It isn’t surprising that Dracula Untold is being compared to Batman Begins. Produced by Legendary Pictures (a studio that had its start with the 2005 Batman reboot), this is a dark and brooding retelling of the origin story of Dracula, a man who can turn into bats. Much like Batman Begins, this is a movie that takes its source material seriously. Unfortunately, this movie also takes too much time to paint a different picture around Dracula that there is hardly any fun to be had. It isn’t necessarily a shock either. Legendary, while being responsible for such films as Watchmen, 300, The Town, Man of Steel, Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and Inception, has failed before. Wrath of the Titans, Sucker Punch, Jack the Giant Slayer (okay, that one wasn’t too bad), and Jonah Hex (okay, that one really was bad) are just a few of the failures from the studio. Dracula Untold belongs on the latter list.
You could call it a bit of a shame, too. Dracula has had a good run. Entered into the world in 1897 by author Bram Stoker, the character of Dracula (in one form or another), has been made known all over the world and stands as one of the most prominent fictional characters in history. Frank Langella, Gerard Butler, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman have all had their time to shine in the role and it’s time to welcome a new face. The ancient bloodsucker is played by Luke Evans (Bard the Bowman from The Hobbit movies), and this time around it isn’t a bloodbath. That’s because this movie, scripted by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, tells the story of Vlad the Impaler. It isn’t Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s history’s Dracula. Vlad was a prince of the Roman House Drăculești in the 1400s, and since this is a movie review, I will not go into historical detail about the man known as Vlad Dracula. What I will say is that this man did live, called himself Dracula, and was (supposedly) an inspiration for the character. And that is the route Dracula Untold takes.
Starting with a monologue by Vlad’s son debunking the myth of the monstrosity of the beast known as Dracula, Dracula Untold makes an effort to tell the true story of how he became who he is today. It goes from Vlad being taken by the Turkish to be a soldier (clearly establishing them as the baddies), then goes to Vlad becoming the Prince of Transylvania. Not enough time is spent on the transfer though, as it’s all wrapped up in a matter of minutes. After it’s skimmed through, the real plot takes off as Vlad tries to discover where the Turks are hiding only to find an unwelcome breed of an unknown species hiding in a cave (I bet you can’t guess what they are). After realizing his army is too small to take on an incoming threat, Vlad decides to go to the head vampire (played by Charles Dance, known by everyone as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones) to seek help. A deal is made. Vlad can drink the vampire’s blood, giving him his powers for forty-eight hours. With that comes a challenge. He must refuse the thirst for human blood. If he resists the urge to drink, he will be relieved of the curse and free to live his life. If he gives in, he will remain a vampire for the rest of his existence… which is eternity.
I’m not against that plot. On paper, that sounds cool. It’s true that there are way too many origin stories and prequels being released these days and most of them are made only for profit, but sometimes a certain one can come out of the blue and surprise us. This isn’t one of them. And it’s a bit unfortunate because like I said, on paper it sounds cool. A movie about the origin of Dracula that takes the real life Dracula and turns him into the Bram Stoker character sounds like a bloody awesome time. But Dracula Untold is nether bloody enough nor awesome enough to truly satisfy. Part of that is because of the dreaded PG-13 rating, which has a way of holding much back in horror movies (if that’s what this qualifies as). But I refuse to believe that is the reason because there were some times when I questioned whether or not the movie was R-rated or not (I didn’t know before going in.) For a PG-13 rated film, it has some gruesome imagery, specifically a scene in the third act involving a vampire disintegrating in the sunlight and reducing to nothingness. Most of the problems are due to the story itself. Yes, it’s a compelling idea, but even where the bloody violence is lacking there isn’t much story to compel us either. It’s fast paced, rapidly moving through events without giving us time to care about them while simultaneously feeling like a slow burn despite the mere 92 minute running time. The characters aren’t memorable, nor are the actors that play them. Luke Evans isn’t terrible, but for a lead role in a movie about Dracula, he hardly brings anything worth bragging about. He has his moments of outbursts and shouts and they’re all fine and well, but in retrospect, nothing he does really stands out as memorable. As a villain, Dominic Cooper brings nothing intimidating and is simply a throwaway villain, a cardboard cutout to bring out the beast in our antihero. Not even Charles Dance, caked in makeup and blue prosthetics, can bring much. He tries, and I have to say that his voice sometimes perfectly resembled that of a vampire, but his character served as nothing more than a grandfather-like character that had hardly any significance after Vlad turned. It’s also worth noting that Dance looked about as horrendous outwardly in this movie as he did inwardly in Game of Thrones.
The movie isn’t a train wreck, though. Some of the shots of the open land feel like something from Game of Thrones and are very beautiful to look at. The clinking and clanking of the body armor is also very appealing, especially if you love the medieval period. I’ll admit to liking some of the vampire elements of the film, such as when Vlad transforms into a flock of bats during battle scenes thus physically rendering them invaluable. But just when you think there’s enough to enjoy in that aspect, more problems arise. Whilst climbing the mountain to get to the cave, Vlad is wearing a red cape, almost as if the film wants you to see him as a medieval superhero of sorts. The cinematography by John Schwartzman (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Amazing Spider-Man) is sometimes beautiful, like I said, but that is only when capturing the lands and the armies and the armies’ weaponry. The action scenes don’t live up. Sometimes there are too many close-ups and other times there just isn’t creativeness. The CGI, while being cool when Vlad turns into bats, looks cheap more often than not. If you’re looking for a good horror movie to see on Halloween, don’t suppose this is it because “Dracula” is in the title. This is more of a historical drama than anything else. When the vampire stuff does happen, and it does, it is cool. If only the movie hadn’t taken itself so seriously and set its goals on making the Count a superhero instead of a monster. Dracula Untold was originally going to be directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City, Knowing). I feel like that would have made things more interesting. Instead, first time director Gary Shore seems to not care. It’s a short film, but a boring one. At least more boring than any movie bearing the name Dracula should be.
Dracula Untold (2014) 92 mins Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality Starring Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, and Charles Dance Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless Directed by Gary Shore