Michael Rowney reviews the latest Dracula movie
‘Sometimes the world does not need another hero. Sometimes what it needs is a monster’
With these ominous lines, Dracula Untold begins with the promise of a complex antihero narrative. Yet while there may be plenty here to entertain and thrill audiences, Dracula has been decidedly defanged. There’s hardly a monster in sight.
Billed as an origin story for the original vampire, the film starts back before Vlad the Impaler’s (Luke Evans) choice beverage was blood. Here the prince – for some reason not a count – is warm and affectionate. He boasts a doting wife (Sarah Gadon), a worshipping son (Game of Throne’s Art Parkinson), and a kingdom he deeply cares for.
Disrupting the bliss with a dodgy accent and decidedly modern hairstyle is the sultan of Turkey (the miscast Dominic Cooper). Overlord to Transylvania, he demands a thousand boys – including Vlad’s son – to join his army. When Vlad refuses, war breaks out.
Desperately outnumbered, Vlad hears rumours of a monster atop a nearby mountain – a vampire responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of Turks. Hoping to gain similar strengths, he strikes a deal with Caligula (Charles Dance), the vampire monster. He is given three days of supernatural powers along with an insatiable craving for blood. Should he resist the urge to feast upon human blood in those three days, he’ll return to the land of the living on the fourth dawn.
Perhaps most surprising is that for a movie about the most vicious sexual predator in the history of horror, Dracula Untold feels oddly PG. This isn’t the historic story of Vlad the Impaler. In fact, Vlad’s gory past is glossed over in the film’s opening two minutes.
First-time screenwriter Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama are clearly terrified of making Dracula terrifying. The result is a film more Marvel movie than monster mash. Charles Dance’s vampire dramatically warns of the eternal suffering that vampirism entails, but the movie only shows us the fun stuff. There’s no inner turmoil for Vlad about becoming a vampire – his struggle to resist blood barely registers.
If likeable was what the filmmakers were aiming for, they succeeded. Vlad and his family are sympathetic stereotypes, and it’s relatively easy to care about their fate. More worryingly is that this Dracula feels oddly powerless. War is forced by the sultan, and circumstances dictate that he become a vampire. It’s hardly a spoiler to say Vlad eventually drinks human blood, but even that comes about because he’s been told to do so by someone else.
This is a protagonist without agency, a Dracula completely unrecognisable to Bram Stoker’s villain – that Dracula actively spread his curse throughout Victorian London and struck fear into generations of cinemagoers.
Leaving any knowledge of the classic tale at the door is advisable. If you do, expect a fun film that is easy to enjoy. Inspired visuals help mask occasional ridiculousness. One particular highlight is watching a battle through the reflection of a sword, as it protrudes from a dying soldier.
This is a protagonist without agency, a Dracula completely unrecognisable to Bram Stoker’s villain
During more standard action, the direction falls short. The fighting is messily chopped together, and it’s sometimes difficult to know who’s killing who.
Nevertheless, the film is told confidently, never less than entertaining, and refrains from becoming the mind-numbing action-fest you might expect. The director allows for quieter moments, and he builds an endearing relationship between Vlad and his son in relatively short time.
One problem, of course, is that we always know how this ends. We all know Dracula is a vampire, the gimmick of resisting blood for three days and becoming human again is an unnecessary addition.
Some may dislike how obviously the script courts a sequel. Charles Dance’s character is criminally underused to make way for Untold 2. The film could have struck gold with Dance as the villain, but withholding him means Dracula is left to fight the woefully inferior Dominic Cooper and, later, his own vampire posse.
Universal has already announced plans to create a crossover Monsters universe to rival Marvel’s Avengers, and it seems there’ll be much more Dracula Untold for years to come. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but with likeable performances, a simple story and above average cinematography, it’s an enjoyable popcorn flick that’s much better than some would have you believe.
Featured image credit: Universal Pictures