Between the NBC series Dracula and the abysmal new indie flick Dracula 3D, the most famous vampire of them all is having a crappy October.
You know who Bram Stoker, the author of the classic 1897 novel Dracula, must hate right about now? Thomas Kretschmann, the German actor who's currently portraying Stoker's two most iconic characters, Count Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing.
Kretschmann's reign of terror began in Italy, and is now moving to America. He plays the legendary bloodsucker in the once-brilliant Italian horror master Dario Argento's unbelievably terrible Dracula 3D (available through IFC Midnight's Video On-Demand service), an indisputable nadir in the career of a fallen great who's coming off the embarrassing 2009 serial killer film Giallo, the former holder of the "nadir" crown. Kretschmann is faring slightly better as Van Helsing, thankfully, in the new NBC series Dracula (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. EST), an ambitious but ineffective remix of Stoker's book. In the small-screen version of Stoker's mythology, the count (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a charming industrialist by day and a vengeance-seeking vigilante by night—it's part Death Wish, part Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, and altogether hokey. The slow-motion martial arts fight Dracula finds himself in near the end of tonight's premiere episode is sufficient evidence of that.
Neither Dracula 3D or NBC's Dracula have the accessible romance or bone-chilling terror of Stoker's novel, though the TV show does fancy itself romantic. As inhabited by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Dracula—who goes by the moniker Alexander Grayson in public—is a lady-slaying playboy, a babe magnet able to entice medical student Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) and seduce the older but equally beautiful Lady Jane (Victoria Smurfit) with his good looks, smooth talking, and, apparently, unintentionally humorous Christian Slater voice. A natural-born Irishman, Meyers tries his damnedest to sound American but strains to give Dracula/Grayson the calculated cool-guy pitch he's supposed to have. It's Slater speak, all day.
That's the least of Dracula's problems. Co-creators Cole Haddon and Daniel Knauf (creator of HBO's Carnivale) are cramming more story into Dracula than they can handle. The Count's targets are members of a secret society known as the Order of the Dragon, giving Meyers' Dracula and Kretschmann's Van Helsing—who, in one of the show's many tweaks to Stoker's novel, are working together to fight shared enemies—plenty of opportunities to plot against their common foes, which is really all Van Helsing gets to do. Mina Murray, meanwhile, is engaged to newspaper journalist Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who also happens to be Grayson's new protege, since Mina resembles Dracula's late, centuries-dead lover killed by the Order. And then there's Renfield, the wildst character in Stoker's novel neutered here into a bland, loyal servant (played by Nonso Anozie).
Renfield's change from a lunatic to the NBC show's dullest character is indicative of the show's biggest problem: It's a snooze. Imagine a Downton Abbey-like period drama stripped of its rich characterization, loaded with cheesy-looking gore, and dominated by non-starting action. Dracula is occupied by numerous people but no one to care about. All they do is talk about plans, goals, and vendettas, but never stop to reveal themselves as anything more than well-dressed plot-movers moving around gorgeously rendered Victorian London sets. The show's all forward momentum without any investment.
Compared to Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, though, NBC's new Friday night hope is Nosferatu. Unapologetic fans of Argento's many horror classics—The Bird With the Crystal Plummage (1970), Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), and Inferno (1980)—should only peep the writer-director's latest debacle to get masochistic jollies; otherwise, Dracula 3D is best left to rot away in VOD obscurity.
Argento, now 73 years old, has presumably lost his mind—there's no other way to explain Dracula 3D. The score, composed by Argento's old collaborator Claudio Simonetti (recently lobotomized?), sounds like it's from a lost Ed Wood movie or a 1950s B-grade flying saucer picture, which, in any other case, would signify a self-aware genre comedy, like Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!. In Dracula 3D, the silly music is just as out-of-place as the cheap-o CGI effects, an assortment of barely 8-bit visuals that would make a 1990s computer programmer shake his head in disgust. Argento's crowning achievement of EFX hilarity comes near the film's end, when Dracula—who's already shape-shifted into cockroaches and a swarm of flies, just because—turns into a 7-foot-tall praying mantis.
That's right, a 7-foot-tall praying mantis. That looks like this:
That's real, what you're seeing above.
Dracula 3D's myriad other flaws are hardly worth mentioning, other than to say that the 73-year-old version of every horror fan's former favorite Italian is clueless around actors. Each cast member seems like he or she is performing in a totally different movie from his or her on-screen counterparts. A few, like Rutger Hauer (as Van Helsing), are sleepwalking through scenes, just as bored with Argento's film as the audience. Kretschmann, meanwhile, plays Dracula like a robot stuck in "Shakespearean" mode. Argento's Italian actors, even worse, must have learned how to speak English mere days before shooting began, making Dracula 3D sound like a voice dubber's worst nightmare come to life. The only one who's even remotely in sync is the director's daughter, Asia Argento (as Mina's doomed friend Lucy Westenra), and that's because, like Daddy Argento has oh-so-creepily done before, she's required to get naked and simulate sex while her father leers from behind the camera.
Come December, there's a strong chance Dracula 3D will top some critics' list of the year's worst movies, assuming enough critics are self-abusive enough to actually sit through Argento's painfully long (110 minutes) disaster of a film. It's not like there was ever really a chance for Dracula 3D to be anything but excruciating—much like his fellow one-time horror geniuses George A. Romero and John Carpenter, Argento's directorial skills have long vanished, having been replaced by the spirit and chops of a film school reject. In the small-screen Dracula's defense, albeit backhandedly, the NBC series isn't worst-show-of-the-year status—how can it be when the Fox sitcom Dads exists? But Dracula is something even worse: a forgettable misfire. What could have been NBC's vampiric answer to the network's excellent Hannibal (read: a dark, adult genre series with brains, brawn, and tons of blood) is little more than a tepid costume drama with occasional spurts of computer-generated blood.
And it all comes back to Thomas Kretschmann, who, one could imagine, never meant to hurt Bram Stoker. But he definitely knew about that absurd praying mantis, as well as NBC's designs to turn Count Dracula into a derivative ass-kicker right out of a Paul W.S. Anderson film. For that, he's earned whatever Mr. Stoker's ghost has planned.
Hopefully it'll go something like this:
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)