Dracula has had a long and incredibly varied history in cinema. First arriving in the enduringly frightening shadow of Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu, Bram Stoker’s creation has bared many faces on our screens, working mainly in the realms of horror, with the odd foray into action, Sci-Fi, animation, and comedy. What camp, then, does Dracula Untold fit in to? I think the best label to give this new beginning for the Count is a superhero origins tale. There is very little horror to be found here, and while there is a certain degree of tragedy, the gaining of Vampiric abilities here is treated as though we are witnessing the birth of a new member of The Avengers. As a result, this film very quickly descends into CG-driven action, with little personality and gaping gaps in logic and coherence. And it’s pretty damn stupid.
Initially, the premise offered to us is an intriguing one. Using the true life figure of Vlad the Impaler as the true identity of Count Dracula, Luke Evans stars as the doomed Prince of Transylvania. After having been raised in the Turkish army, bred to become a feared warrior, Vlad the Impaler is happy to live a quiet life as Prince, with his beautiful wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). However, all that is put in jeopardy when the Turks, lead by Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), demand that Vlad provide the Turkish Army with 1,000 sons. Adamant that he will not allow his people’s sons enter a life of violence, he makes a dark deal to obtain the powers of a Vampire. He will escape the curse in 3 days, but only if he does not succumb to his lusting for human blood. Something which may prove more difficult then he initially thought.
We most certainly have not seen this incarnation of Dracula on screen before, which marks Dracula Untold as at least a curious artefact in the history of Stoker’s creation. And while the premise does intrigue in its initial set-up, allowing Evans to turn up the anti-hero bad-ass swag, it just simply isn’t enough to compensate for a film that becomes yet another example of lazily written action cinema.
The production design of the film is aptly lavish enough, with the Northern Irish landscapes proving aptly epic in scope to convince as the Eastern Europenan locales. Likewise, there has clearly been a great deal of effort put into the costume design, all aiming to convincingly build a world around Vlad and his people. First time feature director, Gary Shore, seems to know his way around a decent budget, but he soons falls on the trappings of too much CGI, and it diminishes much of the work of the first third of the film.
Much of the action presented to us, which should be cool and kick-ass is often shrouded in too much darkness or simply far too kinetic for the spectator to truly gauge what is happening. In one instance, the action is shown to us on the reflection of a sword blade. I’m sure Shore thought this was a rather cool idea in its inception, but the final product just seems overtly stylised to the point where it isn’t really doing anything to emphasise the drama of the moment. This kind of thinking in the action sequences colours much of the final third, which leads to some pretty ridiculous imagery. Yet, kinda fun, in a very stupid way, as he appears to take on the abilities of Green Lantern by producing a giant fist out of bats.
Performance wise, the film offers dependable lead turns from the likes of Evans and Gadon, two very attractive screen presences who are quite easy to watch for an hour and a half. Evans, in particular, takes the role very seriously (as does everyone else), but does cut the mould of the tragic Prince rather well, meaning that should his character indeed have a future in a Universal Monster Cinematic Universe, I’d be quite content in seeing Evans continue in the role. Less successful is Dominic Cooper as the cheif antagonist, putting on an utterly ridiculous Turkish accent, coming the closest to anyone in the cast doing a bad impression of Bela Lugosi. Elsewhere, Charles Dance lurks in the shadows, increasing the creepy level to the point of being camp, but makes for a fun role for the Game of Thrones alumni.
I am a man who appreciates a fun monster movie. I, unlike most people, am a fan of Joe Johnston rushed but moody The Wolfman, and I shall defend Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing to the end of my days. I thought I would find myself aligning Dracula Untold with those movies, but unfortunately not. Johnston and Sommers understood the fundamental appeal of their characters enduring legacies, but here, Shore has missed the point. It is not without its charms, and is certainly striving for something different, but it is simply too scatter-shot in its final act to truly establish itself as a worthwhile interpretation of the Dracula legend (heck, he doesn’t even get to be the Dracula we know and love for any of it). If this is indeed the beginning of a new Cinematic Universe, I for one am not too excited for a future of pale imitations. Unless they give Sommers another shot.