The wait is over. Dario Argento‘s version of Dracula is now available and anyone can find a copy of the DVD to judge for themselves. I myself saw it in regular 2D rather than the vaunted format that requires special glasses. Frankly, I dislike 3D so just as well. And how is it?
As with most adaptations of Bram Stoker‘s novel, it ends up a mixed bag. Not so wonderfully cheesy as make for hilarity, but neither is it good enough to serve as a fine horror film. Nor can one call it nearly bad enough to belong in the annals of such drek as Dracula 3000.
The plot makes for a version of the story, roughly as faithful to the original as Bela Lugosi‘s version or the Hammer flick that saw Sir Christopher Lee don the Count’s cape for the first time. In a vaguely Eastern European village not too far from an unidentified “city” we meet a pretty girl named Tania who foolishly goes out for a tryst one night. She’s wearing her cross, so believes herself safe. In one of many strange details of this flick, she and her boyfriend assume what looks like an extremely uncomfortable position for their coitus. I’m just saying. When he refuses to walk her home lest someone see them, she tosses away the cross he gave her in a huff.
We might as well call this evolution in action. Sure enough, Tania finds herself chased in the woods. An owl with burning eyes sweeps upon her and becomes a man–a man with fangs he drives into her throat. She screams, then begins to sigh in pleasure…
So far so good. This all feels very Hammer, with the added touch of having Dracula take forms other than a bat! Owls in fact are associated with the undead, as are wolves and to some extent I even like the Count’s later appearance from a cloud of flies. The giant preying mantis, though, still boggles my mind. Lots of little details have that reaction. Later, we see a young woman with a vampire bite in an unusual place–in theory so her father the Mayor wouldn’t see it and become suspicious. But behind the knee? Think about that for a second. Imagine you’re a vampire and that is the target for your fangs. Doesn’t that seem awkward? Worse, from the fang marks you cannot bite from the side. You have to bite from above, i.e. the thigh, or below, from the calf. Just the engineering of that makes my eyes cross! Makes me suspect Argento approached this whole thing with a very dry sense of humor. So–I tried to enjoy such oddities. Why not?
Jonathan Harker shows up to serve as Count Dracula’s (Thomas Kretschmann) new librarian. He finds Tania, now very pale, eager to get him alone. She even bites him at one moment, whereupon Dracula rushes in and pushes her away. “This man is mine!” And for a change we actually see him dig into the unfortunate Harker.
Harker’s wife Mina (Marta Gastini) comes to town, greeted by her best friend in the world, the Mayor’s daughter Lucy (Asia Argento). Sure enough, she’s under the sway of Dracula and this proves all part of the Count’s plan to lure Mina to him. When they meet, she feels a strange electricity but struggles to remain faithful to her beloved (and now be-fanged) husband. Tania watches in despair. One of many touches I like about this version is her jealousy at becoming supplanted. Another is how the entire village seems to have made a pact with Dracula, one some would willingly break if they could.
Eventually we also get a strong hint of our location as well as a rare shout-out to the novel! Dracula insists Mina is his long-dead wife reincarnated, and even takes her to the tomb he had built for her in the woods. Her name: Dolingren of Gratz. Exactly the name on the tomb in the unpublished initial chapter titled Dracula’s Guest! Which means we’re not in Transylvania at all, but Styria (also the location of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla). One can easily read this as some subtle nod to Hammer’s famous “Karnstein Trilogy” of films set in that very same Austrian province!
Along the way we also meet Abraham Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer), who says he discovered about vampires when Dracula attacked some patients of his at Carfax Asylum. Gotta say, Hauer does make an awesome Van Helsing–combining world-weariness and wisdom, compassion and also an ability to act with great courage and dispatch.
Which makes me wonder about the idea of garlic bullets. No, really. I’m totally serious.
The whole flick is like that–a mishmash of the genuinely cool, even compelling (the cast overall does a very fine job) with the weirdest, odd and off-putting details. Tis enough to make one’s head go TILT at times! Yet I cannot say it wasn’t fun to watch. Nor can I deny there’s some real drama in the film. Was it scary? Not really. But it had its moments of creepy-crawliness (especially if you don’t like bugs).
Bit of trivia–Mr. Kretschmann joins Mr. Hauer as among the very few actors to have played both Dracula and Van Helsing. He’s been cast in the new NBC series as the vampire hunter!