Movie Review – Dracula Untold
– Summary –
Director : Gary Shores
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Luke Evans, Sarah Gordon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, William Houston, Ferdinand Kingsley, Noah Huntley, Paul Kaye, Zach McGowan.
Approx Running Time : 92 Minutes
Synopsis: Vlad “The Impaler” is the Prince of Transylvania. After a request by the Turkish Sultan to hand over his son, and a thousand others from his kingdom, Vlad seeks out a powerful vampire living in the cliffs to aide him in his fight.
What we think : Loud, deftly filmed, yet lacking “bite” (ha!) or a riveting focus, Dracula Untold is another revisionist humanizing of one of mythology’s most inhuman monsters, and it works more often than it should. Although it avoids grace, and resolutely clings to a romantic sub-plot which constantly pulls it off course, and staggers home with a messy, graceless finale, the sheer audacity of the production to turn Dracula from screen villain to tortured anti-hero makes for entertaining viewing. Stoker would be rolling in his grave, of course, but then he should be well used to that by now.
Drac’s Back, baby.
I’m reasonably sure when Bram Stoker sat down and write his masterpiece, Dracula, that he had no inkling at how often his creation would be used in the context of entertainment media – from television to film (and probably a song or two), Dracula has, in one form or another, become the poster child for all things vampiric. He’s the One, the original Vampire of horror, the most famous and easily identifiable of all the vampiric legends, thanks largely to Hollywood’s fascination with the blood sucker. Ostensibly a villain, in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, and alternatively a hero (did you see Hotel Transylvania?) and an outright monster with frightening ninja skills (Blade Trinity), Dracula has been part of some of the most famous, and most dire films ever made on the subject. Dracula Untold, a film whose title promises lots but undoubtedly will deliver very little, is a soft “reboot” of Universal’s monsters franchises (the Mummy, Wolf-Man, Invisible Man, etc etc) and just looking at the promotional material for it, you get the sense that this is going to be “epic” in almost every sense. Or at least, try to be. Would Bram Stoker be pleased with Dracula Untold? Does it adhere to his original text in any way, or is it another pop-culture fly-by-nighter, looking to capitalize on the character in name only, eschewing historical reference to his legacy in favor of a typically shallow “modern” take on his classic status?
Prince Vlad (Luke Evans) returns home to Transylvania after years of fighting a war for the Turkish Sultan. Ruling his kingdom with his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gordon) and young son Ingerus (Art Parkinson), he strives for peace, yet when a Turkish envoy arrives to collect their tribute, as well as a thousand young boys for the Turkish army, Vlad defies these orders. Seeking a way of defeating a vastly superior army, Vlad seeks out a powerful and deadly vampire (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) living in the cliffs, and asks for a way to defeat the Sultan, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper). The vampire passes on some of his power, under the condition that should Vlad submit to the desire to drink human blood within three days, he will remain a vampire for eternity; if, however, he can resist the thirst, he will return to human form after the sun rises on the fourth morning. As Mehmed’s forces thunder down on Vlad’s peaceful kingdom to take their prize, including young Ingerus, Vlad uses all his power to thwart their ambition while trying to remain as human as he can.
Now that this film is out, shouldn’t it be Dracula….. Told? Ahem. Dracula Untold is, simply, an origin film. It reboots the mythos of the greatest vampire ever for a modern audience, a form of Underworld-lite production design and some stunning visual effects (not to mention a roaring surround mix) ensuring it captures as wide a demographic as it can. Director Gary Shore, in his debut feature, helms the film with the sure hand of a big-time commercial director – the film looks spectacular, and makes the most of its ripping visual effects and Northern Ireland location shooting – and as far as the tone, style and action aesthetic of the movie go this ticks all the boxes for a big screen venture. Yet it’s narratively shallow of field, a fallow romantic subplot that stalls the characters whenever Sarah Gordon, who plays Vlad’s wifey, appears on the screen. Understandably, it’s this love for her, and for their son, that drives Vlad to use whatever means he can to save them (and the people under his rule), but the film is rather anemic (pun intended) with the development of Mirena and Ingerus beyond simple aspects of Vlad’s backstory. Favoring action over character isn’t something new in modern mainstream blockbusters, and Dracula Untold doesn’t really try and correct the imbalance, but it makes Vlad’s eventual descent into the character of Dracula (hey, is that a spoiler if we know he becomes the Count in the end?) a little weaker as a story construct than it deserved.
This shouldn’t be laid at the feet of the performers, either. Luke Evans shoulders the film with ease as Vlad, the sorrow and horror behind his eyes etched constantly on his face as he weighs up each choice with the thunderous inevitability of destiny. Evans makes a terrific vampire, and is solid enough an actor to make even the most clunky, risible dialogue appear commendable. Co-star Charles Dance, as the Original vampire Vlad goes to for help, has a blast chewing the scenery as the best “Elderly” vamp since Bill Nighy did similar in the Underworld franchise. Sarah Gordon is pretty, and pretty good as Mirena, yet her part feels more like a traditional “damsel in distress” than a confident woman who will protect her son. Her character arc is little more than in service of Vlad’s journey, which is unsurprising if not disappointing. Art Parkinson suffers from Child Actor Syndrome, acting his way into an uncomfortable variation of Spencer Treat Clarke in Gladiator; he’s a weird choice for the role, and never seems to be more than a pedestal for the writers to plant Vlad’s feet as he clambers closer to being Dracula. Dominic Cooper, as the bravest (or stupidest) screen villain to grace us this year, hams it up wonderfully as the Turkish Sultan, bringing just enough malevolent cruelty and arrogance to make up for the fact that he stares down the obvious power Vlad has with a scoff and a sneer – dude, most men would be pissing their pants and running the other way, complete with funny cartoon sound effects! Cooper is good, though, and makes for a decent villainous counterpart to Evans’ Vlad.
As you’d expect, Dracula Untold delivers plenty of ripping vampiric action, most of which is aided by some terrific CG effects and solid stuntwork. The film’s use of the Vampire Bat iconography is particularly well rendered, as Vlad turns himself into a cloud of bats to transport himself across country with ease (it’s a nice switch on Dracula turning into a single flying rodent, as most of us will recall!), and his Matrix-style use of a swarm of the creatures to battle against Mehmed’s army is stunningly realized. Evans has a screen presence (which is probably why Peter Jackson cast him as Bard in his Hobbit films!) belying his action-hero status – Evans never struck me as a man of action, but he’s proved me wrong with this one. Shore, who rides a wave of style somewhere between Paul Greengrass, Peter Berg and Peter Jackson’s wide-screen Rings work, adds an element of sweaty, stinky dirtiness to the film’s undercurrent of well-manicured production design. The action is fast and usually frenetic, the character beats kinda/sorta work when they need to (largely thanks to Evans’ convincing performance) and the film has that “filmed at night” shadowyness which is evocative in so many ways. There’s a moment, midway through the opening act, when Vlad, now filled with all the power of a vampire, singularly confronts a battalion of Mehmed’s men (during an opening skirmish), and lays waste to them. While also thinking this was a fairly heroic thing for our anti-hero to be doing, I couldn’t help but punch the air with delight as he simply eviscerates all his enemies within a few moments of gloriously bloodthirsty screen-time. Man, that was an ass kicking!
One of the things I enjoyed about Dracula Untold, aside from it’s kick-ass bad-assery, was the fact that it never seemed to pander to the character’s legacy. It felt new, almost reborn, in a manner I wasn’t expecting. Slavish devotion to Bram Stoker’s mythology is one thing, and haute couture-wearing modernized barstardry is another, but this? This felt like a Dracula in name only, albeit with a sprinkling of genre hints to render the character a trademark device. That’s not to say it didn’t work, because I think underneath all the crashing and bashing, all the mock-opera soundtrack and thunderous bass tones, Dracula Untold really delivered a decent origin. It’s not particularly deep, nor is it a crushing bore of literary shenanigans, rather it’s an action-driven spectacle trying to capture your attention and remain relatively true to modern vampire expectations. At the very least, it’s something to build upon, should this apparent cinematic universe eventually pan out.
Purists will continue to wring their hands as Dracula’s name once again becomes more about the name than the man (in spite of many bold attempts to do otherwise), and those seeking a straight-up horror film will be disappointed (you know, it would be kinda nice to see ol’ Drac get back to just slaying juicy virgins and wreaking havoc without the death-metal soundtrack I imagine in my head!) but if you’re into that leather-wearing, bat-loving style of action flick, Dracula Untold will serve up just the right amount of silly flim-flam to get your juices pumping. A far cry from Steven Sommers’ horrid Van Helsing, and more akin to a badder, nastier version of Steven Sommers’ The Mummy Returns, Dracula Untold is loud, crazy, unkempt franchise building at its most gloriously cheesy, spectacle-loving best. It’s not the best Dracula film we’ve seen, but it’s thankfully not the worst.
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