Back in 2009 there seemed to be a real sense of excitement and anticipation from horror fans who were itching to see Dario Argento’s latest, the portentously entitled Giallo. Then the film screened. It was met with derision, laughter and waves of disappointment and it struggled to find a release in some territories, not helped by a legal case surrounding money owed to its star, Adrien Brody.
Giallo was a huge disappointment for fans of the iconic Italian director who brought the world such classics as Profondo Rosso and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and so when it was announced that Argento would next be tackling Dracula, and in 3D, fans seemed a little cautious about getting too optimistic.
An early sales trailer, with unfinished effects, and then a bona-fide release trailer turned cautious optimism into pessimism and a sense that maybe Argento had not only lost his edge but perhaps his mind. Argento’s 3D Dracula screened this past week in Cannes, out of competition in the midnight screening slot and also at various press and market screenings, to laughter, boos, walk-outs and what appeared to be sarcastic applause.
Dracula is from beginning to end a laughably bad and rather incredibly silly film that seems to be lacking a tongue in cheek approach that would at least have made some of the absurdities on screen a little easier to stomach. Opening with the not at all creepy score from Claudio Simonetti – the theremin filled ‘spooky’ score continues throughout and only gets worse as the film progresses – and titles that are far in front of the screen and displayed in a terribly cheesy Gothic inspired font. Things do not look promising from the outset.
We are then introduced to what could loosely be described as locations – read badly dressed sets – locations which Argento chooses to seemingly light with every available lamp in Europe. Indeed, the whole film is so dazzling bright, both the actual lighting and the cinematic presentation, that one can’t help but wonder if Argento is deliberately trying excessively hard to avoid any of the usual criticisms about light loss in 3D films. The lighting within the film though is unforgivably bad, particularly from a director who has more than proved his ability to beautifully light a scene and construct complex shots involving various light sources and shadows.
Also, in using 3D in Dracula Argento has chosen to keep everything in any particular scene in focus, entirely lit and use a wide range to the stereoscopic image, creating an extreme illusion of depth. At first this is almost rather appealing, particularly as the characters move though a forest, but as the film progresses it is clear that it not just a particular aesthetic choice for one scene but a go-to approach for as many scenes as possible. The effect is one of grinding down the viewer who has to constantly attempt to find focus within a scene where there is none.
There are the occasional gimmicks too, with props ‘coming out of the screen’ but these are thankfully not too prevalent. There are a number of poorly thought and out and badly implemented CGI shots though, including a moment when Dracula inexplicably turns into a praying mantis. The reason for this is not entirely clear but plotting and narrative logic has never admittedly been Argento’s strong point.
In addition to the script rarely making too much sense, the dialogue swings between plainly ex-positional or utterly pointless and the delivery of the lines by the main cast is often painful to watch. The sheer number of awkward line readings may help to make this something of a cult favourite for the ‘so bad it’s good’ crowd but the reality is that the dialogue is just bad.
Possibly the one saving grace of Dracula 3D is Thomas Kretschmann, who despite the awful dialogue forced upon him is able to embody Dracula with a little menace and a rather devilish sense of fun too. The rest of the cast are either perfunctory or excruciatingly stilted, with the female cast suffering the worst. In addition to having some of the worst dialogue, Asia Argento, as Lucy, and Miriam Giovanelli, as Tania, appear to have been drafted in largely due to their willingness to de-robe on camera (possibly a little bit of nepotism with regards to Asia Argento too).
Exploitation cinema is filled with female actresses in some state of undress but the way in which Argento shoots it here, particularly in an early barn set love-making scene, is so tacky and cheap and designed to appeal to a lowest common denominator that it’s hard to excuse. The whole affair has the reek of a direct to video sleazy Euro picture, the kind of bloody period bodice ripper that did well in rentals back in the days of VHS. Add to this Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing in the film’s final third, one of many of Hauer’s sleepwalked crazy-eyed roles, and everything points to a film made with a particular market in mind. Whether this was Argento’s intention is actually a little unclear but in Dracula he has made a film that will undoubtedly find an audience, but the audience will almost certainly be one that enjoys to laugh at it rather than take it at all seriously.