Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fangs for Nothing: DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA (2012)

Like hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of other people around the globe, the discovery of Dario Argento was a life-changing moment in my misspent youth. My tender young brain reeled at the over-indulgence of richly painted visuals and often stream-of-consciousness narratives that obsessed over hidden clues, smashing glass, ax murders, kitchen knives, straight razors, vicious dogs, childhood trauma, whispered phone calls, impalements, black gloves, decapitations, maggots and flies (in ones or hoards). In addition, Argento's camera moved as if it was gliding on Chinese silk, prowling around buildings and through scenes in continuous shots that required meticulous staging and often specially built camera rigging. A few of his films were shot with very specific types of rare filmstock with elaborate lighting set-ups to take advantage of it. What more could you possibly ask for from a horror filmmaker?

Somewhere in his early career, around 1973, Argento put together a very impressive sounding adaptation of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" that never got off the ground. This was right when Argento's career was hitting its stride and the possibilities of Argento adapting classic horror literature in that era are simply mind-blowing. So when Argento's adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was announced, why wasn't it greeted with more fanfare? Perhaps it is because it was announced in 2010 after, if I'm generous, nearly a decade of bitter disappointment. Over two and a half decades of bitter disappointment, if I'm not.

I suppose now would be a good time to let you know that I cannot write about this movie without throwing out spoilers left and right. If you really want to see the movie spoiler free, I wish you the best of luck and will give you time to leave the room. Are they gone now? Good, because every step on this staircase is a doozie.

Argento may have claimed a lot of things before going into production, but a faithful adaptation wasn't one of them, and I wouldn't expect him to do a straight up adaptation. Unfortunately it's the way in which he veers off the rails is not exactly what you'd hope for. Set solely in a rural, I guess, Romanian village (with German signs and names), a girl Tania (FHM cover-girl Miriam Giovanelli) goes out in the dead of Walpurgis Night to meet up with Milos (Christian Burruano) in what is possibly the most brightly lit stable in the pre-industrial world. After a quick roll in the hay, they split-up to go home. When Milos refuses to walk her home, she throws her crucifix pendant at him in a fit of pique. If I had a nickel for every time that's happened to me... Of course this does not bode well, as it is Walpurgus Night and you know what that means. The owls are out! Yes, I giant owl flies down out of the sky and CG morphs like it's a 1992 Stephen King adaptation into... Hugh Hefner! Oh wait, there are fangs, so that must be Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann).

Enter the second babe in the woods, Johnathan Harker (Unax Ugalde in a spectacularly inept performance). Harker has been commissioned to be the librarian at some hick lord's castle in a village where his wife Mina (Marta Gastini) grew up with the local piano teacher Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento vying for Ugalde's mantle as the worst actor since H.G. Lewis discovered the camera). In an effort to faithfully adapt Bram Stoker's novel, Mina is to arrive on a later train.

No Dracula film would be complete without the classic sequence in which Harker finds himself the sole diner at the castle. After inquiring whether or not Dracula would dine with him, Drac slowly turns and gravely drawls "I do not eat... in the evening." Listen? Can you hear that? That is the sound of Bela Lugosi doing 9000 rpms in his grave.

Possibly due to budget constraints, Dracula is reduced to a solitary bride, Tania (Dracula refers to her as his "niece"), who attempts to seduce Harker. Unfortunately she's not very light on her feet and knocks over a picture of Mina. Harker suffers a cut on his hand in the process and Tania starts sucking his blood out in an attempt to prevent an "infection". Yes, a simple peasant girl is apparently well read on cutting edge medical theories of the day. Of course this leads to a subsequent scene that retreads the same ground, except Drac busts in, kicking Tania out and decides to take sloppy Harper seconds, chomping down on Harker's neck while Harper moans with delight seems to appear as if he is experiencing *ahem* primal pleasures. In addition to the acting, the general appearance of the film is easily outshone by even the weakest of modern porn parodies (well, except for Hustler's THIS AIN'T series). With some minor editing and a handful of hard-core insert shots, we could have something that almost rivals Mario Salieri's epic 1994 porn knock-off of Coppola's DRACULA (1992). Although it's never been dubbed or subtitled and I only know about five words of Italian, I know the acting was better in Salieri's DRACULA than Argento's cringer. How do I know? Well, Ron Jeremy plays a throat-slashing coach driver in it and he is a friggin' master thespian compared to Unax Ugalde.

I keep seeing random people on-line struggling to try to find something positive to say about it by saying that Argento endeavors to make it a faithful adaptation. This begs the question, "what f'n book did you read?" Granted it has been some 25 years since I've read the Stoker novel, but I do remember a guy named Johnathan Harker being the central character... and a surviving one at that. Also I seem to be unable to recollect the ax murder scene, or the scene in which Mina washes Lucy's buck-nekkid body discovering the bite marks on the back of her knee (Lucy's rules: "no hickeys"), or the scene in which Lucy's father, Mr. Kisslinger is killed by Dracula who has invaded their house in the subtle guise of a giant mantis. Let me repeat that for the reading impaired: a giant praying mantis kills Lucy's dad. Is this an adaptation of Bram Stoker or a "Rolling Stone" correspondent with a head full of ether?

As it turns out Drac and the villagers had a deal. They give him selected morsels, plucked from their kindergarten, and he, errr, leaves them alone. Well, except for the stragglers who have sex with random guys in overlit woodland areas, I guess.

The villagers decide Drac has gone too far and they need to call in some dude named Van Helsing (Ruger Hauer), who used to be a doctor at an insane asylum that was infiltrated by the Count. Unfortunately for them, Drac had infiltrated their meeting in the subtle guise of a group of house flies! This guy is like Martin Landau in "Mission: Impossible"! Well, except for the drinking blood, slashing throats and using his mental powers to force the local constabulary to shoot himself through the mouth (complete with sad CG effects that echo THE STENDHAL SYNDROME). This self-plagerizing scene is actually one of the few bits to showcase some of the proudly advertised stereoscopic 3D. While many shots have some decent depth, very few of them are actually interesting. A scene early on where the camera placed at the bottom of a grave shoots a conversation two characters who are peering down in to the grave is a fantastic 3D shot, but is arguably the only interesting shot in the movie.

Much like Argento, Ruger Hauer was at one point an icon of genre movie cool whose career hit an apex and found the downward slope to be a bit sharper than anticipated after a certain point which makes his casting a little bit unexciting. On the other hand, his late entrance at the 72 minute mark adds an instant aura of professionalism that is much like having Kenneth Branagh suddenly show up at the end of ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007). It is a bit late in the game to be trying to class up the joint, but it's the thought that counts. All the more's the pity that Hauer isn't really given much to do other then get some breathy close-ups where he tries to lend some gravitas to an incredibly silly movie. Even worse, the character of Dr. Van Helsing (a merging of Dr. Seward and Van Helsing) is completely ineffectual, on several occasions turning up mere moments too late to prevent the death of a character. As for Dracula, Kretschmann is completely miscast and can't seem to breath an drop of life into the well-worn character. While he is intended (or just happened to be) the most dynamic character in the film, Kretschmann opts for more of a fashion-plate approach. There are moments where it feels like he's not so much acting as modelling his Fall Transylvanian designer wardrobe.

As much as DRACULA is a completely absurd bastardization of the source material (highlighted by Claudio Simonetti's wildly inappropriate and campy '50s haunted house musical cues), it's not totally unwatchable. I have to admit that I wasn't able to make it past the first 25 minutes of THE CARD PLAYER (2004), but this wasn't too hard to digest, if only because you know there's going to be something even more ludicrous right around the corner. There are some bits and pieces that are actually good ideas trapped in a very sloppy film. When Harker first arrives at the village, he is pestered by a house (castle?) fly. At the time it seems more than a little odd, but later in the film you discover Dracula transforms into a swarm of flies. It's one of Argento's pet obsessions and it is interesting, even if, as I said, poorly executed. Also Argento's version of Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni), is the village taxidermist, who does not eat bugs and was liberated from the village jail cell instead of a sanitarium. Has a wonderfully deranged appearance, complete with facial scars created from mere hours of wearing a restraining face mask. Unfortunately, in spite of what Argento said in pre-production interviews, there is no impressive camerawork aside from maybe a handful of oblique angles and the '90s era CG is used with an obvious and heavy hand. Matter of fact, you could easily remove Argento's name from the film and no one would ever know this was anything more than just another low-rent DTV vampire flick.

So basically, if you can separate yourself from the Argento of old, enjoy movies with sub-porno production values, acting that rivals cable access television and thorough butchery of classic literature, then DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA is not a complete waste of time... but close.

3 Reactions:

  1. My thoughts exactly - im my review, I even mentioned the loony "haunted house" score, the similarity to porn parodies and Asia Argento's bizarre facial expressions as a vampire bride. It's a shame when Argento is reduced to something that would be a lesser product even for Asylum. And could there possibly be a more miscast Dracula?

  2. That's hilarious. I actually had a reference to The Asylum with a screengrab that I ended up removing because the review was too cluttered.

    I'll have to check out your write-up.

  3. Forewarned is forearmed. I'll be seeing it in a week at BIFFF, followed by an interview with his Dario-ness. Not quite sure what we're going to talk about if it sucks as hard as it sounds like it's going to, but it should be interesting.


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