Dario Argento’s controversial take on Dracula premieres Saturday night, October 19 at the Chicago Film Festival. For those anxiously holding their breath for the 11 PM showing of “Dracula 3D” at the River East 21, it’s best to breathe normally and lower your expectations some. His latest is not vintage Argento horror like “Suspira”, or his collaboration with George Romero on “Dawn of the Dead” (http://bit.ly/19SxB2f). Instead, it’s more of an affectionate homage to the campy style of the 1960’s Hammer Studios era. Taken that way, it’s a very entertaining movie, albeit one with a rather low scare threshold.
Argento is an acquired taste when it comes to horror anyway. His surreal styling has often put visuals and sound in the forefront rather than cohesive plotting and character development (http://bit.ly/20cynm). Nonetheless, his best works are classics and have certainly influenced dozens of horror masters working since. This film however has outraged a number of his fans and supporters who see it as a far cry from the greatness of Argento’s heyday, and perhaps he shouldn't be wasting his time vamping the work of others, but it seems his critics may be missing the point here. He’s clearly fashioned a salute to the kitsch of that bygone time that he has great affection for - that era when Christopher Lee so often tore into the the pearl white flesh of British ingénues and their zaftig, heaving bosoms. Maybe Argento is telling us he misses his youth. It could be a very personal statement for the aging auteur.
Taken as pure kitsch though, “Dracula 3D” is a ton of fun. Argento knows the in’s and out’s of those precious film memories and his work here looks almost exactly like them. The sets all have that obvious studio set feel to them. It’s all overlit, like a nighttime football game. And women pop out of their corsets with such frequent abandon, you may suspect that Russ Meyer wrote the screenplay adaptation. To say most of the acting is no more nuanced than a high school theatrical production is to insult teenage thespians. But knowing that Argento is intentionally parodying old school horror makes for a lot of hilarious mischief here. You just have to be willing to give into it.
And how can one not surrender when buckets of blood splatter across the screen with an orange hue more akin to a jar of Vodka spaghetti sauce than true blood’s dark crimson? And eyeballs pop out of heads right at the audience? (3D is in the title, after all.) It’s all so fake, Argento is screaming, “This is a movie!” Why else would he include a special effect where Dracula turns into a giant praying mantis that looks less credible than anything one could create on FinalCut Pro? Why else would his camera linger on so many comely breasts in an era when even Mr. Skin finds such things quaint? It’s all silly, harmless trash with a capital T and A.
There’s some terrible dubbing too, that could easily have been finessed in post-production, but not if you’re going for cheese. All the cues of such yesteryear sensibilities are here, including garish beheadings bouncing like basketballs and graveyards that might have come from an Ed Wood yard sale. Rutger Hauer even shows up late in the game as Van Helsing. How many more cues of corn does one need?
German actor Thomas Kretschmann (“The Pianist”, “Downfall”) makes for a fine and fun Dracula in this movie, even though he’s a very accomplished serious actor. He clearly is having a ball, suggesting subtle, sensual menace before turning on a dime into a frothing demon with a kisser full of fake blood. He’s dressed in a tight, high-necked cloak that reminded me of what French actor Louis Jordan wore when he played “Count Dracula” for the BBC in 1977 (http://bit.ly/pexQ2C). Who knows? That may be part of Argento's homage as well.
And, as is his wont, Argento casts his gorgeous and edgy actress daughter Asia in a key role, albeit against type as the conservative Lucy. She’s the good friend to lead Mina (game ingénue Marta Gastini) and gives a rather restrained performance here until she is bit. Then Asia's inner wild child lets loose and shows us the fiery temptress we’re used to seeing her portray onscreen.
The score by Claudio Siminetti is lurid and full of shrieking strings, so if anyone still is expecting a dark, brooding or revisionist Dracula after all this they are out of luck. From the opening title sequence with its Gothic typeface, Argento underlines the fact that he is lampooning the genre. And I’ll take that any day over the stoic and staid “Twilight” series that simply took itself way too seriously (http://exm.nr/1bI6ng1). In fact, all things considered, that may be what Argento really is satirizing here. Where the films based on Stephenie Meyer’s books were so sober, Argento’s work here is filled with pulsing life. He’s arguing that Dracula should never ever be bloodless. And his version, in hellzapoppin' 3D, certainly isn’t.
And as an extra treat, the Festival literature promises an appearance and possible Q & A by Argento for the showing. And if the 11 o’clock hour is too late for you, check your cable’s VOD selections as “Dracula 3D” is showing there too. There’s a lot to be enjoyed here, just don’t expect to be too frightened.