Action Dracula Untold

Fanged and Furious Film Review: Dracula Untold

October 10, 2014Ben Mk


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AKA Batman: Year 1462...

Countless actors have donned Dracula's cape over the years, but virtually all of them have approached the character from the same angle, portraying him as a bloodsucking fiend — the embodiment of pure evil. After all, they don't call him the Prince of Darkness for nothing. But what if there was more to the story — something (ahem) untold? That's exactly the question Dracula Untold attempts to answer, painting a portrait of the iconic character as a devoted family man who turns to the dark side only as a last resort to protect the ones he loves.

   

Conjuring up memories of Anakin Skywalker's fateful journey in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, Luke Evans plays the titular antihero, Vlad Dracula, the crown prince of Wallachia (that's in Transylvania, by the way). Taken from his family at a young age and indoctrinated into combat by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, Vlad spent years in servitude to the Sultan Mehmed, aiding him in his conquest of lands far and wide. And as his skills and reputation on the battlefield grew, he even earned a fearsome title: Vlad the Impaler.

A decade later, Vlad watches benevolently over the people of Transylvania from his mountaintop home, Castle Dracula, with his wife, Mirena (Sara Gadon), and young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), by his side. Now retired from battle, he has put his impaling days behind him (or so he thinks). That all changes the day Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands that Vlad — like his father before him — surrender one thousand Transylvanian boys (including his only son), to fill the ranks of the Ottoman Empire's growing army. Or else.

Enter the Master Vampire (Charles Dance), whom Vlad seeks out deep within the caverns of the ominously named Broken Tooth Mountain. He's the Emperor Palpatine to Vlad's Anakin, promising him salvation for his family and for his kingdom if he succumbs to the dark side. So Vlad does what any good Prince would do: he drinks the Master Vampire's blood and is reborn a creature of the night, gifted with all the succubus' powers (superhuman strength, speed and the ability to transform into, not to mention manipulate, a colony of bats) and cursed with all its weaknesses (namely a vulnerability to sunlight and silver). Rest assured, though, he'll be restored to his human form after three days — but only if he can resist sating his thirst for blood. Otherwise, it's bye-bye tanning salons.

The rest of the story plays out as any superhero origin story would, with director Gary Shore putting Vlad through the motions of getting up-to-speed on his new powers before expertly wielding them to lay waste to wave after wave of hapless Turkish soldiers. But, of course, events transpire in such a way that he's left eternally damned (the outcome of a scene that screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless liberally borrow from the climax of The Amazing Spider-Man 2).

Visually, Dracula Untold has its heart in the right place. Its recreation of 15th century Europe looks appropriately resplendent, with portions of the movie shot on-location in Shore's native Ireland (where, as it just so happens, HBO's Game of Thrones is also filmed). A good chunk of the production design budget also seems to have gone towards the lavish costumes — especially Vlad's stark red and black armor, which looks like it could have conceivably been worn by Gary Oldman in the opening moments of Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of the tale.

Thematically, though, the film has more in common with another early Summer blockbuster, Disney's Maleficent, than it does with Bram Stoker's gothic masterpiece, taking a character traditionally regarded as a villain and trying to cast him in a sympathetic light. All things considered, Evans does a respectable job with the part, coming across as tortured and emotionally conflicted but never too emo. The one thing neither he nor the film ever conveys, however, is a sense of terror. Because if there's one thing Dracula Untold isn't, it's a horror movie.

Perhaps nothing is more telling of this than how Shore approaches the material, having Vlad fight most of his battles under partly grey skies, rather than under the full cover of darkness. Likewise, the film — staying true to its PG-13 rating — delivers rousing action and adventure (plus a hint of romance), but little more (and certainly nothing much darker). In truth, although it works as an action film, it ends up missing the point of the character, reducing a once-iconic villain to a one-note super-powered hero — albeit one who can create awesome bat-tornadoes like nobody's business.

The Bottom Line Fans of medieval-themed action will likely find Dracula Untold appealing, because that's exactly what it is. But those who expect something that hews more closely to the source material may want to check their expectations at the door, for this is Dracula in name only. Make no mistake, however: this probably isn't the last time you'll be seeing this rendition of the character on-screen, as the ending of the film reinforces the notion of this being the start of a whole new shared universe of monster movies. If so, one can only hope that the subsequent films will have a little more bite.  Ben Mk








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