Argento’s Dracula sucks the life from two legends

There was a time when director Dario Argento was considered one of the indisputable masters of horror. His first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, kicked off the Giallo craze in 1970s Italian cinema, blending operatic violence and red-blooded eroticism in ways meant to simultaneously terrify and titillate viewers. He even supplied the subgenre with its ultimate danse macabre: 1977’s Technicolor nightmare Suspiria, whose influence can still be felt in everything from Black Swan to The Devil’s Rejects.

Dracula 3D will be playing exclusively in the Downtown Independent Theater | Photo courtesy of Film Export Group.

Dracula 3D will be playing exclusively in the Downtown Independent Theater | Photo courtesy of Film Export Group.

At some point during the mid-1990s, however, the morbid maestro’s seemingly limitless creativity began to shrivel up faster than a vampire at a day spa, leading to a string of critical and commercial disappointments such as the abysmal TV movie Do You Like Hitchcock? and 2009’s notorious self-parody Giallo. I sincerely hope that Argento’s latest effort, Dracula 3-D, represents rock bottom for the once-great filmmaker, because it’s difficult to imagine anything worse than this schlock-and-awe butchering of Bram Stoker’s oft-adapted classic.

The film opens in the small village of Borgo Pass, where the mysterious Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann from Peter Jackson’s King Kong) has summoned a young book collector named Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) to catalogue his vast ancestral library. Harker takes the job based on the advice of his sister-in-law Lucy (the director’s daughter Asia Argento), but immediately regrets his decision after witnessing the grisly appetites of the Romanian nobleman and his busty, lusty undead brides. Harker’s subsequent disappearance prompts his wife Mina (Marta Gastini) to contact Abraham Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer), the renowned physician-turned-monster hunter, who travels to Transylvania to discover the truth.

Hauer, the steely-eyed Dutch actor best known for playing the homicidal replicant Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner, has a talent for elevating even the most ludicrous genre fare. His recent performance as a homeless vigilante in Jason Eisener’s gorehound smorgasbord Hobo with a Shotgun was an inspired work of demented genius. Yet even he stumbles when confronted with Argento’s anemic narrative, reducing the original vampire slayer to a confused, rambling codger who rants about “Eeevil!” like Ernest Borgnine in an old Spongebob episode.

Almost everything about Dracula 3-D feels cheap – even borderline contemptuous – compared to the baroque craftsmanship of Argento’s early work. The digital effects are particularly amateurish, especially during a scene where Dracula, who’s been known to take the form of a bat or wolf in previous incarnations, inexplicably shape-shifts into a giant preying mantis and uses his claws to disembowel a major character.

Aside from a racy opening sequence that flirts with soft-core pornography, the much-emphasized 3-D fails to add much to the proceedings beyond the occasional sensation that you’re watching the movie drunk (although maybe that’s for the best).

I suppose it’s possible Argento originally conceived Dracula 3-D as a willfully campy salute to the Hammer Horror films of the 1960s and 70s, where bloodsucking and bodice-ripping were often interchangeable pastimes for Christopher Lee’s Dracula, a charming apex predator with a taste for virginal flesh.

But if Dracula 3-D was truly meant as a joke, none of the cast members seem to be in on it, least of all Kretschmann, who unwisely attempts to imitate Gary Oldman’s tragically existential take on the character from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version. It’s interesting to note that Kretschmann will appear as Van Helsing later this month on NBC’s Dracula series opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers, making him one of the few actors in history to portray both the Count and his heroic arch-nemesis.

With its wonky CGI, chopsocky-style dubbing and general feeling of rudderless ineptitude, it’s tempting to compare Dracula 3-D to Tommy Wiseau’s trash classic The Room, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The association seems overly generous, though, mostly because Wiseau’s movie contains moments of gut-busting hilarity and accidental brilliance. Dracula 3-D, meanwhile, can’t even put forth the effort to become a watchable travesty.

FINAL RATING: 1 out of 4 stars

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