2018 Film Essays

The Digital Perverse: Dario Argento’s ‘Dracula 3D’

Dracula 3D (2012) is certainly an anomaly in Dario Argento’s cinematic DNA, and I can understand the popular impulse to write it off as “incoherent,” but I am not personally willing to leave it there. If the director’s pre-Suspiria (1977) output can be read as a series of formal trial runs (in a non-pejorative sense), and his five-film run from Suspiria to Opera (1987) comprises a kind of fully realized auteurist vision, then where does that leave his late career? I really do not think I have figured out his 1990-2009 modus operandi (although I really admire its results). It seems that the late 20th and early 21st century mostly sees Argento probing, revisiting and teasing out past obsessions rather than advancing a concise new “agenda.” With that in mind, Dracula 3D appears to stand entirely on its own.

Above all, this film showcases a director actively and recklessly searching for new means of expression: his public insistence that the film needed to be made in 3D is important. The release date is worth noting, too, since the film premiered only three years after the 2009 release of James Cameron’s Avatar, which was hailed at the time as a true benchmark in cinematic development. The superficial similarities between Cameron and Argento’s films are next to none, but it is useful to recognize both auteurs’ uses of 3D technology for their respective narratives. If nothing else, the comparison begins to illuminate some of Dracula 3D’s perverse logic.

Cameron has acknowledged that Avatar pulls from familiar plot designs, patterns and iconography to create a guiding light for the audience through radically new visual terrain. So too has he recognized his own dream-states as the source for many of the film’s vibrant images. Argento is, of course, no stranger to the oneiric himself, considering that Thomas De Quincey’s opium dreams broadly provide the framework for his Three Mothers trilogy (Suspiria, Inferno [1980] and Mother of Tears [2007]). Much like Cameron’s Avatar, Dracula 3D illustrates a means of subordinating narrative to visual exploration (it is key, then, that Argento uses a plot as familiar and often-adapted as Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel).

Diametrically opposed to the science-fiction-meets-fantasy-mysticism of Cameron’s bioluminescent Pandora, Argento’s Dracula 3D imagines digital cinema’s most sacrilegious, filthy possibilities. Where Cameron dreams, Argento goes back to that space that has outlined so much of his logic-dismantling filmography — the space of the nightmare.

When recalling the extravagant camera movements that persist through many of Argento’s earlier films, Dracula 3D’s primarily classicist, tableaux-based mode seems almost restrained. However, the auteur mines his first 3D nightmare not for variations on a familiar style, but rather for an as-yet unprecedented sample of the digital perverse. One might turn to the genre’s previous 21st century forays into 3D technology as counter-arguments (like, for example, Patrick Lussier’s 2009 My Bloody Valentine remake). But Lussier, whose resumé is notably filled with several editing credits for Wes Craven’s films, directs his slasher update as a mostly straightforward throwback exercise. He makes use of the third dimension only occasionally as a playful device rather than as a grammatical foundation.

By comparison, Argento uses 3D versions of classical compositions as the basis for some of the most flagrant and confrontational artifice in his career — CGI animals burst into pockets of almost high-key lighting while he paints the frame’s corners with deep black shadow; typically for this director, the actors perform the role of moving pieces in a stylistic exercise rather than as character-devoted sources for audience empathy. So much of Argento’s focus on the 3D technology comes through in the use of light — it is really about depth of field and guiding eye-lines within the dimensional range. The filmmaker finds in this new tool a means of further interrogating career-long fixations — Dracula 3D is almost hysterical in its imagistic devotion to sexual lust, animal/human relations, blood and the fallibility of the body.

And, like almost all of the auteur’s output, the film resists rational systems of evaluation and explanation. Argento even defiles Stoker’s narrative rigor, repurposing the source material as a foundation for his cinema of images rather than as a consistent plot blueprint. Critics condemned the director for “failing” to adhere to his text of choice, but why should we assume that it was ever his intention to undergo a “faithful” adaptation in the first place? This filmmaker’s oeuvre has never been a showcase of “good taste” or conventional demonstrations in character/story development, so why should we expect him to play by the rules now?

I will not go so far as to say that I understand Dracula 3D, not even close, but I know that its sensibility effectively absorbed me. When it comes to the works of Dario Argento, that is all I have come to expect on a first viewing.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is available for purchase at Unnerving Magazine. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

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