Monday, 13 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Dracula (2012)


Dir. Dario Argento

So where to start with this? By saying I disagree with the opinion of fellow Dario Argento fans that he's tarnished his reputation. It's only with this film, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, that I worry a little about his as a creator of films I like. With a few exceptions, I've seen almost all of his films from his groundbreaking giallo debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) to the films of the last decade that have caused fans to say he has "lost it". But baring a couple, including Mother of Tears (2007), I've seen most of the films of this decade or so and they aren't as bad as their reputations suggest. Sleepless (2001) has flaws, but as a film many saw as a return to form, it is growing as an underrated films in his filmography for me. The Card Player (2004) is ludicrous narratively, and the decision with uber talented cinematographer Benoît Debie to give the gritty influence of a film like Lars Von Trier's The Idiots (1998) to a crime thriller may have not be that successful an idea, but it's still solid in terms of what it is. I need to rewatch his first entry for the Masters of Horror series Jennifer (2005), but bear in mind that, like all the directors in that series, it was as effected by the producers of it and their expectations despite the lack of restrictions said to be given to those involved, something that'll be of importance for my thoughts on Dracula. And then there's Giallo (2009). Not a good film, and Adrian Brody's performance (or performances) are absurd, but the film has become strangely memorable and, contrary to many, its controversial twist ending for me saved it, an inspired trick on the audience that Argento has done the exact same of in his older films and showed he still had a spark in his filmmaking. With Dracula where my concerns have finally been raised, the problem is that, referencing Masters of Horror, the issue of how genre and horror films are made in today's film industries have had a profuse effect on the quality of them, especially for old guard from the seventies and eighties, like Argento and everyone who worked on Masters of Horror. Argento is an older director now, and in an industry where producers want young upstarts, he is stuck in a competitive industry that is mainly about product. This is no longer the era, like the seventies, where you can play six degrees of separation and link Federico Fellini with one of Argento's films through a scriptwriter or an actor. The films before Dracula, even Giallo, never felt like the worse had happened, and as a growing fan of his, the failures are as fascinating as the great movies. Dracula is going to be hard to adjust to not because its diabolical, but because it's something worse than bad: it's mediocre.

As an adaptation of the story of Dracula - Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) visits Transylvania as part of his work for the Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann), who turns out to be a vampire with intentions for his wife Mina (Marta Gastini) - I can't help but compare it to the others I've seen. There's F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), unofficial but the first (a great film growing in quality more and more I think about it); Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) (desperately in need of a rewatch); Werner Herzog's 1979 reimagining/tribute to Murnau's film (one of Herzog's best films and one of the best horror films of the seventies); Francis Ford Coppola's delirious 1992 adaptation (baroque, madder than a box of frogs, and so underrated that I even love Keanu Reeves's butchering my country's dialect); and Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002) (disappointing for me, as of yet, in comparison to what he could've done, due to my apathy for how dance and ballet is shot in films like his). Argento's take is pretty similar to the others, though there are changes, everything set in its European location without any mention of England, and tiny changes to Dracula and Jonathan Harker that are interesting. It is unfortunately a bland, almost lifeless take on the material on a first viewing. The problem is that it doesn't feel like a film made by Dario Argento, career slump or not, which even Giallo felt like. The symbolic nature of the film's problem is how I finally caught around to seeing a film that has been delayed for a year or so for Britain - a straight-to-DVD release in my nearest Sainsbury's supermarket, packed and finally released to tie into a Hollywood Dracula film coming out soon, from an obscure company hoping to take advantage of the tie-in, far from something for me to object to, (in fact I praise them for being opportunistic), but with a horrible taste in my mouth of what the film feels like compared to all the other straight-to-video films around it on the racks. These films that may star people like Danny Trejo, or as he's in this film as Van Helsing, Rutger Hauer, that are not the films which have a buzz around them on cult film sites, or some interest, but suddenly appear in supermarkets one weekday inexplicably.

There are virtues to Dracula. The look of the film at times, through its lighting, is beautiful, not surprising since cinematographer Luciano Tovoli worked on Argento's Suspiria (1977). On the opposite end of the spectrum, the few cheesy moments, not enough as one's wishes if the film isn't going to be that great, are rewarding for their amusement. The few truly awful moments aren't bad because, inherently, their enjoyment makes them good things in the reaction they caused in me. How Asia Argento's Lucy, when she is turned into a vampire, makes odd facial expression with her fangs exposed that are supposed to be frightening but feel like she's wondering if she's left the kettle on. Hauer's also somnambulistic take on Van Helsing which, if intentional, is actually great in its completely lack of hysterics, taking everything as garden variety vampire infestation that is a pain in the backside rather than life-threatening. The softcore erotica that quickly vanishes after the first quarter unfortunately, but is fun while it lasts*. The excess of this softcore tone, Russ Meyer tinged, around actress Miriam Giovanelli, as Dracula's bitten servant, whose first screen appearance is an extreme close-up of her cleavage, and in one seduction scene later, seems to have a spring loaded nightgown which can just spring off leaving her naked. There is also the praying mantis... part of this film's background includes a marketing trailer, showing the entire narrative including the ending, that was leaked onto the internet and people, like myself, went out of their way to see, the giant praying mantis already infamous then. In context of the narrative, including a shadow on the wall, it's a hysterical site.

But for the most part however Dracula is a characterless, perplexing creation that doesn't feel like an Argento film. Argento is not known for such a pedestrian tone even with Giallo. Nor softcore titillation. It's a Euro-pudding co-production so at odds with anything made before, possibly campy on purpose but with that suggestion, not an attempt by an Argento fan to defend this film, there is the issue of whether there is a joke behind all this in the first place. It's a film that spends so much time explaining things - about Dracula, about vampires - that pop culture has educated us as viewers in, regardless of language barriers, which means this film, written by Argento and three other people, feel like it's from an antiquated, alien world which has only discovered this folk law. (With Murnau's Nosferatu and the segments explaining the vampire, the film, bearing in mind it's from the twenties, uses more esoteric descriptions  that make it far more poetic and interesting than explaining the obvious as a 2012 film in Dracula does). The films looks great, but there is none of the cinematic gymnastics that made Argento's reputation amongst many other things, rigid and statically shot scenes that feel like a stage play where characters enter shots and speak their dialogue. Shot in 3D it just means that the special effects, including Dracula's many transformations in creatures like wolves, are plastic and weightless as they were obvious meant to come out at the viewer in the cinema.  Claudio Simonetti, of the prog rock band Goblin, who worked with Argento and created exceptional music, doesn't create a memorable score here as he would based on prog rock and electronic music, but instead an uninspired and dull classical score. That's before the awful symphonic metal song he wrote for the end credits that, with its female vocals, was clearly meant to capitalise on the success of this music in Europe - through bands like Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, Within Temptation, Epica etc. - and ends up showing it at its blandest and horrifically average.

The song itself raises alarm bells for me that complicates viewing Dracula. Argento is guilty of creating this film, but I have to wonder, as what has happened to other directors of his era, that the notion that he's lost his touch is not necessarily the truth. Even on Giallo, a member of Argento's family produced the film, and up until the eighties, his films for the most part written by himself only. I put up with Simonetti's awful end credit song, looking at the credits, seeing as a co-production how many groups have their fingers in this cinematic pie, including a sentence on how the entire cast drank a specific type of drink, an advertisement of all things in the end credits of an Argento movie. The producers of this film go past double digits. The film continues on as a generic take on the Dracula story, leading to a final anti-climatic conflict. Yet there is still an additional, abruptly added, twist which is supposed to make you sympathise for Thomas Kretschmann's Dracula, a trait in modern cinema to humanise the monsters, and as much as it has naked breasts and blood, it's very safe as a horror movie. It reminds me as well of Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008), another of Euro-production that suddenly appeared for me and, for its great aspects including the visual look, was a bland film straight-jacketed by the requirements of following a dull script, worse in that, knowing that director, Juraj Jakubisko, has significant acclaimed but as yet never seeing any other films, having my first experience of him slightly tainted.  I am considering putting all this together that as much may be blamed on those who produced this movie. This thought feels more rational and more of a legitimised hypothesis because, if Argento had truly lost it, he would've made his equivalent of A Cat In The Brain (1990), Lucio Fulci's film from near the end of his credit that is debatable in terms of quality, but in its frantic, difficult tone still retains a unique personality. Or he's make Bruno Mattei's Cruel Jaws (1995) if he wanted to go further down in quality, to the bottom of the barrel, but still make a memorable film for its inanity. Or, like the late Ken Russell, he would've made films in garage that are for only the hardcore fans, or done a John Carpenter or a Wes Craven and only appear occasionally to make a film and just enjoy life. This is a technically competent work that feels like anyone could have helmed it, it's blandness a more frightening proposition then if Argento made terrible films from now on because, if this is a sign of anything, it'll lead to a bland, stale later filmography then something memorable, good or bad. At least with a Giallo its memorable, not forgettable.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing, none, nada.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
This is everything that I have no interest in covering, and the only reason I did here, and take interest in this one, is because it's a Dario Argento movie. It's only real hope in improving for me is if it grows into a peculiarity in the auteur's filmography, able to be appreciated for its failure and a giant praying mantis inexplicably appearing in it. In fact, hilariously, writing this review has caused the film to be of more interest despite my problems with it and the crushing disappointment of neither getting a good or memorably bad movie. But it's this kind of conventional, uninteresting straight-to-DVD film that I never consider watching, only picking up the cases out of curiosity in the supermarket then putting down soon after. The only thing that hurts me is that, with it being the only Argento film to be available in a British supermarket, people are going to equate this as his style, since the DVD company who released it had the bright idea of saying it was by a master director over his least interesting work. That's far more of a concern, along with the fact that he may end up having to make more films like this, than if he suddenly lost his mind and technical abilities as a film director.

(* No, I don't include the nude scene Asia Argento has in the film in this, which some may view as creepy because her father is the director, as the context of the scene is not erotic. Frankly as well, if a film causes one to think about when an actress is a blood relative of the director but also an actor wanting to perform in the film regardless of the relationship, The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) brings up more tricky questions in its content.)

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