Even though the quality of his work has been on a steady decline for the past decade or so, I have remained a Dario Argento fan and something of an apologist. Even when his (recent) films are being torn apart by the critics (and fans alike), I have always been able to find some good in them. However after the disastrous one-two punch of “Giallo” and now “Dracula 3D”, it has become very apparent that Argento has lost it. As bad as “Giallo” was, I was willing to give the director the benefit of the doubt because he subsequently disowned the film after the producers went ahead and edited his film without his involvement or approval. However the complete failure of “Dracula 3D” falls at Dario Argento’s feet and his alone; it is his vision of this classic story and it is mind-boggling bad.
Right from the opening frame of the film, I knew that I was going to hate “Dracula 3D” if for nothing else for its look. An inherent problem with making a 3D film these days is that it necessitates it to be shot digitally. This immediately got me worried because if not handled correctly the film would have that crappy video look to it, but when I heard that Argento had hired Luciano Tovoli, his cinematographer from his classics “Suspiria” and “Tenebrae”, I not only breathed a sigh of relief, but I was actually quite excited. Initial stills for the project looked quite good also, but the actual finished product is an altogether different thing. The film looks beyond amateurish and has the visual beauty of a bad daytime television soap opera. The lighting is both harsh and flat and never disguises the low budget that Argento was obviously saddled with for “Dracula 3D”. There is not a hint of the genius you would expect from Argento and Tavoli when they work together and there is no way that you would recognize the look of “Dracula 3D” as being from the creators of one of the most colourful and visually beautiful horror films of all time, “Suspiria”.
One pivotal thing you need to make a successful film about Dracula is atmosphere, particularly at the beginning of the film, and this just has none at all. The journey to Dracula’s castle is meant to be creepy and ominous, with the town folk trying to stop Harker from meeting the vampire, however here the journey he takes is a pleasant ride through a forest in daytime. There is nothing to be afraid of here and Dracula’s first appearance in the film is just groan-inducing. He is a major character and meant to be full of charisma, much should be made about his introduction, but he literally just appears from out of nowhere. It is disgraceful. It doesn’t help that Thomas Kretschmann, who plays the infamous Count, gives a seriously underwhelming and boring performance. Like everything else in “Dracula 3D”, he is terrible which is actually a bit of a surprise because he isn’t some no-name actor. This is a man who has showed he has some talent in a lot of other films, including his other film he did with Argento, “The Stendhal Syndrome” (arguably Argento’s last great film). In that film he attacked his role with ferocity and was really terrifying, but there is none of that here; it seems very obvious that Kretschmann only took the role of Dracula for the paycheck. He even reprises the infamous “Children of the night. What music they make.” line (made immortal by Bela Legosi in the 1931 “Dracula”) but his delivery is so uninspired that the moment just falls flat and is embarrassing.
In fact it seems pretty obvious that Argento just does not have the ability to illicit a good (or even passable) performance out of any actor these days because the entire cast of “Dracula 3D” are woeful. While I understand that the majority of the cast are not speaking their native language (the Italian film was shot in English), this is no excuse for Argento because if the cast were unable to be believable in speaking the language, they should not have been cast. The worst offender is actually Dario Argento’s daughter, Asia. There was once a time when I felt that Asia was more than just a pretty face and was actually a pretty good actress. She was cast in a lot of films from all around the world (including Hollywood) but is most famous for the ones she has made with her dad. This is their fifth collaboration together and easily their worst which not surprisingly houses Asia’s worst performance yet in one of Dario’s productions. She is just never believable and I cringed whenever she was on screen. Also enough is enough with having Asia naked in her father’s movies. I used to not have a problem with it (even though it is a strange situation) and believed that it was necessary for the stories being told, but the last two in “Mother Of Tears” and “Dracula 3D” have been nothing but gratuitous and did not service the film at all. It is hard not to have an icky feeling watching these scenes due to how gratuitous they are and knowing it is her father behind the camera. It does not help the film either because it takes you right out of it.
The biggest contributor to the decline in Dario Argento’s recent work is the advent and use of CGI in them. He is one director that just does not seem to know how to use the technology to the best of its abilities nor does he seem to have an eye for when a computer effect is just bad. “Dracula 3D” is full of these shocking effects with the majority of them looking as if they were from a computer game from twenty years ago. There is a perfect example early in the film when Harker enters his room at Dracula’s and notices a pathetic looking computer generated spider. I almost died when I saw this, it is so amateurish and I couldn’t work out why he wouldn’t have shot the scene live, in-camera with some sort of practical effect. The spider doesn’t look close to being real or that it exists in the environment it is placed. Another terrible example is Dracula’s transformation from wolf to human which just looks plain unfinished. A lot has been made already about the infamous scene in this film when Dracula transforms himself into a giant praying mantis to kill a man. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, but this is the kind of scene that in his heyday Argento would’ve pulled off and made cool (has anyone watched the insanity that is “Phenomena”?). Here though with the terrible CGI is just appears dodgy and pointless. Argento’s use of CGI appears to represent his laziness in the latter part of his career. Instead of taking the time and getting everything looking perfect on stage and in camera, it looks as though he is content with just shooting everything quickly and then “fixing” it all in post.
Shockingly, Dario Argento has forgotten how to shoot an effective death / murder scene. This used to be what he was known for; the brilliant set pieces that ended in murder: the building of the suspense, the camera moves, the terror, the weapon, and finishing with the brutal violence. He was a master at it and no one did it better, but it appears that this talent is long gone now. Gone are the days when Argento himself would “play” the hand holding the weapon delivering the killer blow to its victim. Instead these days we get the most generic of killings that any director with little imagination would come up with. However this is not the problem per se, it is the complete lack of build up before the killing that is the problem. The death scenes no longer have any impact because they just happen now. The whole set-piece is gone and we just get the death, which as a result is the reason why so many of Argento’s recent films have lost their author’s identity; they could be directed by anyone. Again, I believe that the use of CGI has a lot to do with the decline of his death scenes. There are two scenes in “Dracula 3D” that hearken back to scenes in previous, better Argento movies which are perfect examples of what I am talking about. One is the scene when Dracula transforms into a swarm of flies and bursts through a window. While it is an ok idea, the presentation of the idea is anything but because it is all down via CGI and again never once looks real. There is a similar scene in “Phenomena” but it is all shot via practical means, the use of real flies and just being clever. The scene in “Dracula 3D” is depressing because it is a reminder of what he used to deliver and it is sad how far he has come. The other scene is when a character is forced by hypnosis to shot himself and when he fires, we see the bullet travel from under his jaw through the top of his head in slow motion. Again, it is all done with CGI but this is the closest we get to seeing the old Argento, even though it reminds of a similar and much better sequence in “The Stendhal Syndrome”.
Everything I have mentioned about “Dracula 3D” has been terrible but amazingly I have saved the worst for last which is Claudio Simonetti’s ridiculous score. It is mind numbingly bad and worst of all it is almost played consistently throughout the film. Like everything to do with this film, it just doesn’t sound as if it was done by a professional, it actually sounds like a work in progress; it was like nails on a chalk board for me. The music just didn’t complement the visuals onscreen at any time nor did it provide any sort of atmosphere, which is kind of the point of the musical score and if it doesn’t do its job, why have it at all. There was a time when I was excited to see Simonetti’s name in the credits of the new Argento film because he just seemed to get what Argento needed in his films. This is no longer the case, and if Argento ever makes another film, I dream he gets Ennio Morricone to score it for him (Morricone scored Argento’s first three films).
Overall, there was nothing to like at all in Dario Argento’s latest film “Dracula 3D”. In fact the experience of watching the film was heartbreaking for me; this man was one of my heroes and to see how far he has fallen is just heart wrenching. While I will always watch any new film Dario Argento makes, I will no longer anticipate them. My dream is that he makes one final giallo, that is set in the 70’s, shot on thick film stock of the era and without the use of CGI. That he takes his time and that he is set a nice budget to achieve it. However I have had this dream for over twenty years now, so it is looking unlikely to happen,. As it is, if you are not a fan of Argento, you may get more out of this film than those who are. If you are a fan, please avoid “Dracula 3D” like the plague and pretend the film never existed. It is too painful to see how far someone we consider a master has fallen. Avoid.
As you may have noticed the film was shot in 3D, however I only watched the 2D version thus why there is no discussion of the merits and effectiveness of the technology in regards to “Dracula 3D”.