With its chiseled lead, damsels in distress and CG-heavy splash-page action scenes, Dracula Untold may find its literary roots in Bram Stoker’s classic blood-curdling tail, but it’s definitely much less a gothic horror story than a comic book superhero origin tale. This just so happens to be a superhero that sucks, and luckily not always in the negative sense.
Newcomer director Gary Shore works off Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ script for this modernist reimagining of the world’s most famous vampire, one that gives us a much more sympathetic Vlad Tepes aka Dracula in Welshman Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6). This may be a pain in the neck for horror aficionados, but will definitely pull in some better four-quadrant appeal. And hey, at least he isn’t sparkling.
Set in 16th century Transylvania, Dracula Untold finds Wallachian Prince Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula (ie Son of the Dragon) ruling benevolently over his people, peacefully detached from his blood-soaked youth – during which he earned his string of brutal monikers – after being forced into military servitude abroad by Wallachia’s Turkish overlords as a royal hostage. Now, a decade later, all he wants to do is be a good husband to his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon), a proud father to his son Ingeras (Art Parkinson) and good leader to his subject and commanders/advisers who are totally interchangeable from each other and any people of similar ilk that you’ve seen in hundreds of other medieval movies.
All three of those qualms get put to the test though when Vlad’s ex-childhood companion and current Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) comes rolling back into Transylvania with a horrifying demand: He wants 1000 young boys to use as soldiers in his many conquests abroad. Correction: make that 1001 boys as Vlad’s reluctance causes Mehmed to demand Ingeras as a royal hostage as well. Vlad refuses with a sword and some severed limbs (neither of them his own), setting off a war with Mehmed, one that even his now long-forgotten warrior reputation cannot help him with. Desperate for the power to stop the coming bloodshed, Vlad seeks out the foul, nightmarish creature (Charles Dance) that resides on Broken Tooth Mountain, and bargains away his soul in exchange for a taste of the ghoul’s superhuman abilities. But these abilities have a cost: If he can resist the insatiable craving for human blood for three days (which is quite the heightened timetable when it comes to stopping a war), Vlad will return to human form, but if he gives in, he will be trapped in this monstrous state forever.
And so with great power, comes great CGI battle sequences mainly involving Vlad commanding and turning himself into vast clouds of bats that wreak havoc on his enemies. And this is also where we hit Dracula Untold‘s biggest problem. When Vlad first discovers his powers, he accidentally crushes boulders to gravel with a casual shrug, and yet when engaged in pitched 1-vs-1000’s battles he doesn’t appear to be doing much more damage than your average street fighter that klaps gym regularly, boet. For a movie that is so intrinsically bound to blood, there’s nary a drop of it to be found here. Shore comes up with some awe-inspiring action visuals, but it’s all still kept disappointingly PG-13. Tarsem Singh’s Immortals, which Evans also starred in, shows that when somebody with godlike power hits another human being, he should essentially turn his target into a series of pinkish soup stains. Unfortunately, here the action is nerfed to logic-defying levels (last time I checked, when you fell off the side of mountain, you generally suffered more than just a bloody lip).
Look past that lack of hemoglobin though, and there are some interesting things being done here. Sazama and Sharpless’ script pitches some intriguing twists on established lore, and should be applauded for not allowing Dracula to skew too heroically. He does some pretty dark stuff here and is definitely not completely de-fanged. The script also boasts a neat thematic overtone, that runs from start to finish, and adds some depth to the character.
And although probably not the breakout role that Evans was hoping for, he at least acquits himself well both in all the action and the moments between. This is admittedly nothing more than you’ve seen him do before, but he solidly glowers, growls and grieves on cue. So too Gadon and Ingeras give reliable performances, but nothing too memorable. The two people who seem to be having fun with the script though is Dance and Cooper, both of whom are sorely in need of some moustaches to twirl.
The audience will also find themselves having great fun with the script at times, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. For all the interesting concepts introduced, there are some laughably bad ones thrown in there as well. One guffaw-inducing clunker involves Mehmed forcing his army to march blindfolded because, well… He’s the Sultan and you don’t question his instructions no matter how silly, okay?!
In the end, Dracula Untold ends up a film that is occasionally too dumb, sometimes too dour and almost completely lacking in the good ol’ red stuff, but it has a few nifty ideas (one of which sets up the potential for an intriguing sequel), decent enough performances from its lead cast and some solid CG-action spectacle. Check your brain and blood lust at the door, and you should find a briefly entertaining if more than likely forgettable diversion.
Last Updated: October 2, 2014