Dracula Untold (2014) / Action-Horror
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Art Parkinson, Diarmaid Murtaugh, Paul Kaye
Director: Gary Shore
Screenplay: Burk Sharpless, Matt Sazama
Review published October 13, 2014
Dracula Untold is an attempt to reboot the oft resurrected character created by Bram Stoker for today's audiences, this time offering an alternate origin story and a Lord of the Rings-ish sense of fantasy-adventure. This one is a bit different as it puts Vlad the Impaler (Evans, The Desolation of Smaug) in the role of hero, who makes a desperate deal to become a vampire in order to save his people from slavery or extinction. It's not particularly scary as far as fright flicks go (its PG-13 rating means that blood may be drunk but never spilled on the battlefield), but it does dabble in the macabre on occasion, enough to have a foot in the horror genre to please the Dracula fans.
We begin in 15th century Eastern Europe, where a Transylvanian prince named Vlad leads his troubled people with nobility and distinction, even if his enemies fear his prowess in war. However, he's pushed to drastic measures when Mehmed (Cooper, Need for Speed), a Turk warlord of non-literal bloodthirsty distinction, wants to steal away 1,000 of Transylvania's young boys, including Vlad's son (Parkinson, "Game of Thrones"), to train into their massive army, which is something the noble prince won't stand for, putting his family and entire people in route to extinction. He makes a pact with a deadly cave-ridden vampire in the vicinity (Dance, Your Highness) to grant him the supernatural powers (flight, strength, agility, extrasensory) such an affliction implies in order to have the strength to fortitude back against an army that would surely wipe them out. Now he just has to avoid the dreaded wooden stake, direct sunlight and objects made of silver while also trying not to feast on human flesh for three days so that he may return to his mortal form.
Dracula Untold isn't breaking much new ground in any particular direction, content to be a slickly produced mash-up in the hope that it can garner enough cross-genre fans to produce a potential franchise beyond the origin story. Though the CGI and overall tech specs aren't unimpressive (partially inspired by the greenscreen-friendly 300), the film stays within the boundaries of a b-movie premise, and it's a respectable effort along those lines. First-time feature helmer Gary Shore fumbles early in the build-up, failing to draw us into the sensationalized story from the get-go, but manages to find firmer footing once the conflicts with Vlad becoming a vampire get mixed into the main story of the big war between Transylvanians and Turks. It's not enough to save the film from 'misfire' status, but certainly keeps it watchable enough to not sink into complete tedium.
Blunders occur in the casting of the villains, namely the Turks, with Dominic Cooper seeming neither formidable nor, well, Turkish. His henchmen are just as bad, seeming like a bunch of marauding surfers with whitened teeth who stumbled their way into a costume shop to play their roles. Luckily, Evans is up to the task, even if he is an obvious B-list leading man, while Gadon, as Vlad's faithful wife Mirena (Gadon, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), does a fine job acting frightened when she needs to (which is often). However, the only actor with the kind of screen presence worthy of such a pursuit is Charles Dance, who plays the Faustian bargain-seeking Master Vampire, who would have made for a very formidable foe were he not used merely as a plot device here, though he could play such a role if the film does well enough to garner a sequel. Universal is rumored to be planning solo reboots of classic monster films before doing a cross-over, a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At 92 minutes, it's compact enough to pass by quickly, even if it is only sporadically engaging. Its attempt to marry the Dracula mythos with an epic war film containing superhero elements is more interesting in theory than execution, so low expectations should be in order before making the attempt. It delivers a few interesting wrinkles and decent, if uninspired, action sequences, that pass the time, even if it's nothing you can really sink your teeth into with great relish.
©2014 Vince Leo