There are only two words in its title, but Dracula Untold betrays them both.
First, the story has been decidedly told. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula film shared the same origin story in 1/20th of the time (and better). It’s that of Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Transylvanian warrior whose patronymic family name, Dracula, inspired the title and character of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.
And check out the nametag. Yes, historians agree Vlad’s enemies exaggerated his more gruesome documented exploits. But he still impaled people, which suggests a little above-and-beyond sadism, yes? At the very least, you suppose he might feel a bit more kinship with the dark side and struggle to reconcile his more demonic impulses with peacetime tranquility.
Dracula Untold lamely pussyfoots around such intriguing dynamics, blandly recasting Dracula as a prefab straight-arrow, noble, tragic hero. In other, stranger words you wouldn’t think could possibly be strung together, a safer, cuddlier Dracula. Conscripted as a child by the Turks, Vlad impaled reluctantly, you see. Rather than simply kill and survive, he skewered enemies like kabobs. But he didn’t enjoy it. And when he vamps out, well, he Feels Really Bad™ about it.
As with Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal laboriously scuffs up this classic tale for modern sensibilities. But that film felt fawned over financially and Dracula Untold feels forgotten — as if accounting spotted a $100 million budget (which has rarely felt so visually devaluated) on the ledger and reminded everyone.
Its ginger-stepchild status feels even more curious considering it ostensibly kicks off Universal’s shared-universe resurrection of its classic monster roster (in an epilogue that feels more like a threat than a tease). Think Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon uniting. That’s far more intriguing than anything here and something we might never see if standalone films like this and 2010’s The Wolfman continue to stink, and tank, so greatly.
Dracula Untold treats its title character like a grocery end-cap display, simply trading on name recognition to move product. There’s no scale and little scope; a gray sword-and-armor aesthetic suggests Game of Thrones when it feels more like a flailing flashback on True Blood. It’s more action film than horror, but there is something sanitary about its scary elements — the cluelessness with which Dracula’s intoxicating allure of violence, passion and pain has been scrubbed clean.
Following his cold, cunning ruthlessness as the baddie in Furious 6, Luke Evans would seem a decent-enough choice to play an infamously feared warrior. But he’s just lazily content to flash his grimy Clark Gable looks and glower like a J-V Sean Bean.
As Transylvania’s crown prince, his impaling days as an enslaved soldier for the land-hungry Turks are behind him. Under his rule, Transylvania (seemingly populated by all of 200 people) has known a decade of peace, and he just wants to kick back with wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson).
But Turkish sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper, whose dollar-store villain shtick expired long ago) shows up demanding 1,000 boys as conscripts in his army, just as Vlad once was, and Ingeras, whom he intends to raise as his own. Vlad rejects the terms, but knows retaliation — and his people’s likely slaughter — is inevitable.
Thus, Vlad bargains with a cave-bound bloodsucker (Charles Dance, oozing all-too-brief ownage) to become a vampire. But it’s a trial run with a three-day soul-back guarantee. Vlad will gain flight, speed, strength, sensory awareness, this-year’s-model of Predator-vision and “dominion over the night” to defeat Mehmed. (He turns not into one bat, but a battalion — much like Huntsman’s ravens — that delivers video game power-combo beatdowns amid lame visual effects.) But if he can fend off his need to drink human blood, his mortal coil shuffles back on in 72 hours.
It’s OK, even welcome, for newbie screenwriters Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama to tweak known mythology; it worked well enough in last summer’s energetically pulpy Hercules. But shoddy writing hopelessly herds them into a corner.
See, sunlight is a problem, so Vlad actually has 36 hours to fight. Once he knows to make hell while the sun sets, why not slit Mehmed’s throat on Night Two, safely secure the loved ones he might bite and detox in a castle keep until he’s clear? It’s not as if he grows weaker the more he uses his power or must stay within a certain distance of his family. Other than there being no movie, nothing is stopping this.
Back to that sunlight. Imagine if the DeLorean just began traveling through time at 73 miles an hour instead or if it was suddenly kosher for Mogwai to eat after midnight. Once Vlad feeds (a not-so-spoiler alert), he can conveniently blot out the sun to fight in daylight. Also, why create other vampires when he can lay waste to hordes on his own … if not simply for the film to manufacture danger for his family? And how does Mehmed learn how to fend off vampires in an hour or two? Google?
Dracula Untold isn’t a total wash. It has a whiff of source-material subtlety (we recognize Dracula’s hype man without hearing his name) and wit (Evans’s deadpan “Well, that’s useful” when testing his powers). The Transylvanians also respond perfectly once they learn of Vlad’s devilish bargain, and director Gary Shore (making his feature-length debut) does muster one visually poignant bit suggesting Vlad is impossibly stuck between two worlds.
But that just clears the low bar of being more tolerable than I, Frankenstein — a non-Universal film that nevertheless similarly defiled a classic character in futile franchise hopes. Ultimately, Dracula Untold is the preemptive Green Lantern of this particular cinematic master plan, just another failure to retcon down the road.