Monday, 15 July 2013

Dario Argento's DRACULA




Tooth High To A Grasshopper

Dario Argento's Dracula
2012 USA
Directed by Dario Argento
Sony Italian BluRay Region A,B & C 

Dario Argento is a bit of a legend of a movie director these days... and rightly so, having stolen Mario Bava’s thunder somewhat when, in 1969, he repopularised (and how) the Italian giallo thriller single handedly with the first of many spectacular gialli which he made over the decades, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. The director is mostly a practitioner of this form of cinema although, since people often find themselves confused between movies depicting serial killers and movies depicting monsters, he is often misconceived as being primarily a director of horror films.

It’s true, of course, that Argento has directed both films and TV episodes which fall into the horror genre, including one of his most famous films, Suspiria. However, his horror direction is only a small body of work compared to his giallo output and should never, I believe, be considered his primary voice... although he is obviously inspired by both a sense of the gothic (instilled in him by some of the writers he used to read when he was ill in bed as a child, if memory serves) and the famous cinematic forays of the past which encapsulated that very atmosphere as their primary focus (with offerings from Universal, RKO, Hammer and the like).

I first got into Argento at the dawn of DVDs when, after about a year or two of the machines being on the market, I finally bit the bullet and bought a player primarily because I found out you could get American DVDs of the Flash Gordon serials. This was important stuff. Of course, owning a multi-region DVD player, like pretty much anybody who is serious about film in my country would, opened up a wealth of possibilities and suddenly more controversial directors who were either not allowed to have films released in my country or were heavily censored over here (which amounts to the same thing... who wants to see a censored version of a movie?) were now instantly accessible to people in the UK properly for the first time. Which is why, I think, genres such as the giallo, the spaghetti western, sexploitaiton, blaxploitation, nunsploitation and pretty much every other kind of interesting genre around have found a big resurgence in popularity... people now have relatively easy access to these kinds of movies.

Argento, it has to be said, has been producing films which have been less than popular with his fans of recent years, although I have no problem with most of them... my one caveat being his awful version of The Phantom Of The Opera (which isn’t a recent one, as it happens). I remember being in a packed Fright Fest screening of his previous film Giallo and the audience, in which there were undoubtedly a lot of Argento fans, was howling with collective laughter at some of the execution of the movie. Now I saw no real problem with, most, of it... but I’ve always thought of Argento as primarily a visual and aural stylist, which makes sense seeing as he comes from a background of churning out very successful gialli. These films are not about acting or their ludicrous scripts... they’re about visual style and great music. So I really don’t have the same kinds of issues as some people do with his later stuff (like The Card Player, for example, which I loved).

His version of Dracula, of course, is obviously a horror story but, although it has a certain sense of a thread of adaptation running through it, it changes things around sufficiently from both Stoker’s original novel and stage play versions (and, of course, the later stage adaptations which Universal studios culled their original version from) to be different enough for even the most jaded fans to find something fresh in the story. I suspect the location budget also had something to do with that (it’s all set in one village) but even so, there are some interesting things going on here. Carfax Abbey is mentioned as Carfax Sanitorium, for example, which was formerly run by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Dr. Seward is completely written out).

Does this make for a good movie then?

Well... yes and no. I think it’s all down to how much certain outrageous ingredients spoil the main course for you. There was one point about a quarter of an hour before the end, for example, when I started laughing out loud.

Now then, the acting by a lot of the cast is not up to scratch. You expect that from an Argento movie and it shouldn’t, in itself, be a problem if you are already used to this director’s work. However, surprisingly, there is also some pretty good acting in this one too. The director’s daughter, Asia Argento, can always be relied on to give a great performance (and on the strength of the one movie I saw that she directed, I suspect she might even be a better director than her old man... the talent runs in the family) but we also have Thomas Kretschmann giving a really great performance as Dracula and Rutger Hauer making a more than competent Van Helsing... although Dracula’s nemesis doesn’t actually turn up until the last part of the film.

Added to this you have Dario Argento’s trademark visual splendour and the shot design and camera motion through those shots is absolutely superb in this one. The striking use of Bavaesque colour is again pushed to the fore and the outrageously saturated pools of red and yellow light sharing the same frame and the greener than green forest in the moonlight are all things of beauty. If nothing else... this film is quite spectacular. There are also a few good doses of female nudity too, which is unusual for this director and, I think, is probably more on show here (albeit briefly) than all of his other movies combined. That, of course, adds its own kind of spectacle into the proceedings... especially lit and shot as well as it is.

That being said... there’s quite a lot of bad stuff here too. One of which is Argento’s fascination with style over substance. I remember, decades ago, Argento was asked in a documentary if, when faced with the insertion of a cool and beautiful shot in his movie as opposed to a shot which would be more appropriate and make total sense within a story, which he would choose. Argento said he would always take the cool shot over logic any day. Dracula is full of “the cool shot” which is a trademark of Argento, to be sure, including one where you see the course of a bullet as it travels from the base of a man’s jaw and up and out through the top of his head... not as audacious as the notorious “bullet scene” from Argento’s movie Opera but certainly an echo throughout the years. However, you also have one scene near the end, the one I started laughing at, where the movie totally “jumps-the-shark” as it were, in modern pop culture parlance...

Dracula, it seems, can transform himself into any kind of beast he wants. One would think he would be fairly subtle in his choice perhaps but, no, he decides to go and kidnap Mina Harker transformed as a giant sized, bright green CGI grasshopper which, while certainly giving the movie a sudden and fierce injection of 1950s B-movie atmosphere... seemed perhaps a fair bit inappropriate given the sombre tone of the rest of the movie and its leanings towards the gothic. This was a fairly unfortunate choice, it has to be said, but taken out of context it looks pretty cool, at least.

But there’s more.

The various “myths” of the vampire are neither adhered to faithfully nor ignored. One or the other or the popular tactic of establishing which of the various trappings are being used would have been a way to go. Set up your ground rules for the audience first. Here, it’s contradictory and, well... all over the shop to be honest. One minute, Jonathan Harker (very much tapping into the pretty boy Keanu Reeves vibe of Coppola’s version of the story) is bitten and is instantly allergic to deadly sunlight... the next we are introduced to the “Renfield” character stand-in, who is also obviously a vampire, but who has no problem with strolling around in sunlight at all. Similarly, Lucy (beautifully played by Asia) is committing her undead crimes at night and sleeping in her tomb by day (just as her master Dracula is sleeping in his protective coffin) but why then is it, when the count himself turns into another creature, he’s perfectly fine running around in the sunlight? None of this makes much sense and neither does the fact that a bitten Jonathan Harker needs to feel the sharp end of Van Helsing’s stake but the equally vamped up Mina Harker doesn’t. None of it makes much sense... which is a big shame, to be honest.

Also, there is a dreadful reliance on CGI blood effects for the trademark Argento gore in this movie and, to me, this just looks awful when compared to a plain, in camera, practical effect. Maybe Argento’s resorted to this finally because of something to do with the 3D process... I don’t know. However, it looks very fake and unsatisfying and I hope he doesn’t continue to go down this route.

However, I let none of this detract from my enjoyment of the film, to be sure. And there are some nice nods both to the original Stoker novel (Kretschmann crawling up the outside of the castle wall) and to Todd Browning’s 1931 version, with both a large spider’s web and the full Lugosi treatment as Kretschmann digs in to the well worn “children of the night" dialogue. And, of course, Rutger Hauer’s impromtu holy cross assembly will bring back fond memories of Peter Cushing’s more succesful attempt in the old Hammer version. So some nice stuff too, including the music...

After the problems Argento had convincing the studio to retain his regularly composer, and once figurehead of Goblin, Claudio Simonetti on the previous project (the final score to Giallo was by Marco Werba), Simonetti has returned to Argento’s side with a brilliant, theremin tinged score which is quite remarkable in tone, although one of the sub-themes did remind me a little of the theme which the group Toto allegedly pilfered for their score for Dune, namely Ronald Stein’s score for Roger Corman’s Haunted Palace. That minor gripe aside though, I’ve been enjoying the score for a year or so now on CD and am pleased to finally be able to hear it in the context of the movie for which it was written. This includes the end title song which is performed by Simonetti’s current progressive rock group Daemonia.

Dario Argento’s Dracula, when all is said and done, is a film which I am more than happy to have in my possession and will definitely get a few spins as the years go by. Perhaps it may be a bit anticlimactic for some to realise that such a legendary director tackling such a legendary story is not without its problems but I, for one, am happy with the result (grasshopper aside) and, to be honest, it’s a lot better than I’d hoped it would be after the feedback I got from some. It looks, like usual for this country, I won’t get a chance to see it in any kind of cinema release over here in its 3D version but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.

Oh yeah. About the 3D. If you are buying the Italian Blu Ray of the film (which is shot and presented in the English language anyway, by the way) then you will be shelling out a lot more for the 3D version of the movie than the 2D version, if you have a 3D player. Not to worry though... as the stall holder who I bought this from pointed out to me, the 3D print of the movie is also on the 2D disc, they’ve just repackaged the same disc for the more expensive version to get some extra cash. So if you buy the Blu Ray standard edition, at least on the version I have, you’ll get both versions. Watch out for those large, heaving bosoms in the 3D version though! You might get a wallop.

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