More than his fellow giallo maestros (Bava, Fulci, Martino, and others), Dario Argento has had to live and work in the burdensome shadow of his earlier successes. After nearly two decades of exceptional films boasting glorious cinematic artistry and blood-soaked thrills, Argento established quite the reputation. In recent years, though, since 1993’s Trauma, these prior landmarks of genre perfection have become a distressing caveat added to nearly every negative criticism of his newest release: “Ah, Argento, how far he’s fallen. Remember when….” His latest offering, Dracula 3D, now available on an American-issued 3D Blu-ray (an Italian disc, still playable in the US, has been out for while), is no exception. Does it rank with Suspiria, Tenebre, Deep Red, or Opera? No. But is it as bad as some detractors would suggest? Certainly not. If one is going to place the film within Argento’s canon, this picture stands somewhere within the lower third: not great, though still with enough to distinguish it on its own merits. Dracula 3D, despite its shortcomings, is a rather sardonic, pleasantly schlocky, and at times visually dazzling take on the familiar Dracula tale. Argento’s previous masterpieces don’t hinder the film; in some ways, they provide key points of reference. If it’s not horror sacrilege to say so, Dracula 3D has some of Argento’s best use of color since Suspiria, and it includes brutal sequences among his most outlandish. And that’s just the start of more pluses than minuses.
Before getting to the plot (admittedly one of the lesser elements of distinction here), a note on the 3D: Obviously, since it’s in the title, Argento working in this format is a primary selling point. For the most part, it doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps less than one would think, given his penchant for overt visual bombast, there are relatively few moments of in-your-face, things-coming-at-the-screen 3D exploitation (though there is certainly some of that). There are times when the 3D provides a more subtle sense of depth, playing off the vibrant color palette of the picture. Where the 3D fails most is in the scenes featuring heavy CGI. There’s no doubt about it, most of the CGI here is atrocious. Presumably (hopefully) a matter of budgetary constraints and not because Argento honestly thought they looked good, certain effects shots range from laughably cheesy to head-scratchingly bad. Viewing the film in 2D, where there isn’t the addition of 3D to augment the imagery, the cartoonish effects are even more pronounced and unattractive. It’s also worth pointing out that, as with all 3D home viewing, and even with as sharp as this disc is otherwise, the result isn’t going to be nearly as impeccable as in a theatrical setting.
Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) arrives in the Transylvanian town of Passo Borgo. He’s there to organize Count Dracula’s extensive library and, while there, he visits Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), a friend of he and his wife, Mina (Marta Gastini), who arrives later. Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) discovers that Mina resembles his 400-years dead lost love and so captures Jonathan, setting his sights on this apparent reincarnation. In the meantime, others fall victim to Dracula and his “brides,” and those who had been tolerating in willful ignorance Dracula’s horrific deeds (he’s something of a town benefactor) begin considering rebellion. Eventually, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) arrives to clean up the mess. Throughout all this, Mina functions as a stand-in for the viewer as she questions the behavior and deaths of the residents and seeks to uncover the mystery of her missing husband. An ominous tone is set immediately, the result of Argento’s natural talents as a horror filmmaker as well as a general familiarity with the Dracula story. It’s soon discovered that Dracula has lackeys amongst the townsfolk and it’s established early that behind the apparent local prosperity lurks a terrifying catalyst.
Thanks in no small part to the dubbing, the acting is largely stiff and unaffecting, and the dialogue is stilted at best. The performers seem to move and behave convincingly enough, but their expressions and verbalizations are less than credible by comparison. All of this remains tolerable in light of the movie’s outstanding visual accomplishments. Argento is clearly in love with capturing images on film, occasionally letting several sequences go on longer than necessary, especially given their predictability, but that’s of minor concern. There’s also the sense, not exactly positive or negative, that Dracula 3D strives to hit all the requisite sub-generic notes. There’s the garlic, there’s Dracula’s lack of reflection, stakes through the heart, animal shape-shifting (at one point as a huge mantis – why not?), and so on, and like all good over-the-top, occasionally tawdry horror films, there’s equal parts blood and breasts. The latter does include Asia (again, Dario’s nude depiction of his daughter still managing to ruffle some feathers), and the former includes a standout sequence where Dracula gloriously dispatches some of the rebellious residents in classically gory Argento fashion.
Of all the features of Dracula 3D, it’s the film’s photographic quality that is most satisfying. When conveying a tangible reality (as opposed to the CGI, effect-driven sequences), Argento crafts some astonishingly beautiful moments. With cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who was also behind the camera on Suspiria and Tenebre as well as Antonioni’s fascinating video work The Mystery of Oberwald), the effervescent imagery is impressive, with bold colors bursting to create an overall look of dreamlike florescence. The sets, while evidently economical by big-budget Hollywood standards, are nonetheless appealing and realistic enough to give the movie some semblance of being a period piece.
The Blu-ray includes the film in both 2D and 3D, and aside from the dreadful “Kiss Me, Dracula” music video by the Simonetti Project, the major extra is an hour-long behind the scenes documentary. While featuring an assortment of cast and crew, most of whom go into insightful detail about their contributions on the picture, noticeably absent is Argento. There’s plenty of great footage of him on set, but we never hear from the man himself.
Dracula 3D defies the critical black and white distinction of “good” or “bad” (or “fresh” or “rotten”). It has its obvious faults, granted, but there’s so much simultaneously positive and enjoyable that one has to give it the benefit of the doubt and accept it for what it is, without necessarily predicating evaluations on other works.
– Jeremy Carr