I have to admit, I was a little worried that by the time I finished watching and writing about all of Dario Argento’s movies, I would cause his death through some terrible accidental sympathetic magic problem. Luckily it looks like that is not going to be the case. Or, maybe fate’s planning to keep him going until I’ve finished my determination of which Argento is the most Argento is the most Argento. We’ll see.
Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D is not the director’s worst film. It isn’t his worst adaptation, or his worst period piece (Phantom of the Opera holds the record in all three of those categories). It’s no surprise that people dislike this movie; what is a surprise is that, while Opera holds an abysmal 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, Dracula holds a barely-better 14% approval rating, which is strange considering that it is merely a bad movie, not one that is an affront to good taste and the basic tenets of human decency. There are even some fresh and original ideas here that work in the film’s favor, unlike Phantom, where the new ideas were detrimental to the overall film in virtually every instance (steampunk rat killing cart, anyone?). I’m not arguing that this is enough to save the movie—it definitely isn’t—but it does make the viewing a much less painful experience. There were times when I found myself enjoying the film and its eccentricities in spite of its multitude of flaws.
You know this story, for the most part. The film opens to find a young woman named Tanja (Miriam Giovanelli) sneaking out on Walpurgis Night to tryst in some hay. After she and her lover part ways, she is pursued by a dark force and flees through the woods, coming upon the home of Zoran (Giuseppe Lo Console, who portrayed the nameless butcher in Giallo and Federica’s nameless boss in Do You Like Hitchcock?, so good for him getting a name this time around). For a moment, it seems Zoran will help her, but he instead just watches when she is attacked by Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann, who previously appeared in La sindrome de Stendhal as rapist/killer Alfredo Grossi). Later, Tanja rises from the dead as a new vampire so that she can fill the role of “vampire bride” in this narrative. The story proper gets going when Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde, which I’m pretty sure is the also the name of an artifact that Captain Picard is set to unearth on his next furlough) arrives in Transylvania aboard a CGI train and makes his way into the town. He spends the night at a local inn so that he can head to the count’s castle the next morning, but he spends enough time there to take note of all the garlic heaped around and be accosted by an imprisoned Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni). He also visits Lucy (Asia Argento), who is a dear friend of his wife, Mina. She warns him about the count in a very vague way, and she and her father fear for his safety when he finally departs. At the count’s home, he witnesses some strangeness and Tanja attempts to seduce him, but Dracula screams that Harker is his; he feasts on the younger man, who also becomes a vampire and then is dispatched in short order. Mina (Marta Gastini) arrives and begins to investigate, and she is aided by the sudden appearance of famed vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing (Rutger Hauer). Dracula recognizes Mina as the rebirth of his long dead love and tries to put her under his thrall. Can she resist his charms long enough for van Helsing to end Dracula’s reign of terror? (Yes.)
I love Rutger Hauer. His face alone is iconic; his line readings are the stuff of legend. He’s one of my favorite actors of all time, and even though I don’t understand his interest in appearing in mixed-quality vampire media, I will never turn down the opportunity to watch; they’re two great tastes that taste great together! Whether he’s camping it up as Lothos in the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, portraying Dracula himself in Dracula III: The Legacy, bringing un-life to Kurt Barlow in the remade Salem’s Lot, or slumming it as Sookie’s fairy godfather on True Blood, I am there. I’m tempted to give this film an extra star just because he’s in it, but I’ll refrain, if only because I’m saving all my stars for Ladyhawke (come at me talking shit about Ladyhawke, and we will throw down). Unfortunately, even Hauer can’t make this film work, although his presence lends the film more credibility than it really deserves, but all his gravitas can’t make large swathes of his dialogue sound like something a real person would say.
As for the new and interesting things that Argento brings to the table, there are a few. In this retelling, the villagers are all complicit in Dracula’s killings, having made a pact with him in exchange for various favors (this Dracula paid for several townspeople to go to college, which is both awesome and ridiculous). The scene in which the Count repays their attempt to back out of the deal by slaughtering all of them is probably the best in the film: first, Phenomena-esque swarms of flies appear in the inn dining hall as different people voice their objections; the swarm then coalesces into Dracula as the last few flies are absorbed into his person. It’s a really cool effect in a sea of bad CGI and incomprehensible lighting choices that lend the film an overall Asylum Studios feeling (the composited train is the most offensive; could Argento really not get a real train car?). I also enjoy the character of Zoran, whose blind devotion to Dracula in the face of his fellows’ wishy-washiness makes him a strangely compelling figure, whether he’s doing something as small as not giving Jonathan a letter that Mina has sent or something as eventful as taking it upon himself to murder Tanja’s mother to prevent her from reporting the appearance of Dracula to the authorities in the city. There’s also some nice use of legacy dialogue from previous Dracula adaptations, most notably the “children of the night/what music they make” line.
But, as I said before, this is not a good movie. The subplot involving Tanja is completely pointless and serves only as an excuse to bare some breasts (Asia also has yet another scene in this film in which she showers/bathes, which only gets more weird and uncomfortable every time). Renfield is likewise wasted, as he is devoted to Tanja, not the Count himself, in this retelling. The dubbing is some of the worst I’ve ever seen and heard; inexplicably, Lucy’s surname in the film is changed from Westenra to Kisslinger, and the dubbing wreaks havoc here as some pronounce her name as Kissinger (no “l”) a la Henry, while other characters enunciate the name as kiss-linger. Aside from the swarm of flies, all of Dracula’s alternate forms are rendered very poorly; history will never forget the scene in which he transforms into a giant praying mantis in order to kill Lucy’s father, but the Drac-wolf that tears out Jonathan Harker’s throat is actually much, much worse. Perhaps the worst thing of all, however, is that this is the only film from the entire Argento canon that is available on Netflix. I had to actually leave my apartment to track down every other film in this retrospective, but Dracula 3D came to me. It’s a shame that this weak entry in the director’s oeuvre is the one that is most accessible. This is a movie that, frankly, doesn’t really need to exist, but it does, and we all have to live with it. I recommend the film for Argento fans and hardcore Hauer devotees; the rest of you should just skip it.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond