There are easy targets, and then there are easy targets, and then there are people who call their movie Dracula Untold. Untold? Really? After dozens of various adaptations and sequels, with Dracula himself portrayed by actors ranging from Frank Langella to Adam Sandler, what exactly is there left to tell? Plus, given this is another one of those CGI-heavy mid-budget genre movies that never really get well-reviewed, the potential for people to be snippily punful is almost irresistible. Dracula Untold? I’ll see that and give you Dracula Uninspired, Dracula Unnecessary, and Dracula Unwatchable, just for starters.
Cheap shots like this are only available if Gary Shore’s new movie isn’t any good, of course. It might very well be good: you’ve got to keep an open mind, after all. But you must admit that the omens are not promising. The Lord of the Undead is played by Luke Evans, one of those actors hugely dependent on the quality of the script he’s given (and, by the way, the fact it’s all too easy to accidentally describe Untold as ‘the new Dracula movie with Lee Evans’ is another mark against it), while the rest of the film promises a lot of heftless CGI and lazy pop-culture steals.
Anyway, proceedings get underway with an expository flashback of dubious historicity, describing the life of the young man known in his lifetime as Vlad Tepes, prince of Transylvania, but more noted nowadays as the Vlad the Impaler. As this is only a 15-rated movie, of course, Vlad’s impaling days are behind him and he is more concerned with being a good leader of his people and a good husband and father. (At this point we pause to deal with incipient nausea.) To be honest, it’s a bit unclear who our hero was impaling in his younger days – the historical Dracula’s victims, if indeed he’s not just the victim of propaganda, were Turks, but as the film opens he is effectively a client king of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (represented here by Dominic Cooper’s one-dimensionally sadistic Mehmed II).
Relations between Transylvania and Turkey take a turn for the worse when Mehmed decrees a thousand Transylvanian children will be conscripted into the Turkish Janissary corps, along with Vlad’s own son. Needless to say, our hero can’t bring himself to comply with this order, triggering a war with his much more powerful neighbour. Things look bleak for the Transylvanians, but Vlad embarks on a desperate search for help from an unlikely source: at the top of the movie he discovered an ancient and powerful supernatural evil was in residence in one of the remote mountains of his land, and so off he pops to see if it will help out.
Needless to say, this turns out to be an elder vampire (left nameless on screen, but according to some publicity it’s supposed to be the emperor Caligula), played by Charles Dance (who’s really quite good in the part). The vampire grants Vlad immense speed, strength, and some other useful tricks, but also an insatiable thirst for human blood. If he can resist the temptation to guzzle down some of the red for three days, he will return to his normal state – but if he fails, not only may the kingdom be lost, but he will be damned to eternity as a bloodsucking monster…
Or so it says here, anyway. I’ll be honest and say that while Dracula Untold isn’t utterly worthless, it does have serious problems, and – for me – one of them is the choice of story structure. This is ‘the tragedy of a man whose utter dedication to doing the right thing results in the destruction of everything he holds dear’, and the thing about this is that for it to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to retain his conscience and remain broadly sympathetic throughout: he has to realise just what a big mistake he has made.
The result is that we never really get Dracula as a relentless, terrifying predator, never as a genuine force of evil – he’s just a nice guy with a bit of a past who makes some mistakes, for the best of reasons. Luke Evans is by no means the least impressive Dracula in cinema history, but even he can’t really make much of an impression with material like this. The producers might well argue that this is an attempt at a revisionist Dracula, to put more of a human face on the fiend, but why would you bother? Who looks at a proper Dracula movie and thinks ‘Hmm, okay, but it would be better if he was a bit nicer’? This guy was born to be bad. Needless to say, it looks likely that any future outings with Evans as Dracula will see him as a brooding, romantic anti-hero rather than an unstoppable monster.
This is all the more ironic given that Dracula Untold has apparently been retrofitted to launch a potential franchise based on Universal’s stable of famous supernatural heavies, in which they will all cross over with each other, at least as long as the box office stays healthy. Yes, everyone wants a slice of Avengers-style pie, don’t they? Personally I hope the rest of the monsters are a bit more, um, monstrous.
But this isn’t even really a proper horror movie, just a fantasy action film with a debt to things like 300 and Lord of the Rings. The 300-ish stylings are particularly pertinent given just how much of the historical subtext this movie actively ducks – the historical Dracula was, if anything, a Christian hero, famous for helping to keep the Muslim Turks out of Europe. Exploring the ramifications of this in any kind of systematic way would be far too provocative (and possibly demand too much thoughtfulness from the audience), and so we get simple good guys and bad guys and barely any mention of religion.
The best you can say about Dracula Untold, really, is that it chooses a fairly solid story and tells it competently. It’s just not a good Dracula story or even a particularly good vampire tale. Moments with potential – Dracula taking on an entire army single-handed, for instance – are just fumbled, possibly due to the director’s lack of experience, while too many others lack even that – too often Dracula is reduced to a banal, pedestrian figure. Sex, death, blood, and style are the essentials of vampire cinema, and Dracula Untold comes up short in every department. It’s sort of vaguely enjoyable while you’re watching it, but in a week’s time you’ll have forgotten most of the details. I’ve just thought of another one: Dracula Underwhelming.