Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2013)

20. Dracula 3D

The sad state of affairs these days is that a new Dario Argento film isn’t cause for celebration. Usually, it’s cause for concern. When it was announced that his next film was going to be a 3-D adaptation of “Dracula,” fans got worried. After all, the director’s last foray into gothic horror resulted in “Phantom of the Opera,” a misfire of epic proportions. When the teaser trailer for “Dracula 3D” hit the interwebs, it was everything we feared and worse: Awful CGI effects, 3D eye-gouging, laughable acting, creepy Asia nudity and, most infamously, Dracula turning into a giant praying mantis. “Dracula 3D” was shaping up to be another sad marker in Argento’s increasingly discredited career.

I went in with incredibly low expectations. No doubt this affected my final opinion. “Dracula 3D” isn’t good. It’s frequently embarrassingly bad. It’s also not terrible. All the stuff we groaned at in the trailer, and more, is present. However, the movie frequently rises to the level of campy enjoyment.

Only the bare outline of Stoker’s novel is retained. Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula, relocated to a village in rural Italy, not to sell him property but to work in the Count’s library. This ends up being a bad idea. Mina follows to the village soon after and shacks up with friend Lucy. Dracula’s reign of terror over the town, and his particular interest in the girl, becomes apparent soon. Van Helsing shows up eventually too.

What happens to Harker while staying in the castle has some similar to the events of the novel. There is an attempted seduction by Dracula’s bride, singular, which the count interrupts, as expected. He spies Dracula crawling up the side of a tower. Harker ends up not being a particularly important character. Renfield is in the movie but he doesn’t resemble the source character at all. Lucy’s nightly visit with the Count and her eventual fate are at least inspired by the original story. Otherwise, Argento’s “Dracula” follows its own muse.

And what an odd muse it is. The director definitely makes some odd additions to the story. The village below has a particular relationship with the Count. He provides the townspeople with financial support and increased social standing, with the agreement that he can take the town’s daughters whenever he wants. His single, blonde bride is given an extended back story. She appears to be a virginal daughter at first but, because Dario is such a dirty old man these days, she has a soft-core graphic sex scene with her married boyfriend. Her perceived jealousy of Mina seems like it’s going to be an important plot point but fizzles out before the end.

No doubt the thing about the film that will get the most attention is the alterations to Dracula himself. Yes, he turns into a giant praying mantis. As absurd as it sounds and looks, that’s actually one of the better sequences in the movie. It catches the audience off-guard, due to its sudden appearance and pure oddness. Drac also turns into a wolf, a giant owl, and a swarm of flies. It’s even suggested that the count has sway over rats and cockroaches. He’s got general psychic abilities too.

Beyond the wacky super powers, Dracula’s motivation comes from Mina being the apparent reincarnation of his lost love, straight out of Coppola’s “Dracula.” Also like Coppola, Argento explicitly connects the fictional Dracula with the historical Vlad the Impaler. This information is dumped on the audience in the late going and it’s revealed the entire story has been manipulated by Dracula to get Mina to him. However, not all the changes are bad. The scene were the movie most comes alive is when Dracula turns on the townsfolk. He tears six guys apart in quick succession, slashing throats, biting necks, and lobbing off a head. The gore isn’t realistic and it’s really no less goofy then the rest of the movie but it’s still pretty entertaining.

About the special effects. The make-up effects are from frequent Argento collaborator Serio Stivaletti and it’s some of his best work in years. Two pin pricks obviously wouldn’t do for Dario, so whole necks are torn out, strands of flesh stretching and dangling. My favorite gag involves a shovel to the head and several of the stakings involve plenty of red. The practical effects are fine. It’s the movie’s CGI effects where it really falters. They’re bad. Like Syfy Channel Original bad. Dracula’s transformation from wolf to man is maybe the worse moment. When dead, the vampires crumbled into piles of dust. That’s a simple effect and the movie can’t even do that right. I mean, how hard is that? “Buffy” did a half-way convincing job every week on half the budget. It’s obviously fake looking. As bad as that is, Lucy’s fiery death is even worse. There aren’t words for how rubbery and fake the CGI in this film is.

The script is sloppy. It’s never clear who the main character is. Is it Harker? He has several important scenes early on. Yet he disappears for most of the film before being quickly killed at the very end. Mina is the next likely target yet none of her actions drive the plot. Van Helsing shows up half-way through and starts hacking through the supporting cast. This is his main purpose and I don’t know if it’s enough to earn him protagonist status. Even Dracula himself isn’t given a lot to do. He’s mostly a snarling murderer or mysterious cipher throughout most of the movie. The last minute attempt to turn him into a romantic figure falls horribly flat.

The story is generally unfocused. Tania, Dracula’s bride, gets a lot of screen time but contributes little to the film besides blatant eye-candy. Renfield wanders in and out of the plot without contributing much at all. If Dracula is after Mina, why does he bother seducing and bleeding Lucy? Dracula has a henchmen in the village named Zoran. This guy’s purpose isn’t well established. He murders Tania’s mother, in a rather giallo-esque sequence, is forgotten about, before Van Helsing kills him at the end. And what about Mina and Dracula’s relationship? One minute, she seems into him, even egging the Count. Another, she is resistant and confused. The movie tries to explain this with Dracula’s hypnotic powers but it just comes off as sloppy writing.

At least the movie delivers on the 3D. That’s not really a good thing though. Everything from owls, to swords, to eyeballs are tossed in the audience’s eyes. The opening credits are projected at the viewer as the camera careens down gothic hallways. Sadly, this is as close as we get to the classic Argento style. There are no scares in the movie, despite the loud music blaring when a man touches a woman’s shoulder or a character comes upon a decapitated Madonna. Claudio Simonetti’s score is as loopy as the rest of the movie. When not hitting us over the head with pounding noise, it tries to build atmosphere with humming theremin of all things. I like it though it’s totally out of place.

The cast is a mixed bad. None truly stand out though some are better then others. Thomas Kretschmann isn’t a bad Dracula. His line delivery is a bit awkward and he can’t sell some of his dialogue. He does much better when tearing people apart. At the very least, the guy carries himself well enough and is believable in the part. He’s not a great Dracula but is a convincing one.

Rutger Hauer is fine as Van Helsing. Hauer is a veteran and always a professional. He is given a howler of a monologue to rattle off at the end but an earlier moment, where he recalls his first encounter with vampires, is much better. Asia isn’t always well used in her father’s film. She doesn’t seem lost or confused for once and has decent chemistry with Marta Gastini’s Mina. Yes, there’s an unnecessary nude scene but it’s actually a decent character moment. Gastini has a handful of natural moments but comes off as awkward and stiff for most of the film. The same is said of Unax Ugalde and Miriam Giovanelli. Meanwhile, Giovanni Franzoni plays it way over the top as the film’s odd version of Renfield. The English dub is incredibly bad which makes it hard to read some of the performances.

The best thing “Dracula 3D” has going for it? It’s short. At just a little over a half-an-hour, it never drags, quickly bouncing from scene to scene. The movie’s a mess but far too goofy and quick-paced to be boring. It somehow prevents being a total fiasco. When it comes to modern Argento, I’ll take it. [Grade: C]

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