Dracula Untold (2014)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-10-10 21:18

Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Directed by: Gary Shore
Starring: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, and Sarah Gadon

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Every bloodline has a beginning.

Dracula Untold might feature the most absurd vampire movie premise in recent memory: with this creature having been overexposed in every conceivable form of media for the past half-decade, you have to wonder what’s to be gained by returning to the alpha bloodsucker, a character that’s been all but demystified and reimagined over the course of an entire century. Predictably, the answer is “not much,” and how could it really be otherwise considering how familiar the legend of Dracula—or even Vlad the Impaler—is at this point? A more accurate title for this would be Dracula: No Stone Left Unturned, as it represents a busy intersection of Hollywood’s current preoccupations with prequels and world-building. Lost in this is Dracula himself, who feels more like a pawn than an actual character by the end of his own movie, a sad fate considering the film’s obvious aim.

Set in 15th century Transylvania, Untold opens with familiar lore: after being raised as a slave in the Turkish army, Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) develops a reputation as a ruthless, bloodthirsty warrior and ascends to his homeland’s throne. As a prince, he’s still expected to pay fealty to the Turkish sultan (Dominic Cooper), who now demands a thousand Transylvanian boys (including Vlad’s own son) to enlist in his army. After politely reminding his overlords that he didn’t earn the nickname “Impaler” for nothing, he has to forcefully rebuff their overtures by slaughtering several of their company. Upon realizing that he’s instigated a war with the Turkish Empire, he enlists the supernatural services of a local vampire (Charles Dance), who offers him quite the bargain: Vlad can assume some of his powers for three days and will revert to his human form so long as he’s able to swear off his growing thirst for human blood during that time. Not bad by Faustian standards, really.

That wrinkle provides a brief hope that Dracula Untold will actually be something of a character study. With its title character rapidly rising to straight-up God Mode and defusing the external drama, it would be wise to instead shift the focus on Dracula’s internal conflict. However, it quickly becomes rather clear that director Gary Shore and company have little interest in taking this route, as the film rapidly degenerates into another bloated, dully constructed action film with hordes of characters hacking and slashing each other in murky environments. Everything about these set pieces is dulled and sanitized by their rote familiarity, shoddy camerawork, and a PG-13 rating that really does no justice for a guy who calls himself Vlad the Impaler. A scene featuring a guy commanding a legion of bats and forming them into a fist to smite his enemies should never feel so obligatory, yet here we are.

When the film does choose to focus on Dracula and family, it also seems to do so out of obligation. Evans and on-screen bride Sarah Gadon trudge through the motions that leave us with the same old revisionist Dracula we’ve been stuck with for decades now: lovelorn, haunted by his failures as a man, and burdened with the curse of the undead, a far cry from the cunning, predatory Count with aspirations of ruling the world in Stoker’s novel (and an even further cry, perhaps, from the actual Vlad Tepes, a brutal, genocidal maniac—how odd that we’re supposed to empathize with this guy). Evans and Gadon are fine in their roles—it’s just that the film sort of reduces them to utterly blank avatars for the only real concern it has: positioning Dracula as the cornerstone for the overarching mythology cryptically developing around him.

Truthfully, the stuff that’s specific to Dracula’s vampire origins is quick and to the point (if you’ve been stuck with this trailer a dozen times during the past few months, you’ve essentially seen it there). What’s really untold is the story behind Dracula’s undead benefactor, a more classically Nosferatu creature that’s been hidden away in a cave for centuries. Now twisted and deformed, he hopes to pass his curse on so that he might take revenge on whoever saddled him with it in the first place. Vague references are made to this demonic entity, and a mysterious servant occasionally drops in to hint that larger, sinister forces are at work, but it all feels like an unwieldy appendage, sort of like all of the clumsily wedged-in SHIELD stuff in Iron Man 2.

Which is too bad because, somewhat ironically, this is the most intriguing stuff the film has to offer. Since Dracula’s own story is so mechanical and familiar, Dance’s enigmatic bloodsucker offers something potentially unknown and fresh—I find myself drawn much more to his ur-vampire than I do Dracula himself, if only because his mechanizations (vague though they may be) represent something a little interesting. Despite garb that marks him as the umpteenth riff of Bengt Ekerot’s Death, Dance is quite distinctive in his portrayal of a more primal vampire, which becomes a welcome sight after years of increasingly demystified and overly-romanticized takes on the legend. In his passing of the torch to Dracula, one witnesses the evolution of the mythos in one fell swoop: in reality, it’s taken decades to reach the point where vampires have devolved from sinister creatures to tortured souls, yet Dracula Untold brings us right back to this status quo within minutes.

By the end, it’s only revealed itself to something of an elaborate chess board, where the pieces have begun to be arranged for Universal’s looming re-launch of its stable of Classic Monsters. It’s something I’d like to be excited about, but, if Dracula Untold is any indication, it’s not going to be for me. A big, loud, and ultimately empty spectacle, this origin tale is not an ideal harbinger for such a resurrection. This compulsive need to reconfigure horror icons into action vehicles is particularly tiresome, and I’m sure this is going to culminate in Dracula commanding a legion of CGI bat-fists had having them clash with a Mummy’s similarly CGI sand-fists or some shit. I’m still guessing it’ll be better than Van Helsing at least, but if that’s the only bar to clear, perhaps it’s best to go ahead and pound some nails into this coffin before it can reopen. Rent it!

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