The bland, uninteresting, CGI-driven Dracula Untold is exactly as stupid as you would expect it to be. Awash in early exposition setting up endless battle scenes, the film is surprisingly bloodless in an effort to keep its PG-13 rating and photocopies the rest in its tellingly short running time.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Gary Shore
Screenplay: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Runtime: 92 minutes.
Cast: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance.
Plot: Vlad is a local, peaceful warlord looking after his people and administering justice throughout the land. But things are not well, as the Turkish sultan Mehmed II’s armies are on the march again, demanding that Vlad give up 1,000 boys and his own son to aid the cause. Vlad remains defiant, making a pact with the local demonic vampire to gain superpowers for three days and fend off the armies of the sultan sent to collect their bounty. Can Vlad save his people, and at what cost?
Review: Poor, misunderstood Dracula. You impale a few hundred of your conquered enemies in a fit of pique and suddenly you’re that guy who impales people, for the rest of recorded history. No one remembers all of the other great stuff you must have done; after all, it isn’t Vlad ‘the builder of that nice little church down the road,’ or Vlad ‘the really fantastic feast thrower,’ or Vlad ‘the really good at cross stitch.’ And with hundreds of years of media bias to embellish that one little stain on the family escutcheon, it’s enough to drive a 15th century warlord to, well, further impaling of enemies at the unfairness of it all. It’s a vicious cycle really; don’t hate the player, hate the game as they say. The bloody, gruesome game of crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women.
Thank goodness, then, that Dracula Untold is here to set the record straight. Now, you might be under the impression that after a bajillion vampire films and adaptations of Bram Stroker’s classic novel, that there might not be a lot left untold in this tale. Not so, Dracula Untold insists. Taking a leaf from George Lucas’ prequel playbook, the film is a tale of how a good man is tempted to the dark side in order to protect his family. Even the meaning of the name, Dracula, has changed – with Vlad retorting to a sceptical inquirer into his dubious legacy that ‘you are mistaken, it means son of the dragon, protector of the innocent.’ One does have to remark that not much of that protecting is evidenced throughout the film. With the armies of the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II approaching his peaceful hamlet (and interrupting a goddamned Easter feast, no less), demanding the captivity of Vlad’s son as well as a thousand child soldiers, Vlad makes a desperate trip to the local vampire to gain some superpowers and stop the forces before it is too late. ‘What is one son? If you are virile, you will make plenty more’ the sultan advises, in what is probably good advice for 15th century medieval Transylvania-meets-bumfuck-nowhere.
Luckily, said vampire is conveniently located in a giant mountain with a suspicious looking cave, right in the middle of a meadow, that no one’s really noticed before. He makes a deal with Vlad – superpowers, but you have to resist drinking blood for three days or you’re done, my lad. I’m guessing that the poor monster just gets lonely spending all his days in caves, and comes up with elaborate deals to fuck with people. There doesn’t really seem to be anything else in it for him, unless he’s angling for a flatmate (cavemate?). Luckily, there’s also a detailed ancient Roman users guide to the pact, held for just such an eventuality in the local monastery, to iron out the finer points of the deal. So our anti-hero, Vlad, goes in eyes open and aware of the consequences should he fail. ‘What kind of man crawls into his own grave in search of hope?’ Dance asks; ‘a desperate one’ Vlad responds. Also, one who likes to take his shirt off a lot. Like a lot.
If all of this is sounding incredibly stupid to you, then congratulations, you’re one step ahead of Dracula Untold, which takes its recycled comic book plot incredibly seriously. What plot and character development there is – generally limited to awkward exposition and faux-Shakespearean posturing in the first third of the film – is essentially a battle delivery device; setting up the opportunity for Vlad to show off his new found powers within a CGI playground of fake soldiers and siege units. The result is meh-worthy; cloning endless battles from the throwaway blockbusters that have gone before it, like 300, Clash of the Titans, et al. Yet it is also a surreally bloodless affair for a vampire movie meets hour-long battle scene; with partisans thrown around like empty suits of armour, and crumpling on the ground like rag dolls. This is all in an effort to hold on to a PG 13 rating; surprising, really, because the film doesn’t seem to be aimed at teenagers and has some pretty suggestive sex scenes. There’s also what just has to be described as a goddamned weird tongue scene with the head vampire, played by Charles Dance. I still shudder, thinking about it.
Fans of Mehmed II will also be baffled, as he seems to be played by a young boy George or Eddie Izzard here – complete with thick eye shadow. ‘Soon the entire world will be Turkey,’ Vlad remarks with an enunciation that makes it sound as if we’ll all be turned into a giant Subway sandwich, rather than the enlightened Muslim empire of the period. He also has a penchant for swimming around in silver, Scrooge McDuck style, in an effort to trick Vlad and neutralise his power. He ends up dead; with our anti-hero presumably a lot richer than he was at the start of the film. Amateur mistake, Mehmed, hate to see it. The only way a few silver coins are going to kill Vlad is if they’re thrown off the local space needle.
By the time the credits roll, we’ve learnt the important lesson that ‘man is the true monster,’ particularly those Ottoman bastards, and that evil lies everywhere to tempt the good man down a dark path. Given the film’s first weekend box office success – taking in $8.9 million and surpassing Gone Girl on its opening day – we’re likely to see more of Vlad and his descent into darkness. That sound you just heard is of film critics around the world losing another reason to live.
Rating: One star.