As the years go by it seems ever more likely that Dario Argento will never rescale the inspired heights of his ’70s output, the hysterical horror and steely set-pieces that more than make up for wooden acting, distracting dubbing, and leaden exposition. Mother of Tears had its moments and gave one cautious hope in 2007; Giallo (2009) was familiar enough to be comforting; but while Dracula 3D feels reassuringly like an Argento film on plenty of occasions, it fails to play to his strengths, hamstrung by half-hearted literary faithfulness, strangely perfunctory in its murders, and unbalanced by far too much downtime.
In presenting a well-known story (without much mystery in it to begin with) Argento deprives himself of one of his greatest assets: at his most successful, he manages to transform the menace of the unknown, the mysterious, stalking killer of supernatural threat, into something thrillingly abstract. More disappointing, however, is that his flair for ingenious set-pieces is also little in evidence: an opening moonlit owl attack tops a passably tense sequence of unease in the woods but thereafter, as much as the body-count is respectably high, most of the deaths happen with remarkably little preamble. This only works to exciting effect for Dracula’s thrillingly swift dispatch of four cowardly cohorts in a flash of inventive blood-letting. As usual, however, the acting and narrative fails to sustain interest in between the nominal excitement.
That said, Thomas Kretschmann comports himself well as the Count, a cold, poised, reptilian presence much of the time, but saddled with an intrusive melancholy for the final act and denied a fittingly spectacular end. His demise is adequate, as are most of the digital effects, in the death scenes and elsewhere, with various animal transformations (nice cloud of flies) but they are no more than serviceable and rarely invisible (distractingly quivering flagstones at a climactic point), and in one instance brazenly bizarre (shame that Argento misses a trick by diverging from the praying mantis’ habitual method of killing).
Rutger Hauer makes less of an impression – overly-subdued – in his late-entrance turn as Van Helsing, and Asia Argento’s Lucy is dispatched far too quickly. Argento never seems quite sure whether to stick to the book or make the story his own, and could have done with losing a lot more of the original to free himself from all that dialogue, but Miraim Giovanelli is a comely addition to the story, just right as all boobs and high bangs and needing to be no more; while Marta Gastini gives a little backbone to the traditionally drippy role of Mina (Unax Ugalde rivals Keanu Reeves for woodenest Harker). There’s also a gallery of more or less amusing peasant-types (and a priest channeling Wallace Shawn), but it’s not as fun as that sounds.
For one thing, the action is confined to Transylvania, bypassing all the intriguing Old World/New World undercurrents and the plague or disease-like implications of vampirism. Carfax is now a half-hearted flashback lunatic asylum when Van Helsing first encounters the Count. Those multiple animal transformations are a nice touch, as is the hint of a rural community closely guarding its secrets (not that this element is exploited at all) but the most woeful deviation from the source is the Coppola-derived love-across-the-centuries nonsense which involves a lot of tired, last-minute explanation.
The most enjoyment in fact comes from Argento’s whole-hearted use of the third dimension, from multiple frames within frames and long, deep rooms, to a silly fly buzzing in our faces, and he pulls off a nice sword-thrown-at-the camera. The perpetual objects in the foreground play nicely for a while but eventually wear out their welcome, and the opening credits are foregrounded so aggressively from the camera’s swooping path through the (surprisingly regular) alleyways of the village as to be almost painful. Overall this is a bad film, but not so bad it’s good. One expects a certain amount of shoddiness from Argento and hopes for the flashes of inspiration and lunacy that will justify all. Here they do not.