Saturday, October 5, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: DRACULA (2013)

(Italy/Spain/France - 2012; 2013 US release)

Directed by Dario Argento.  Written by Dario Argento, Antonio Tentori, Stefano Piani, Enrique Cerezo.  Cast: Thomas Kretschmann, Rutger Hauer, Asia Argento, Marta Gastini, Unax Ugalde, Miriam Giovanelli, Mariacristina Heller, Augusto Zucchi, Franco Guido Ravera, Giuseppe Loconsole, Giovanni Franzoni, Christian Burruano. (Unrated, 110 mins)

By now, there's no longer a question of whether a new Dario Argento film will be the comeback that his devoted fans have been anticipating for years.  No, we now know not to expect it.  The Dario Argento of today is not the Dario Argento who gave us an incredible run of classic Italian horror films from 1970 to 1987.  Films like DEEP RED (1975), SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980), and TENEBRE (1982) have transcended their cult status and are commonly embraced even by mainstream critics as important and influential films.  After 1987's OPERA, it's been a near-continuous downward spiral for the legendary horror icon, with only 1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME standing as his last all-around good movie, and that's only if you watch the Italian-language version with English subtitles and even then, it suffers from Argento's then-21-year-old daughter Asia being completely miscast as a driven detective pursuing a serial killer (she could pull the role off now in her late 30s).  Based on my love for his past classics, I've graded these Argento "lost years" on a generous curve, even finding things to appreciate in much-maligned films like THE CARD PLAYER (2004), DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? (2005), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007).  But it's getting harder and harder for even a superfan/apologist like myself to keep making excuses, and after 2009's disastrous GIALLO, I gave up--not on watching new Argento films, but on the notion of expecting anything from them. The biggest problem with Argento's output over the last two decades is that, with each new film, they feel less and less like the work of their maker.  MOTHER OF TEARS, his belated conclusion to the "Three Mothers" trilogy that started with SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, felt like a generic horror film that could've been made by anybody.  It certainly didn't feel like an Argento film.  The tracking shots, the inventive murders, and the grandiose set pieces of the past were nowhere to be found.  And even something like THE CARD PLAYER felt like a gorier-than-usual TV police procedural that may as well have been called CSI: ROME.  The last Argento film to feel like an Argento film was probably 2001's SLEEPLESS, which wasn't really anything special but was at least unmistakably Argento in its execution.

Irene Miracle in INFERNO
By now, in 2013, it's dispiritingly clear that Argento is never going to have another SUSPIRIA.  He's never going to make another INFERNO.  He may never even have another SLEEPLESS.  His best days are behind him and they're not coming back.  He's not the same filmmaker.  Filmmakers both old and new continue to mimic the style of Argento's essential work (Brian De Palma's recent PASSION had a shot that was blatantly lifted from TENEBRE, and it's not the first time he's done it).  Argento's films used to have a look, mood, and feel all their own.  Now, his movies feel like everyone else's.  He's still active, he still wants to work, but the fire's gone.  The only way to approach anything new by him is to go in with the lowest possible expectations and let the chips fall where they may.  If it were most other filmmakers, the solution would be simple:  if his movies suck, then stop watching them.  But Argento is different.  There was a time when he was unstoppable.  There was a time when he was the arguably the greatest living horror filmmaker.  Anyone who appreciates his accomplishments and his significance to the horror genre can't just turn their back on him.  Even if his bad films outnumber his good ones (and I think they do at this point), he's still Dario Argento.  So, every few years, he makes a new movie and people wonder "Will this be the comeback?"  But we know the answer and we brace ourselves and try to find something good in the latest work of a legend who's simply lost his mojo and shows no signs of getting it back.  Good directors make bad movies all the time.  It just hurts to see Argento floundering like this for the better part of 25 years.  It would be a lot easier on the fans and even Argento himself if he just retired and enjoyed his emeritus status on the convention circuit and on horror documentaries, where everyone will just remember the good times and it'll be like nothing after 1987 ever happened.

But filmmaking is in his blood, so the now-73-year-old Argento soldiers on.  His latest, DRACULA, was shot in stereoscopic 3-D and is getting a limited release in the US by IFC Films, a year after its release in Europe.  Argento's last crack at classic horror was 1998's apocalyptically awful PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, almost unanimously reviled as his career nadir (it's no accident that SLEEPLESS was hailed as a "back to basics" thriller, almost as if he was apologizing for PHANTOM).  Approaching DRACULA with the lowest expectations, the answer is yes, it's better than PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but so are things like identity theft, herpes, tetanus, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.  But, as is the case with Argento's recent output, it doesn't feel anything like Dario Argento.  With its sometimes gratuitous nudity and abundance of Asylum-level CGI, it seems like "Dario Argento's DRACULA" could just as easily be called "Jim Wynorski's DRACULA" and no one would know the difference.  Watching Argento's DRACULA as if it's premiering on SyFy in prime time on a Saturday night, it's acceptable enough and sometimes entertaining in a cheesy way.  But there's nothing here that says "Dario Argento," unless you count his continued insistence on putting Asia in nude scenes, which used to feel weird (especially a topless shot in 1993's TRAUMA when she was still a teenager), but now it's just expected (yes, she has two nude scenes here).  Where is Dario Argento?  Does he even enjoy making movies anymore?  Where are the elaborate set pieces and the creative kills?  Where are the intricately choreographed tracking shots?  The garish colors?  The killer soundtracks?  They're not here, and they haven't been for several years.  Even having old collaborators like cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (remember that Louma crane shot in TENEBRE?), effects master Sergio Stivaletti, and a score by Goblin's Claudio Simonetti (that doesn't sound like Goblin or Simonetti, by the way) on board does nothing to convey that singularly unique Argento feeling.  Are they all out to lunch?  Are they all just punching a clock?  Are any of them cognizant of their past accomplishments?

DRACULA follows the basic template of Bram Stoker's novel, with minor and often major tweaking throughout.  Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) arrives in the village of Passo Borgo to catalog the library of Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann, who previously worked with Dario and Asia on STENDHAL).  Dracula and his busty vampiric minion Tania (Miriam Giovanelli) take turns biting Harker, who then disappears.  Meanwhile, his wife Mina (Marta Gastini) arrives in the village and reconnects with her old friend Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), the daughter of the mayor (Augusto Zucchi).  Lucy is soon vampirized by Dracula and convinces Mina to go to the castle to look for Harker.  Sensing danger, Lucy consults the local priest (Franco Guido Ravera), who summons psychiatrist and vampire expert Dr. Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer), who has battled Dracula before.

Aside from some character name changes, the essential plot is there--Giovanni Franzoni is Renfield; Dracula scales an exterior wall like a lizard; Kretschmann gets to gravely intone "Children of the night...what music they make"--but for every clever departure like Dracula having a deal in place with the village elders for them to look the other way while he goes about his business, there's ten howlers that have you shaking your head in disbelief.  Chief among them is Dracula's ability to shapeshift into an owl (the Drac-owl attacks Tania in the opening scene in a way that looks suspiciously like Argento's tribute to THE COLBERT REPORT), a swarm of flies, and, in the silliest scene of Argento's career (yes, even sillier than a climactic online poker showdown in THE CARD PLAYER), a giant, human-sized mantis. Kretschmann is an OK Dracula, though it's hard to take him seriously when he gets all emo with Mina and actually utters the line "I am nothing but an out-of-tune chord in the divine symphony."  Hauer is possibly cinema's dullest Van Helsing.  Peter Cushing owns this character on film, but even when the vampire hunter was portrayed as an old man by the likes of Edward Van Sloan in the 1931 DRACULA or by Laurence Olivier in the 1979 version, he was a quick-witted, energetic guy.  Hauer turns up 75 minutes in and plays him as half-asleep, and his halting, stumbling delivery sounds like he's being fed the lines and is hearing them for the first time.  There's a couple of scenes where he's talking to Gastini but looking off to the side as if reading cue cards.  All due props for NIGHTHAWKS, BLADE RUNNER, and THE HITCHER, but Hauer's having a really off-day here and turns in a terrible performance.  Between the dubious, bush-league CGI splatter, the shapeshifting silliness, the ludicrous dialogue, the ornate but too-stagy sets, Hauer apparently guzzling ZzzQuil between takes, and the awkward dubbing of the supporting cast (Kretschmann, Hauer, Argento, and Gastini use their own voices; everyone else is dubbed, often badly), the possibility crosses your mind that Argento is trying to be funny and something's just getting lost in the translation.  But no, that's not the case.  This is just how newer Argento movies are.

I guess in the overall big picture, DRACULA is a better film than GIALLO and it's certainly an improvement on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  But that's really all you can say about it.  It's not as bad as its reputation, but it's not very good, either.  With rare exception (Dracula's massacre of the cowardly village elders is a nicely-done scene), anything entertaining or memorable in DRACULA is entertaining or memorable for the wrong reasons.  Imagine if the Dario Argento of 30 years ago did his own unique spin on DRACULA.  Hell, an in-his-prime Hauer could've played the title role, and he would've been terrific.  That's a film we'd still be talking about today.  Argento's got several undisputed classics to his name and those can never be taken away from him.  But it's hard to ignore the fact that 25 years of almost completely subpar output has more than slightly diminished his reputation.  I think I'll watch DEEP RED or INFERNO again.  (VOD version is not in 3-D)

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