Dracula Untold tells (ha!) us the “origin story” of the legendary vampire count, means how did he become the immortal bloodsucker we learned to love.
The movie is set in the Transylvania of the 15th century, during a historical period of peace, after the country’s regent, Vlad Tepes, “Son of the Dragon” aka Dracula (Luke Evans) was able to negotiate a truce between his country and the expanding Turkish empire. The Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) respects and fears Vlad at the same time, as they grew up together on the Turkish court (Vlad was taken from his home by the Sultan as a kid),which did not stop Vlad killing thousands of his man by impaling them on the battlefield when he later went to war against the Turks.
One day, Vlad and his men enter a cave on the top of the “Broken Tooth Mountain” in search for a Turkish spy, only to step on the bony remains of thousands of humans and to run directly into the arms of a bloodthirsty creature. Two men are killed by the creature, while the others manage to escape as the creature fortunately seems not to be able to leave its dark habitat. Vlad decides to do some research and a monk in a mountain monastery nearby tells him of an old legend about a man who has fallen from the grace of god (the Roman emperor Caligula no less!) and became a vampire, who needs to drink blood to survive and cannot walk into the sunlight. He shows Vlad some illustrations of the creature in an old book (which don’t look like medieval illustrations at all).
Meanwhile the Sultan is again testing the boundaries of the truce and demands 1000 Transylvanian boys from Vlad, who shall serve as soldiers in the Turkish war of conquest.
Vlad almost gives in, but when Turkish soldiers come to get Vlad’s own son, he kills them in a rage, thereby effectively ending the truce. Knowing that the Sultan’s cruel punishment for this action will follow soon, Vlad recognizes that he needs greater powers than the ones at hand to stop the Turks, that’s why he decides to ask the vampire for help.
Surprisingly, the vampire (imdb credit: “Master Vampire”, played by Charles Dance) really abstains from killing Vlad in the instant he enters his cave, because he does not feel the count exuding any fear which awakens his interest. After Vlad made his case, the vampire offers him a pact: Vlad has to drink from his blood, which will turn him into a powerful vampire as well, but he has to refrain from drinking human blood for three days, otherwise he will stay undead forever.
Vlad agrees and indeed, his new won powers, like the superhuman strength, the ability to turn into a swarm of bats and his invulnerability enable him to fight back the first wave of Turkish invaders all on his own.
But like every Faustian pact, this one has its drawbacks as well. Sunlight and silver cause him pain and he suddenly feels an unnatural thirst for blood so strong, that even his beloved wife and his son are in danger. And his own people soon get suspicious of him too….
I will not go into lengths here how this is yet another unfaithful Dracula-adaptation and how it demystifies the character by explaining his origins, etc.
I already addressed this issue at another place. In a nutshell, I state that while there has truly not been a 100% faithful adaptation yet, we had enough formidable adaptations in the last century of cinematic history, so that still waiting for one is kind of a pointless exercise. Beyond that, Dracula has already been fought by Billy the Kid, revealed as Judas and portrayed by George Hamilton among other buffooneries, so this ain’t exactly sacred ground (sic!) any more.
The title-suffix “Untold” is somewhat misleading. Actually this story has been told many times before, just not with Dracula in the lead.
And that is the main characteristic of the movie: It’s essentially just a derivate of all cinematic trends of the last two decades, principally “lending” from notable blockbusters since the late 90s, both on the plane of storytelling and the visual level. One could describe the plot as an unholy (sic!!) marriage of the “superhero origin” and the “villain origin prequel” plots that haunted the blockbuster cinema for the last 15 years.
A main template for Dracula Untold seems to be Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). The parallels are obvious: Man of noble/rich descent, whose people live in fear, climbs on mountain to visit a mysterious and powerful entity, who gives him the ability to be a killing machine through a pact that naturally has consequences. When confronted by the old vampire about his cold-blooded atrocities against the Turks, Vlad even has a line about how he “was a man who had to become a monster so they would fear him” (paraphrased), not unlike Bruce Wayne’s states in Batman Begins how he has “to become more than just a man”, “a legend”. At a later point in the movie, the reveal of Vlad’s armour is presented as a crucial moment.
Another source of inspiration is the fate of young Anakin Skywalker, as Vlad also acquires dark, uncontrollable powers to protect his family, only to give in to the temptations of evil. Both heroes furthermore share a traumatic childhood in slavery.
And I am pretty sure I felt a whiff of Scorpion King (2002) breezing through the corridors of Dracula’s castle.
More like “Dracula Unoriginal”
The action and FX cannot really add anything new either. Dracula can now dissolve into bats and control huge swarms of those flying mammals, manipulate them to form a giant attacking hand and other shenanigans, just like Arnold Vosloo did it with sand in The Mummy (1999).
Marching and fighting troops are captured in the same way like the ones in Lord of the Rings. When vampires dissolve in the sunlight, they prefer to do it the same way as their brethren in Interview with a Vampire (1994). Otherwise the movie has only a few scenes of bloodshed, but never turns into a gorefest.
The costumes and sets are pure fantasy: Some authentic historical elements were taken as a base to create a vague feeling of authenticity, only to be fused with faux- medieval designs and Fantasy-design staples to please the Game of Thrones -spoiled audience.
Still, the movie is not as bad as I probably made it sound here.
There are a few inspired moments, like a short battle we only get to see as a diffuse reflection in the blade of a sword. The “Broken Tooth” mountain is realized with model work and a matte painting, which is a charming nod to the old Hammer films. The FX are pretty solid considering the comparatively small budget of the movie and the direction of the action is competent.
The best aspect about Dracula Untold though must be its lead Luke Evan. Evans did never strike me as a particularly versatile actor, but he has that mysterious charisma and a chiseled face that was made for the big screen. After this turn as vampire count, I can totally see him pulling of his upcoming performance as The Crow.
Sarah Gadon puts more passion into her (small) role as Vlad’s wife than it deserves and Dominic Cooper (with “Jersey Shore” hair) plays a convincing Sultan. Buried under layers of makeup and with only a few minutes of screen time, Charles Dance has no real opportunity to shine as “Master Vampire”. All the other actors are as wooden as the stakes dangling from the belt of a vampire-hunter.
Not bound for immortality
While I found the film to be highly predictable and lacking of originality, I cannot say it is soulless (sic!!!) though, which already puts it above a lot of other recent higher-budgeted horror productions (looking at you, Platinum Dunes) I had to endure.
Director Gary Shore tells the ridiculous story of his first full-length feature with enough earnestness and at a brisk pace so that boredom (the cardinal sin of blockbuster cinema) never comes up. But what brings the movie down in the end is yet another characteristic it adapted from the superhero-genre, unfortunately from the lesser works of the 90s (Judge Dredd, Batman Forever), meaning it ends with an anticlimactic showdown (that shows signs of an drying up budget to boot) and wastes the most interesting subplot as a sequel-stinger bait in a (horrendous) tacked-on epilogue.
Dracula Untold is not a good movie, but it is not godawful either. It is one of those movies that makes you instantly forget about it as soon as you leave the theatre, as if you had never seen it.
So, maybe the title is well-chosen after all?