The Disc That Wouldn’t Die! The Canadian DVD Release of Dario Argento’s DRACULA

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In this ongoing SHOCK column, journo Trevor Parker sifts through discount stores for the cheapest and coolest DVD’s and Blu’s he can find and lives to tell the tale.

 

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As many of the horror genre’s great lions have entered the winters of their lives, once-mighty roars have dwindled down to wheezes. In directors whose transgressive films of the seventies and eighties rewrote the Hollywood rule-book, fans have seen powers wane drastically as the old guard has entered its dotage. Career-cappers like THE WARD, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, MORTUARY, and MY SOUL TO TAKE have been mostly dismissed, often angrily, by horror fandom. As with pretty much anything on the outside of general acceptance, those titles eventually accumulated small but vocal cadres of advocates, though there is one recent stumble with which you’d be hard pressed in finding many willing to circle their wagons around: Dario Argento’s much-maligned 2012 flop DRACULA 3D.

Note that the disc under discussion here is not the U.S. release as done by IFC films, which is hard to come by on the cheap, but instead the Canadian release by horror specialist label Raven Banner. The Raven Banner DVD presentation drops the 3D gimmick and renames the feature DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA, and thanks to its mass inclusion in some Horror Block subscription service packages, it’s a relatively simple disc to track down. Whether it’s even worth that small effort is a matter detailed below.

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DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA is yet another iteration of Bram Stoker’s terror chestnut, in which an immortal European nobleman indulges his thirst for human blood, preferably drawn from an expanse of smooth, quivering lady-neck. Argento and his screenwriters customize Bram Stoker’s tale to have Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) journeying to the town of Passburg in an unspecified Eastern province. Harker is to take up work as a librarian (?) at the castle of Count Dracula (Thomas Kretchmann), a reclusive local baron of infamous reputation. Harker’s wife Mina (Marta Gastini) follows her husband to Passburg, and soon suspects that her dear friend Lucy (Asia Argento) may be receiving nocturnal visits by an undead suitor. Mina must find a way to defeat the Count before succumbing either his fangs or his charms…

There’s no kind way to say it: Argento’s DRACULA 3D is a terrible misstep measured by any conventional criteria. The dialogue is clunky even by Argento’s undemanding standard (“I am nothing but an out-of-tune chord in the Divine Symphony…” is a lump of lead muttered wistfully by Dracula at one point), the performances vary wildly in tone and competence, the hope of any steamy romantic chemistry is dashed as the scenes between the Count and Mina come off flaccid and forced, and the hilariously unconvincing CGI effects work appears to have been contracted out to the good folks at Nintendo. Followers of European genre cinema should by now be somewhat inured against awkward dub jobs, but this film’s choice to have the bigger names work in English and the supporting players dubbed is particularly jarring—not to mention the voiceover talent speaking in the very stiff and unnatural elocution of a language instructor. Still, as with even the worst moments of Argento’s filmography, there are a few tiny diamonds silted in with the sand: Several startling Sergio Stivaletti gore gags (head cleaved open by shovel!) provide respite from the gothic monotony, and Argento, ever the rascal, maintains a commitment to titillating moments of nudity—a benign and almost sweet-natured throwback approach in this era of easy access to whatever depravities can be named and typed into a search engine. Argento also takes advantage of his continental basecamp, understanding that shooting in actual surviving medieval castles can add tremendous production value—a fact that Charles Band has levied in Full Moon’s favor for years.

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It’s also a treat to see Asia Argento, so tired and listless starring in her father’s MOTHER OF TEARS, seeming much more engaged and invigorated here. Her performance, especially in vamp mode, is great campy fun. Kretschmann is unfortunately not quite so self-aware in his turn as Dracula; his tepid Tepes is a mumbling sourpuss who will forever sit in the lower echelon of screen Draculae, landing a bit above Richard Roxburgh’s ludicrous sketch of Dracula-as-Bond-villain in 2004’s offensive VAN HELSING, but well below something like Frank Langella’s seductive and blow-dried disco-Drac from John Badham’s 1979 adaptation.

The Raven Banner DRACULA disc comes with a fairly detailed behind-the-scenes clip running just over an hour, in which Argento’s screenwriters and cast rhapsodize over the endless appeal of Dracula and working with their legendary patron. There are also two trailers, a still gallery, and a music video for ‘Kiss Me Dracula’—a cheesy power metal ditty by DRACULA composer Claudio Simonetti that incorporates passages of his own theremin-infused score.

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It’s hard to begrudge Argento in pursuing a project so very noncommercial in the new millennium, that of a retrograde gothic horror in the Hammer studios mould. While Neo-Gialli influenced by his catalogue enjoy a small resurgence with fare like AMER, THE EDITOR, and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, Argento at least challenged himself by attempting to place a colorful personal spin on possibly the most worn-out character in all of filmed fiction. In this, your columnist would argue that the greatest sin committed by his DRACULA is not to include wacky, potentially laughable notions such as, say, Dracula’s transmogrification into a giant praying mantis toward the film’s climax, but that it doesn’t include enough of them. Dario devotees prize his visual inventiveness, his illogical and unpredictable narrative choices, and his style for style’s own sake. The sort of bravery to oppose formula and push individuality, especially with a piece of gum that lost its flavor many decades back, is mostly absent. In that sense, you have this DRACULA’s most grievous failing of all. At whatever price, the ARGENTO’S DRACULA disc is for completists only.

 

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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