Dracula has been a popular draw for cinema audiences since the earliest days of cinema. Just the mere mention of the name will conjure up a variety of actors who’ve made the Transylvanian blood sucker their own, from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee to Gary Oldman and, er, Dominic Purcell. Very little screen time has been devoted to Dracula’s origins, though, so in keeping with the year one (Untold’s original title) trend that’s punctuated many a movie re-launch over the past decade or so – in the likes of Casino Royale and X-Men: First Class – the prince of darkness finally has a little light shone on how he came to be.
Dracula Untold‘s opening sees first-time feature director Gary Shore’s unique visual style immediately showcased – a quick Google will soon bring up links to the mock trailers that helped secure him his three picture deal – as the camera pans in slow motion through the three dimensional graphics he used in Wolverine Vs The Hand, and it’s one of the film’s strongest assets. That visual identity remains a constant presence and succeeds in lifting Dracula above the monotony that usually accompanies CGI-based horror films, where large-scale destruction is now quite the norm. There’s a real sense of thought put into what is and isn’t seen, especially when it comes to the violence.
If there was one reservation we had before seeing Dracula Untold, it was that it carried the dreaded PG-13 certificate in a film that is supposed to follow the story of one man’s affinity for impaling people on stakes, to tearing them apart with his teeth. The lack of blood doesn’t go unnoticed, but the stylistic approach to the material means that each moment of violence has been considered and represented with some thought, rather than the usual choppy editing. Bodies are seen in silhouette dangling atop wooden spikes and the film’s more action-focused set pieces see a flurry of supernatural movement replace conventional limb lopping. Still, you can’t help but wonder if there’s another cut waiting further down the line for the home release as the violent intention seems to be there.
Action isn’t the focus of the film, though, which is a surprisingly bold move for a film being sold as an effects-driven blockbuster. If anything, Dracula Untold is a family drama, and it’s a gambit that pays off well.
The film chooses to start with Prince Vlad, who’s since locked his days of torturing people away in favour of a fresh start with his wife and son, caught in an ethical dilemma that believably sells his path towards darkness. To its credit, at every point where convention dictates that you can predict the outcome of events, the movie takes a different turn. So where protagonists such as Vlad’s wife (played by Canadian Sarah Gadon with a faultless British accent) would usually succumb to histrionics upon finding out that her beloved husband is prone to crackle like bacon in the sunlight, in Dracula Untold her love and support grounds her into the supportive and strong moral backbone that Vlad needs. It gives their mutual love a sense of realism, that a film dealing with such fantastical themes really needs.
As Vlad though, it’s Luke Evans’ film to make or break, as he finally takes centre stage in a lead role after some great supporting turns in mega-franchises The Hobbit and The Fast And The Furious. And he’s on strong form here, balancing the towering grandeur needed for the violent outbursts against his distress and emotional angst when faced with an overwhelming bloodlust that places the family he’s trying to save in direct danger from himself. Vlad makes for a great anti-hero, as audience sympathy very much stays with him and his plight. His strength of character makes for a refreshing change, but there’s obviously no forgetting that he’s still a man that chose to kill people in one of the most infamous fashions.
Evans and Gadon take up most of the screen time, but there’s also a brief but always enjoyable chance to see Charles Dance as a cave-dwelling, Faustian monster with an affinity for licking Luke’s handsome face. Dominic Cooper (aka Howard Stark) also pops up as Vlad’s former ally turned terrible shit, though he doesn’t get as much screen time as we’d expected.
Both Evans and Cooper do get a rather finely choreographed face off against each other though, combining silver, stakes and swords in an exciting encounter, though Untold’s standout action set-piece comes from Vlad facing off against a thousand men on his own that sees his new-found powers and bat-fuelled fighting style rolled out in a very good set piece.
There are things to enjoy in Dracula Untold, though as with many an origin story, it’s the possibilities of what could come next that holds even more appeal. While the nature of how the last act unfolds won’t be revealed here, the talk surrounding Universal’s attempts to start world building with its classic monsters means there’s all kinds of crossover potential, especially with The Mummy reboot in the works. Here’s hoping we get a chance to see what future instalments hold, as the solid first step taken by Dracula Untold makes for a sometimes surprisingly unconventional and emotive night’s entertainment.
Dracula Untold is out in UK cinemas on the 3rd October.
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