DRACULA UNTOLD Movie Review – The Greatest Transylvanian (Anti-)Hero
Depending on your perspective, we’re either living in the Golden Age of Superheroes or the exact opposite, the nadir of our pop-culture obsession with juvenile fantasies. Not even our most sacred fictional characters are immune to the comic-book superhero treatment. Look no further than Robert Downey Jr.’s two tries at the Sherlock Holmes character (more steampunk Tony Stark/Ironman than Arthur Conan Doyle’s singular creation) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a character with more than a century’s worth of appearances of varying quality in print, on the stage, and, of course, on film. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Dracula would get the superhero treatment in a revisionist origin story meant to not only set up a series or franchise but a shared universe too. Audiences will determine whether Dracula Untold gets a sequel, let alone a series, but on its own, Dracula Untold offers a handful of genre-based thrills and occasionally inventive ideas (albeit directed with relative anonymity by music video director Gary Shore, making his feature-length debut).
When we first meet Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans), the future Dracula, he’s trying to live down his well-earned reputation as “Vlad the Impaler,” so-called because of his penchant for executing his enemies — or rather the enemies of the Ottoman Empire — by impaling them in public squares and other open spaces, the better to keep local populations from rebelling against the Sultan. Vlad has left the Sultan’s service behind, retiring to his ancestral home in Transylvania (Hungary) to serve as an unelected leader, a prince, not a king, but also to fulfill his desire to become a family man (even genocidal murderers want families of their own). Vlad has a beautiful wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and a young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), he adores like only a father can. From the little we see, he’s a fair and just leader too.
A one-time child soldier and warrior for the Sultan, Vlad tries and fails to keep his people and lands free of Ottoman interference. His childhood friend and the current Sultan, Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), demands Vlad relinquish 1,000 young boys, including Vlad’s son, for the Sultan’s Janissary army. Vlad initially agrees, but his fatherly feelings and emotions get the better of him, leaving the Sultan’s men dead by the roadside and Vlad the Sultan’s enemy. With everything to lose, Vlad ventures into a foreboding mountain cave, the home of a blood-sucking demon and vampire (Charles Dance) who offers Vlad superhuman powers (super-speed, super-strength, enhanced vision, flight, and shape-changing), but with two weaknesses, sunlight and silver. Those powers come with a time limit. If Vlad makes it through three days without drinking human blood, he retains his humanity. If he succumbs to bloodlust, he’s a vampire forever.
Of course, everyone knows how Dracula Untold ends. He can’t become the doomed, tragic Dracula if he doesn’t succumb to bloodlust. How he gets there, however, proves to have its moments, some better than others, all connected well enough by screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless to make concerns about plot, character, or themes superfluous at best. Instead, Shore and his effects team treat audiences to a newly superpowered Vlad, who effortlessly thrashes the Sultan’s 1,000-man expeditionary force. Vlad appears and disappears, transforming into a swarm of bats one second and rematerializing into the dragon warrior associated with his name the next, each time eliminating one or more of his enemies, albeit bloodlessly to retain the all-important PG-13 rating, the proverbial sweet spot for potential box-office returns. Unfortunately, Shore loses his grasp on big-screen battles with each subsequent iteration. He’s not helped by mediocre visual effects. Apparently, a $100-million budget doesn’t go very far these days.
As Vlad/Dracula, Luke Evans helps to make up for some of Dracula Untold’s major shortcomings. A keen student from the Furrowed Brow School of Acting, Evans gives a controlled, angst-under-the-surface performance. He’s convincing both as a warrior prince and as a family man. As the representative of the Ottoman Empire — and, by extension, the seemingly perpetual clash between East and West, Islam vs. Christianity (treated here as expected with surface-deep complexity) — Dominic Coooper’s Mehmed II chews scenery with some of the better big-screen supervillain, motivated as much by Vlad’s spurning of his affections as by a desire to re-impose his tyrannical will on wayward vassals or subjects. As the only female character with significant screen time, Sarah Gadon is underserved by an underwritten role, sadly typical for male-centered, male-driven superhero-themed films. The epilogue promises the return of a more familiar Dracula as a the doomed, romantic antihero. Whether we get there, however, is purely up to moviegoers.