(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|
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?