The Count returns in Universal’s monster reboot, but is it enough to impress mega-fan Oscar?
Luke Evans dons the cape of the great vampire in Dracula Untold, an important film for Universal in their recently-announced plans to set-up a “Monsters Cinematic Universe” in the style of Marvel and DC. While leaning more towards action-adventure than horror, similar to 1999’s The Mummy, and even boasting a few enjoyable and even tender moments, the biggest problem I had with Dracula Untold was its plot, being basic to the point of frustration.
After many years at war with the Ottoman Empire, Prince Vlad Țepeș the Impaler (Evans) returns to his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his son Ingeras (Art Parkinson) to rule his land peacefully. However, before he can shake off his bloody reputation, a Turkish messenger arrives at the feast, demanding tributes in silver as well as 1,000 Transylvanian boys for the Turkish wars. Not wanting to allow further bloodshed of his people, Vlad attempts to negotiate with Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), offering his servitude in order to protect Transylvania’s sons. The Sultan refuses, instead demanding Vlad’s son be taken into Turkish custody as he himself was as a child. Vlad is reluctant to give up his son and vows to keep his family together through the crisis. The Turks arrive the next day to take Ingeras away, but Vlad kills them, and sends his wife and son back.
He ventures alone towards the cave in Broken Tooth Mountain, hoping to find the mysterious, demonic creature that killed passing Turks and two of his own men whilst on patrol. He learns that that the creature is an ancient vampire (Chales Dance) that has lived for thousands of years. The fiend threatens to kill Vlad, but the prince instead enters into a Faustian bargain. For three days, Vlad will possess incredible strength, speed and enough power to destroy his enemies. However, he will be afflicted with an insatiable thirst to drink human blood and be vulnerable to silver and sunlight. Vlad drinks the blood of the vampire, with the catch that he will become one if he gives into the urge. Vlad awakens later that night to discover his strength, heightened senses and an uncanny ability to transform into a swarm of bats. He also senses that his castle is under attack. He returns and single-handedly destroys the entire Ottoman army, without revealing the nature of these powers to his people. Knowing the Sultan will repay him in full force, Vlad evacuates his castle to take refuge and end the invasion before his powers give out, or worse, succumbs to his own desire for plasma.
Evans has a strong physical presence as Vlad the Impaler, having a stern military air about him, but he has to balance that with moments of affection for his family. Overall, he’s quite admirable as both Vlad and Dracula. Parkinson is very believable and earnest as young Ingeras, and his scenes with Evans add a lot of emotion to the story, and are often some of the best scenes in the film. Whilst Cooper does look the part of Sultan Mehmed, he seems far more affable than threatening; his actions are vile but his outward nature is not. Despite not appearing in the film for long, Dance gives a chilling and enjoyable performance as the vamp, often seeming to be a greater villain than the Sultan. Gadon is sympathetic as Mirena and works well with Evans, but doesn’t receive a lot of development to allow for much investment.
The action itself is enjoyable, especially the first confrontation where Vlad slaughters an entire army of Turks in person, revelling in his powers. It even involves the removal of limbs and much bloodshed, with him transforming into a cloud of bats to disorientate his foes. While grand, the oft-advertised scene with Vlad massacring them with an army of flying rodents does require much suspension of disbelief, especially for a fantasy film. In both of Vlad’s encounters with the vampire in the cave, the atmosphere is genuinely creepy and unsettling, showing crushed bones, skulls, and pretty violent deaths. Technically, the film is solid, with cool CGI landscapes and castles to give it a grand scale, and well-shot vistas of Northern Ireland. When Vlad sheds his human skin to reveal the grey, sinewy flesh of his vampiric form, he does look pretty awesome. The dark cinematography sets the mood up nicely, with a distinctively cold tone that suits the vampiric theme.
I don’t object to the film’s portrayal of Dracula as a more sympathetic character, but I do think they could have tried to illustrate his darker side a bit clearer. He is aware that he has committed evil deeds in the past, even calling himself a monster, but he truly isn’t a monster. He’s actually acutely aware of the powers he’s taken up. After years of abusing the rules of vampirism under the Twilight franchise, I did enjoy watching Vlad take to his abilities, but I had to accept that this wouldn’t possess the Gothic self-assurance of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Without revealing too much of the plot, there is a scene involving one of Vlad’s loved ones falling to their death, which is very similar to the opening scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s film. This proves very instrumental in Vlad’s decision to embrace his vampirism.
The opening narration feels very forced, highlighting Vlad’s youth and days as the Impaler when it could have been done visually. Parkinson narrates the beginning and end of the film, but it just doesn’t work. Often the dialogue stoops into formula and familiarity, and there is the odd line that sounds off even from a veteran like Charles Dance. Once in a while, the photography goes blurry to emphasise a supernatural effect, and again it’s really jarring. Despite its medieval setting, the costume design and sets lend themselves to a wider fantasy realm, rather than a specific era or place in Europe, especially since Vlad in the movie bears little resemblance to his historical counterpart. Also, the usually-reliable composer Ramin Djawadi doesn’t provide us with any memorable themes for the film, and he is resigned to providing background music simply to set-up mood (maybe he was saving his best vampire stuff for TV’s The Strain).
At a little over ninety minutes, Dracula Untold feels rushed, indicating that Universal tampered with the script and production in some way, as with 2010’s The Wolfman. From what I’ve seen online, there were meant to be other scenes involving Samantha Barks as a witch, but we see nothing of her. Dance’s character was named Caligula in surrounding material, but he’s never named as such on-screen, confusingly. There is also a hint towards a former friendship between Vlad and the Sultan, but we never see anything in them to suggest such a bond, which weakens what could’ve been a fascinating enmity. The overall story is the film’s biggest flaw; the limited run-time restricted character development to a bare minimum. There are a lot of parallels with superhero origin stories such as Batman Begins and Man of Steel, but framing Vlad’s story in this fashion feels redundant. With the narrative of a warrior king resisting a mighty army, I found myself reminded of 300, too, and it detracted from the story. The vampire mythology is rather rushed, and the consequences of Vlad’s decision don’t register due to the abundance of action over character. After the finale, there is a very perfunctory scene which hints towards a sequel or other movies in the proposed Monsters Universe, but it throws you off because the foundation for it just isn’t solid enough.
It’s safe to say that we’ve seen worse Draculas in weaker movies, but the fact Untold is very formulaic in structure has left any possible sequel or related film feeling inert. Luke Evans and Charles Dance do increase the calibre of the movie, with the father-son scenes and the action being enough to convince me that it wasn’t a complete waste of time, but it’s hard to ignore a clichèd script. Overall, Gary Shore makes a technically-solid debut for a first-time director, but in terms of character and story, it should have been much better.