Sunday, October 20, 2013

Film Review: Dracula 3D

"Dracula 3D"  *** (out of ****)

One of the more memorable cinematic experiences I had at the 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival was a midnight showing I attended of Dario Argento's "Dracula 3D" (2013).

When we think of the countless film adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel, the most famous might be the 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi. Of modern times the best known film version may be Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula" (1992) starring Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman, which is often cited as a more faithful adaption of Stoker's novel. Dario Argento's "Dracula" is somewhere in the middle. It borrows from the Lugosi version with certain famous lines but also has elements which remind the viewer of Coppola's film. And, to make the film Argento's own, his main contribution is the 3D gimmick, with, you guessed it, squirts of blood flying at the audience.

Hearing a title like "Dracula 3D" an audience is going to review the movie based on the title alone. This is similar to what happened with another movie with a goofy title, "Cowboys vs Aliens". The title alone will intrigue some audience members and turn off others. How good could a movie called "Dracula 3D" be? What type of cheap, campy tricks is Argento going to throw at the audience? Yet others will say, that sounds pretty goofy. One of those, "it's so bad, it's good" type of movies. A true blue camp fest.

Dario Argento was at one time seen as one of the great Italian horror film makers. His speciality was a sub-genre of horror films called giallo (pronounced yellow) which is the Italian word for yellow. This was the color of the covers of supernatural/murder/mystery stories. The books were cheap (in price not quality) and therefore easily accessible to mainstream audiences. In the early 1970s, when Argento's films were finding distribution in America, titles such as "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971) and "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" (1971) were being championed by audiences and critics who herald Argento as a new emerging talent. Someone who understood the fundamentals of the horror genre. He was even compared to Hitchcock.

These early films had minimal screen violence, which the critics liked. Argento, they said, left the viewer to imagine the horror, which was far more scarier. But then Argento's films started to switch. He soon became known for lavish death scenes, usually of pretty young girls. He had an almost fetish for blood. The camera would linger on the sight of blood like an animal going after its prey. Argento had now gained a reputation as an ultra-gory filmmaker. His best known films are "Suspiria" (1977, which I have reviewed) and "Deep Red" (1975).

But then something happened to Argento. His work became quite campy. While he has gained a cult status and will forever be associated with  "Suspiria", the quality of his work started to decline. His work no longer served the chills his earlier efforts did. The low point of his career was his adaptation of Gaston Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera" made in 1998. Even Argento fans look upon that as a disappointment and an embarrassment. He rebounded rather nicely with "Sleepless" (2001), the last truly effective movie he has made and now gives us "Dracula 3D".

My expectations for the movie were not very high. Memories of his "Phantom of the Opera" still linger in my mind. Would this be a duplicate? His "Giallo" (2009, which I have reviewed) was a decent attempt to go back to a genre he knows well, but, we are talking about a vampire movie in 3D!

To my surprise the story is told rather straight forward and the camp was kept at "acceptable" levels, based on my own radar. The movie has a nice look to it, the cinematography was done by Luciano Tovoli, who shot "Suspiria" and "Tenebre" (1982, which I have reviewed) another Argento film. He also worked with the great Antonioni on "The Passenger" (1975) and with Maurice Pialat, on what I feel is his finest film, "Police" (1986).

Tovoli gives the movie a classical horror look, at times, like when the blood isn't squirting at us and insects are not crawling toward us. In fact, there is no reason whatsoever that this movie needed to be told in 3D. In my opinion, there is no need for any movie to be released in 3D, other than to jack up ticket prices (but that's another story)!

I could see how Argento could have made a better vampire film, say about 25 years ago. Think of the Hammer horror films. Argento could have filmed some truly ghastly death sequences and startling images of stakes be driven into the heart of the vampires. He and Tovoli could have probably given the film a nice Gothic look and just imagine the musical score the Goblins (a band Argento discovered) would have created. Yes, I can see why Argento would have been interested in a vampire story. But, that was the Argento of yesterday. The Argento of today has moved in a different direction.

This time around Dracula is played by Thomas Kretschmann, who in a strange twist of fate will be in the new NBC television show "Dracula" playing Van Helsing. He might be known to some audiences for his work in Roman Polanski's brilliant "The Pianist" (2002) and Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong" (2005). Kretschmann has gotten some truly awful reviews from the sheep, er, I mean critics. The New York Times wrote Kretschmann is the "least scary, least sexy Dracula ever". I guess the sheep, er critic, found Leslie Nielsen (who played the part in the Mel Brooks comedy "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (1995) sexier. Wow!

Dracula has called for the services of Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) to work in his library, at the suggestion of Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento, Dario's daughter, who has appeared in a few of his films). Lucy is best friends with Jonathan's wife, Mina (Marta Gastini) who will be joining Jonathan.

Soon several townspeople have been found dead with bite marks on their necks. Jonathan has been hallucinating about wolves and insects, while Lucy has also been having terrible dreams about having her blood sucked. What could be the cause of all this? Could it be the giant prying mantis (you read that right) we see at one point in the movie kill a man(!)?

A famous doctor is called to investigate, a Dr. Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer, who fought another evil spirit in "The Rite" (2011) and was in "Blade Runner" (1982) the sci-fi classic). He knows who Dracula really is. The undead. And, he knows why his sinister plan involved Lucy and Mina. But, can he stop Dracula?

As I stated before, Argento doesn't change the familiar storyline all that much. Walking into the movie audiences should know what to expect, who these characters are and their fates. The surprise or the entertainment value, lies in what will Argento bring. Namely, will there be gory death scenes with lots of blood? And, will this be a campy "B" movie, unintentional laugh fest, worthy of a midnight showing?

The movie is more serious than I thought it would be in presenting this material. Rutger Hauer isn't as over the top as I heard the performance was going to be. Kretschmann is not the most effective Dracula I have seen, but, oddly enough, that's because he isn't given much to work with, which is surprising that Dracula isn't given much to work with in a movie called "Dracula", but, why quibble?

No one is going to find the movie scary. Although it does have a nice opening scene with a pretty young girl all alone in the woods. And, there is one grusome death scene fairly earlier in the film with a character who gets his head split open, which should please Argento fans (what an odd statement that is). But ultimately, I have to wonder, what did Argento want to accomplish here? Did he truly intend to make a serious horror film and scare the living daylights out of us? Or did he want to make a campy, semi-comedy/horror film in 3D?

I think we are in a grey, middle area here. Still, I find myself recommending the movie. Why? As a cinematic experience it was quite unique. The screening was sold out. The energy in the room was high. The great filmmaker attended the screening for a brief Q&A, which he called short so he could sign autographs and take pictures with the audience! I will not forget the absolute delight which filled the room when we all saw Dario Argento walk into the room. Even I had a childish grin on my face being so close to the director.

But these memories and moments have nothing to do with the picture itself. "Dracula 3D" is watchable. In its own way it is fun. Going with a group of friends, who don't take themselves too serious, could prove to be a fun midnight showing, where you will all laugh afterwards when discussing the movie. What "Dracula 3D" isn't however, is a truly effective horror movie. It is not up to the standards Argento originally set for himself back when he was compared to Hitchcock.

Then again, how many times do we watch a movie and have blood squirt at us?