Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Thomas Kretschmann, Asia Argento, Rutger Hauer, Marta Gastini, Unax Ugalde, Miriam Giovanelli
IFC Midnight (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Sony (Blu-Ray & DVD) (Italy R0 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / Dolby TrueHD 5.1 / 3D & 2D
The last time director Dario Argento tackled a major literary horror classic, the result was his bizarre 1998 comic/gore version of The Phantom of the Opera which had more than a few fans scratching their heads and hurling accusations that the maestro had completely lost it. However, that was nothing compared to the fate awaiting his 3D rendition of Dracula, a much-hyped period piece combining the blood and breasts of Hammer Films at its ruddiest with a surprising visual style derived from classic German and Eastern European paintings and triptychs. An unlikely presence at Cannes and a brief online sensation thanks to its gonzo trailer, the end result is strangely paced, sometimes baffling, and often so batty it reaches the levels of high camp, nowhere near a "good" film in the traditional sense but a freakish experiment unlike anything else on earth. Whether that's a good or bad thing will be a matter of taste (or lack thereof).
Newly married Jonathan Harker (Ugalde) is hired to work as a librarian for the mysterious aristocrat, Count Dracula (Kretschmann), at his castle in a small village where select people are being hunted down at night and drained of blood as part of an unspoken pact among the residents. One of the most recent victims, Tania (Giovanelli), has fallen prey to Dracula (in the form of an owl!) at night in the forest after a softcore romp with a married guy in a barn, and now she's his latest handmaiden of pure evil. Of course Harker realizes what's up just in time to get the count's fangs in his neck, leaving Harker's wife, Mina (Gastini), and her best friend, Lucy (Asia Argento), to fret about his whereabouts. Soon Dracula sets his sights on Lucy and starts draining blood out of the back of her leg, and vampire fighter Abraham Van Helsing (Hauer) is brought in to stop the bloodsucking menace.
Let's just get the bad out of the way first, shall we? Most obviously, the computer-generated effects in this film (which consist of Dracula turning into a wolf, a bunch of flies, the aforementioned owl, and most infamous of all, a praying mantis) are truly awful. (The mantis sure is fun though if you're in the right frame of mind.) Thankfully the CGI consists of only a few seconds at a time, but its jarring nature (which wouldn't have cut it back in the days of Anaconda) can't help but elicit laughter. That said, the CGI still isn't quite as rotten as that "comic strip" flashback scene in Mother of Tears, arguably the sloppiest moment in the director's canon. Then there's Unax Ugalde, a pretty decent Spanish actor from films like Alatriste and Goya's Ghosts who apparently decided to accept a dare to see if he could deliver a worse Jonathan Harker performance than Keanu Reeves' in Bram Stoker's Dracula back in 1992. He succeeded.
Hauer also doesn't really bring much to the table here; Van Helsing can be a dynamic, showy part for the right actor, but instead Hauer looks like he's trying to remember script pages handed to him two minutes before the cameras started rolling. Then there's the script, which tosses in that musty old "vampire wants heroine because she's the reincarnation of his dead wife" shtick that was worn out over five decades ago, and as usual, the Stoker novel is ignored for the most part with entire major characters (namely Renfield and, um, every single vampire hunter apart from Van Helsing) thrown out entirely. In their place we have a colorless priest and that subplot with converted vampire Tania, which really serves no purpose apart from upping the body count and delivering that opening sex scene (which, for many, might be enough).
On the positive side, the decision to soak this film in Eastern European atmosphere instead of the usual Victorian (or sometimes Edwardian) London trappings is an interesting one, and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (working with Argento for the first time since Suspiria and Tenebrae) uses both the scope framing and multiple planes of 3D to deliver some unique, painterly images at times, including some pretty ravishing shots of Gastini in the final act. Despite the criticisms of this film's 3D, it's at least better than the incompetent sludge seen in the middling Fright Night remake.
Despite those cruddy CGI moments, the practical gore effects by another old Argento pro, Sergio Stivaletti, are actually quite fun and very bloody, with torn throats and severed heads galore. The undeniable highlight is a ridiculous but wildly entertaining sequence with Dracula dispatching an entire tavern full of colluding townspeople. Kretschmann also makes for an intriguing Dracula, and while some weird sound mixing and editing flub what could have been his finest moments, he manages to convey a sense of rotted bourgeois decadence and menace with the expected amount of seductiveness. Of course he's also reteamed here with his leading lady from The Stendhal Syndrome, Asia Argento, who sounds more and more like mother Daria Nicolodi every day. Her world weary demeanor here as the ill-fated Lucy is also unexpected, and while she also has her share of clunky moments (including, yes, another weirdly lingering nude scene directed by her dad), she's still a welcome presence and always fun to watch. It's also worth noting that -- spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with the source material -- this marks the first time she's actually died in one of her father's films, thanks to a feisty (but very unconvincing) blazing send off. Speaking of frequent Argento collaborators, this also marks the director's reunion with composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame) after their forced separation on the disastrous Giallo (which, for this writer's money at least, is still the worst Argento film), and the cheeky theremin-heavy music announces from the outset that this isn't something you should really take all that seriously. (The fact that Simonetti started vamping around online with big plastic vampire teeth promoting the movie is another big clue.) On top of that you get a bombastic theme song over the end credits, too. More on that in a minute.
Despite the big rollout, Dracula has (as of this writing) failed to score a distributed release outside of Italy, Spain, and the Philippines, so the Italian region free Blu-Ray wasthe first chance most people have to see it. The 3D Blu-Ray contains both the 3D and 2D versions with the original English audio as well as a pretty shoddy Italian dub (with optional subtitles in French, oddly enough), while a 2D only version is also available if you want to save a couple of bucks. The 3D generally looks fine, though in a weird development, the opening titles sequence has the credits sunk deep into the landscape instead of popping out as they logically should. (If anyone saw the entire film theatrically they can perhaps verify this is a mistake, as it otherwise seems like a baffling choice.) After that the 3D placement seems to be correct, and unlike the modern preference to compose shots in depth without any showy effects, this one has no problem at all hurling blades, crosses, flies, blood, and bosoms far out of the screen. The packaging advertises DTS-MA audio, but it appears to be Dolby Digital instead, complete with some sparse but fun audio panning effects. The extras begin with a long (48 minutes!) featurette interviewing the technical crew, with plentiful footage of Argento at work (but not talking to the camera) and Stivaletti and his gang working on things like giant praying mantis arms. This is almost entirely in Italian, though, with no subtitles. There's also a much shorter (17 minutes) featurette with the cast, including Kretschmann and Hauer speaking about their roles in English, and an oddly catchy "Kiss Me, Dracula" music video by the Simonetti Project. In a nice gesture, the extras are in 3D, too. The same package was essentially ported over for the American release, which fixes the opening credits and swaps out the U.S. trailer. All in all, if you know what later period Argento is like and keep your expectations in check, this is a hugely flawed but lovably insane take on a classic monster tale.
Reviewed on April 4, 2013.