1 hour 32 minutes
Bram Stoker penned his classic gothic novel in 1897, and ever since, the character of Dracula has been moving steadily from villain to hero. Based on 15th century Romanian prince Vlad III, also known as the Impaler, I doubt many people from Dracula’s own time would have many positive things to say about the man, but ever since Stoker romanticized him as an elegant vampire run amok in 18th century London, his rise in stature has been inevitable. In this latest incarnation of the legend, this week’s “Dracula Untold,” Universal has upped the ante, going from a villain with some positive characteristics to full-on hero mode. Tragic hero, sure, but hero nonetheless.
Luke Evans stars as the titular prince who rules his native Transylvania in a time of peace, his impaling days long past and his country now a semi-independent province of the Turkish empire. Vlad is a gentle ruler, loving father, and attentive husband. Pretty much everything you’d want in a head of state. Unfortunately for poor Vlad, there are some true villains in his midst. In the appropriately scary sounding Broken Tooth mountains, just north of the castle, dwells an evil creature spawned of a ill-conceived deal with a demon. It seems the Dracula story still needs a bad vampire, so the screenwriters have invented one to take the position once occupied by our hero. But, as has proved the case time and again throughout history, the human monsters are far worse than the supernatural ones. This role is filled by Mehmed, Vlad’s childhood friend, now ruler of the Turks, who has demanded 1,000 child conscripts from Transylvania for his massive army. Ever the noble ruler, Vlad has refused, offering to rejoin the Turkish army himself, taking up the mantle of chief impaler once again. But, as Mehmed really just needs cannon fodder, a super-soldier like Vlad wouldn’t do much good. The demand for the children is reiterated, this time including the son of our Prince himself. Well, naturally this can’t stand and all hell breaks loose, literally. As shown in the trailer, Vlad scales Broken Tooth, confronts the vampire, and becomes the monster, all to save his family and his country. What a guy.
To be honest, I was really expecting this movie to be much worse than it is. The skewed perspective and slight goofiness of the trailer made me shudder with the memory of the horror that was “Van Helsing.” As it is, “Dracula Untold” is really more of an action movie, with some cool computer-generated battles, a little sword play, and a minimum of character development. I couldn’t say it is scary at all, the whole idea of “Dracula” being a horror story apparently long in the past. Evans, however, does a passable job as our tortured hero and Charles Dance, of “Game of Thrones” fame is nicely creepy as the vampire. The action and effects are diverting and, leaving aside any previous experience with the source material, the story was entertaining. But the big problem for a movie like this is that it’s been done so much better so many times. The best example, and the one I kept returning to in my mind is “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” brought to us by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992. That movie is incredibly stylized, and telling a completely different story for the most part, but the first ten minutes or so gives a shortened form of the origin. In Coppola’s version, Vlad’s conversion from relatively good man to evil is a true tragedy. The prince, crazed over the death of his beloved wife, curses God, who curses him right back. Gary Oldman plays him as a man who had committed terrible atrocities in the name of God (all that impaling) and then is repaid with blood of his own. It’s really good stuff. In this modern version, there’s never any real tragedy. Vlad was terrifying general, apparently, but, it’s revealed, all that impaling was really for the good. “I slaughtered one village so I didn’t have to slaughter ten others!” Ok, you just keep telling yourself that. There’s no darkness in Vlad at all. Every violent act, even when he’s a vampire, are all justified as being for the greater good. That’s fine if you’re talking about some anti-hero comic book character, but not Count Dracula, for goodness sakes.
The problem with origin stories is that what was once either left mysterious or implied, now has to be explained in great detail. The shortened origin story from the Coppola version was like an impressionist painting, beautiful and meaningful, while this was more like a heavily photoshopped still-life. Sure it’s detailed, but where’s the energy? All those clever little details, call backs to later versions of the story, like the creepy guy who refers to Vlad as “Maaasteeer,” tend to stick out rather than blend in. One of the coolest little tricks in the 90’s version was to have Dracula transform into a mass of small animals – rats in one scene, and I’m pretty sure bats in another. “Untold” does that effect to death, making a creepy effect into a mode of transportation.
In the end, “Dracula Untold” is less a Dracula movie than a fifteenth-century superhero movie with a slightly tragic ending. There’s even a scene where Vlad has to get the hang of this bat-travel thing, ala Peter Parker experimenting with his web shooters. I was entertained, but ultimately disappointed. There’s a reason this version is untold – it just doesn’t measure up. Grade: C+
“Dracula Untold” is rated PG-13 for vampire violence, computer generated mayhem, and just a little blood.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.