watchable Giallo. So maybe George should step outside of Zombies, or The Living Dead as he prefers, and try a Mummy or a Creature from a Lagoon. In either role, I could see Rutger Hauer stepping in. See what I did there, and you didn't think I'd bring it all around. Well, it's all coming around this month, and I hope you'll be doin' well when you come back to check out more of my cavalcade of features this month.