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 whatís to be gained by returning to the alpha bloodsucker, a character thatís been all but demystified and reimagined over the course of an entire century. Predictably, the answer is ďnot much,Ē and how could it really be otherwise considering how familiar the legend of Draculaóor even Vlad the Impaleróis at this point? A more accurate title for this would be Dracula: No Stone Left Unturned, as it represents a busy intersection of Hollywoodís 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 filmís 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 homelandís throne. As a prince, heís still expected to pay fealty to the Turkish sultan (Dominic Cooper), who now demands a thousand Transylvanian boys (including Vladís own son) to enlist in his army. After politely reminding his overlords that he didnít earn the nickname ďImpalerĒ for nothing, he has to forcefully rebuff their overtures by slaughtering several of their company. Upon realizing that heís 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 heís 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 Draculaís 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 weíve 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 Stokerís novel (and an even further cry, perhaps, from the actual Vlad Tepes, a brutal, genocidal maniacóhow odd that weíre supposed to empathize with this guy). Evans and Gadon are fine in their rolesóitís 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 thatís specific to Draculaís vampire origins is quick and to the point (if youíve been stuck with this trailer a dozen times during the past few months, youíve essentially seen it there). Whatís really untold is the story behind Draculaís undead benefactor, a more classically Nosferatu creature thatís 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 Draculaís own story is so mechanical and familiar, Danceís enigmatic bloodsucker offers something potentially unknown and freshóI 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 Ekerotís 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, itís 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, itís only revealed itself to something of an elaborate chess board, where the pieces have begun to be arranged for Universalís looming re-launch of its stable of Classic Monsters. Itís something Iíd like to be excited about, but, if Dracula Untold is any indication, itís 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 Iím sure this is going to culminate in Dracula commanding a legion of CGI bat-fists had having them clash with a Mummyís similarly CGI sand-fists or some shit. Iím still guessing itíll be better than Van Helsing at least, but if thatís the only bar to clear, perhaps itís best to go ahead and pound some nails into this coffin before it can reopen. Rent it!
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