With Dracula, Dario Argento tackles maybe the most famous figure in all of horror cinema and conducts an adaptation of Bram Stokers Dracula (1897). Count Dracula has an extraordinary cinematic legacy, ranging all the way from the silent Gothic classic Nosferatu (1922) to Bela Lugosis indelible imprint in Dracula (1931) from which every caricature of the vampire as an Eastern-accented figure in a cape derives to Christopher Lees fabulous incarnation in Hammers Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958) and sequels. Even despite the disappointment that has been Dario Argentos last seven or so films, one remained hopeful of his interpretation of Dracula (although there was still memory of the misguided results in the back of ones mind when he set his sights on interpreting another classic horror figure with The Phantom of the Opera). One hoped that if Argento had brought the baroque Gothicism of Suspiria and Inferno to play, along with the extravagant camera moves of his giallo films of the 1970s and 80s, we could have ended up with a wildly fantastique Dracula probably something like Francis Ford Coppolas Bram Stokers Dracula (1992). Instead, what we end up with is a tepid version that feels like the tv movie Dracula (1974) on a bigger budget.
Argento and his scriptwriters mess with the book to pointless ends. The most notable change is that the entire film takes place in Transylvania (although it is never actually specified as being set in Transylvania). Rather than Dracula travelling to England to plunder polite society there, he remains ensconced in his castle, venturing forth to plunder Mina, Lucy and others in the village below. One of the more interesting changes is that rather than the standard fear and superstition-ruled Transylvania, the locals accept Dracula as akin to a feudal master and ignore his plundering of victims as the price of his beneficence to them. The Seward Asylum gets a brief mention (it is now Van Helsings former place of employ), while Lucys other suitors (the Crew of Light) only get a single line joke thrown in their direction but are otherwise written out. Argento and co feel more as though they have borrowed aspects from other cinematic adaptations more so than they have gone back to the source Jonathan Harker is no longer a lawyer come to transfer property deeds but a librarian come to itemise the library of Castle Dracula, an aspect taken from The Horror of Dracula; Thomas Krestchmann gets to utter Bela Lugosis immortal line children of the night what music they make; Dracula fixates on Mina as being the reincarnation of his late wife, a central element to Bram Stokers Dracula; he is outfitted in a button collared black mandarin coat just like Count Orlock in Nosferatu; while the runnings around between Castle Dracula and the village below remind of one of the Hammer Dracula sequels such as Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) or Scars of Dracula (1971).
All of this achieves precisely nothing in terms of giving the story new angles. In fact, it is hard to describe what an utter disappointment Dario Argentos Dracula is. When one considers the great entrances of the Draculas of the past both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee making their descent down long staircases, Gary Oldman accompanied by a shadow that has a will of its own, Thomas Kretschmanns Yes, I am (in response to Unax Ugaldes asking if he is Count Dracula), before roughly snatching his single vampire bride Miriam Giovanelli to his side, counts as utterly feeble. Thomas Kretschmann gives the impression he is trying to channel Liam Neeson. He is unfortunately too mellow a Dracula, merely a mannered aristocrat, and never seems to exude the sense of supernatural evil that a figure such as Dracula represents in the public imagination. (Kretschmanns role as Dracula here makes interesting contrast to his being cast as Van Helsing less than twelve months later in the Dracula (2013-4) tv series).
Dario Argento is a director whose ventures into the fantastical Suspiria and especially Inferno turn the everyday into a deeply mysterious world brimming with the supernatural just beyond our rational ken. Considering the lineage of directors who have handled the Dracula story before him the compulsive efforts of F.W. Murnau and Francis Ford Coppola, even the serviceable work of Tod Browning and John Badham one would have thought a director like Dario Argento would have shot to the front of the line. Instead, he has delivered a largely mundane treatment of the material that (visually) sits more down around the level of the Jack Palance tv movie. Even the CGI effects notably a shot where a wolf transforms back into Thomas Kretschmann are sub-par and crappy. The credibility of the film evaporates altogether from about the point when we get Dracula having transformed into a giant praying mantis, an effect that looks as ridiculous as it sounds. Finally, about the 70 minute mark, Argento gives us a scene that sparkles with something of his old mojo, taking delight in a series of extravagantly sadistic despatches in a scene where Thomas Kretschmann eliminates a group of villagers convened to deal with him, forcing the last one to turn his gun on himself and put it under his chin where we then see the bullet fire in slow-motion up through the mans mouth and explode out the top of his head. Too little, too late, alas.
Other adaptations of Dracula are: the uncredited classic German silent Nosferatu (1922); Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi; the Spanish language version Dracula (1931) shot on the same sets as the Lugosi version starring Carlos Villarias; Hammers classic Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958) with Christopher Lee; Dracula in Pakistan (1967), an uncredited remake of the Hammer film; Count Dracula (1970), a cheap continental production that also featured Lee; Dracula (1974), a cinematically-released tv movie starring Jack Palance; Count Dracula (1977), a BBC tv mini-series featuring Louis Jourdan; Dracula (1979), a lush big-budget remake starring Frank Langella; Werner Herzogs Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) with Klaus Kinski; Francis Ford Coppolas visually ravishing Bram Stokers Dracula (1992) featuring Gary Oldman; the modernised Italian-German Dracula (2002) starring Patrick Bergin; Guy Maddins silent ballet adaptation Dracula: Pages from a Virgins Diary (2002); the BBC tv movie Dracula (2006) with Marc Warren; the low-budget modernised Dracula (2009); and the tv series Dracula (2013-4) with Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Dario Argentos other films are: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat ONine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Deep Red (1976), Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), Tenebrae/Unsane (1982), Phenomena/Creepers (1985), Opera/Terror at the Opera (1987), Two Evil Eyes (1990), Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), The Phantom of the Opera (1998), Sleepless (2001), The Card Player (2004), Mother of Tears: The Third Mother (2007) and Giallo (2009).