Dario Argento used to be a brilliant director. Between 1970 and 1987 he had, in my opinion, a pretty-much unbroken run of wonderful, quirky, scary and beautiful horror films. These included Deep Red, Suspiria (my favourite film in all the world), Phenomena, Tenebrae and Opera. He has continued making films since then, but the quality has been in fairly steady decline. Once or twice his magic has resurfaced, notably in the first half of 2001’s Sleepless and his television work (two episodes of Masters of Horror and fun TV movie Do You Like Hitchcock?), but most people have given up on him ever making something to match his earlier output. Indeed, his last feature film, Giallo, was a terrible mess that seemed to have signalled his final, irredeemable fall. Now Argento is back, with a 3D adaptation of Dracula. Is this the return to form that I and many others have been hoping against hope for? No, unfortunately not. It does, however, show a marked improvement over Giallo.
Two things have particularly scuppered Argento’s recent films – bad writing and bad special effects. Here he has some pretty decent source material, so you might think this first issue wouldn’t be a problem. Well, not exactly. Sadly, instead of going for a straight adaptation, or even a riff on another cinematic take on the novel, Argento and his co-scenarists seem to have gone for broke and tried to create something new from the pieces of many different versions of the story. It gets very messy.
There are one or two interesting ideas in the mix, notably the inclusion of a jealous mistress for Dracula and the addition of a subplot which sees Dracula as a naughty lord of the manor, enjoying bloody droit du seigneur much to the chagrin of the townsfolk. Sadly, both of these potentially rich avenues are (quite literally) cut off before being fully explored. By the time the film reaches its conclusion it has settled on being another version of the resurrected lover storyline (does James V Hart get credit for this or not?), but there is no effort put in to making us feel anything for either party.
Dracula adaptations live and die on the strength of their leading man, and Thomas Kretschmann actually does a fairly good job here. Unfortunately, his performance is diminished by the muddled story. While he is highly effective as a pale, distantly-glimpsed wraith, as well as as a sarcastic and bloodthirsty fiend, he just doesn’t convince as the ‘false note in a divine symphony’ which Dracula at one point claims to be. This is mostly because the film only foists this role onto him in the final act. He valiantly tries to make it work, but time and cheesy special effects are against him.
Yes. Those ‘special effects’. I don’t know what possessed Argento to turn Dracula into a giant CGI praying mantis, but it was surely a fouler fiend than any to be found in this film. It isn’t even the (admittedly ludicrous) concept, or even the naff graphics. It’s the colour. There really isn’t anything scary about a glowing green mantis. Perhaps if it had been left in the shadows, its bent form in semi-darkness (as in a memorable early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it might have come off, but as it is it is stupidly incongruous. The opening shot is also a foolish mistake. Argento was once the king of the roving camera, creeping over houses and trees and swooping around opera houses, but here the film starts with flight around a rubbish CGI town that reminded me of a Windows 95 screensaver.
Big name guest star Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing is all business, with none of the theatricals of Sir Anthony Hopkins or the quirk of Edward Van Sloane. While he might well have been doing it for the paycheque, Hauer phones it in like nobody else, and brings appropriate gravitas to the role. Once again, though, the story is against him. We don’t understand anything of his history with Dracula, bar one flashback which poses more questions than it answers, so their final confrontation doesn’t carry the weight that it should. Dracula addressing him by his first name, rather than suggesting intimacy, simply sounds out of character for someone otherwise so impeccably polite.
Character interaction is certainly one of the biggest flaws here. Something Argento has always done well is pairings – from Karl Malden and James Franciscus in Cat O’Nine Tails to Max Von Sydow and his parrot in Sleepless, via David Hemmings and Dario Nicolodi in Deep Red. Here there are a good number of pairings promised – Dracula and Jonathan, Lucy and Mina, Dracula's mistress Tanja and Renfield, Van Helsing and the priest – but none of them come to anything.
Overlook its many faults, however, and Dracula offers some enjoyable morsels. While the acting is patchy, this is nothing new for Argento, and nobody is as bad as Adrien Brody in Giallo. One or two of the lines are nicely powerful, though perhaps unwittingly so. Tanja’s quiet ‘I’m not quite sure what I am’ suggests that she could have been one of the more interesting characters in the film if more care had been taken with the script. There are moments which show Argento’s eye for composition; a quick flash of red reminding us that he used to be the greatest director of colour. A brutal massacre livens things up and allows for some nicely old school gore, cheap but effective, while a dream sequence is actually quite unsettling.
It isn’t going to gain Argento any new followers, but Dracula has rekindled the hope in my heart that with the right script Argento might still bring us a film worthy to stand near, if not quite beside, his early masterpieces.