I’m not a monster movie purist by any stretch. I subscribe to the Max and John Landis rule that you can do whatever you want with vampires because vampires don’t exist. As such, I really don’t care that Dracula Untold – which essentially turns the world’s most famous vamp into a tortured, Dark Knight styled superhero – has little basis in historic or literary tradition. Once I got past the notion of making Vlad the Impaler, of all people, into a cuddly, easy to like, family man fighting for his freedom like William Wallace with super powers, I still thought something interesting or entertaining could happen.
But no. This new vampire mythology with painfully obvious sights set on a future franchise is a dull, pointless slog that was never going to be a great film, but it could have at least been entertaining with a more seasoned hand directing it. Instead of an irreverent retelling of classic folklore, it’s regurgitated set pieces and speeches from better films edited together with the kind of scissor wielding aplomb that only Revenge of the Fallen era Michael Bay could appreciate. It’s a blur of noise and nonsense that forgets to have even a modicum of fun along the way.
Luke Evans stars as Vlad the Impaler, resident of Castle Dracula and saviour of the townspeople of Transylvania from the evil Turkish sultan. Once a child soldier for the Turks known for slaying thousands of men, he has decided to return home to rule in peace with his wife (Sarah Gadon) and son (Art Parkinson) by his side. The uneasy truce with the Turks has ended following a misunderstanding, and now the evil Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) demands 1,000 young boys for the army and custody of Vlad’s boy to keep the truce alive. Balking at breaking up his family, Vlad brings war upon his armyless country and needs to find a way to beat an unbeatable army on his own. So he goes and sees the mysterious head vampire figure who lives hidden in the mountains (Charles Dance) to gain the powers he needs to singlehandedly take on the Turkish empire. He has to resist the thirst for human blood for three days, or else he’ll remain a vampire for the remainder of his life.
There are some good concepts in play here. Clearly some degree of thought went into this production, but the combination of giving the project to first time feature director Gary Shore and some pretty obvious studio tweaks designed to make the film as marketable, sanitized, and franchise ready as possible kill any sort of amusement that can be gleaned from the material, which should be silly and exciting instead of painfully brooding.
Evans isn’t bad as Vlad, but outside of two sentences off the top that explain his entire backstory, the entire film rests of his well built shoulders to carry the load. The screenplay isn’t giving him any depth outside of the obvious love he has for his family and country, leading to a performance that often amounts to the talented Evans having to pull actorly tricks out of thin air in a floundering attempt to make things worse. Sadly, he also gets better material than the rest of the cast, especially Gadon and Cooper who are forced into playing the same note over and over again because their characters are just that uninteresting. At least Dance gets a memorably villainous speech, but once you see where his character is headed it’s hard not to groan with utter disdain and contempt towards the film’s ultimate callowness.
Something that wants to turn the traditional Dracula tale into something to occupy the middle ground between modern superhero flicks and something more akin to Game of Thrones should probably have a good script in place before it starts production. Dracula Untold’s script from first time screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless isn’t doing anything interesting. Then it becomes a case of the director compensating for the lack of substance by at least delivering good action sequences, and Shore is painfully outclassed in this respect. There are some great visual ideas here: watching an entire battle through the reflection of a sword, following a cannonball crashing through the gates and revealing our hero standing tall, a heat vision sensory gimmick. But that’s all they are: ideas. Not a single one of them looks good. Even on an IMAX screen (which is how it was screened for press), everything comes across as a blurry, chaotic, migraine inducing mess.
I don’t derive any kind of pleasure from panning a fantasy epic like this, but in all seriousness, Dracula Untold has a very, very short list of criteria it needs to hit to be successful and it never gets any of it right outside of Evans doing a yeoman’s job in the lead. Only the film’s final battle (which still looks terrible) approaches the giddy silliness that the premise suggests. There’s a world where I bet a serious version of this story could exist well and still be fun, but this isn’t that world. To quote someone else who hated famously bats, “Why so serious?”