When I first heard about Dracula as a kid, he sounded like the Boogeyman and the Devil made an unholy pact and out sprung Vlad. My mother insisted that he was the most forbidden and scary of monsters, so of course I read every book, saw every film, and consumed every gory detail about the count and his nominal “real-life” counterpart Vlad Tepes. If there is a drop left of “Dracula Untold,” I think that I’ve already tasted it.
But don’t worry, in spite of its appealingly pulpy title, Dracula Untold wants to be more than a revelation; it’s meant to ostensibly begin Universal’s exhumation of their monster stable (depending on box office receipts). However, it truly owes more in its depiction to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 erotic fever dream, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to the point where Dracula Untold acts like an elongated feature of that other film’s first 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the end result is just really long in the tooth.
Intended to be the melding of Vlad the Impaler’s legend with his vampiric image in pop culture—which stems exclusively from Bram Stoker fancying of Vlad’s patronymic—Dracula Untold in theory could be a bloody good time. Depending on your geographical location, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia was either a noble freedom fighter that defended Christendom from the onslaught of Turkish rule and Ottoman Islam…or he was a monstrous tyrant who earned his posthumous “Tepes” moniker (Romanian for “impaler”) because of his vast cruelty and penchant for turning villages and armies into forests of perforated bodies.
A near mythological figure even before one adds the shadow of the bat to him, Dracula’s historical legacy is lurid and ludicrous enough to launch a Frank Miller franchise eulogy. And I imagine that when Dracula Untold first got pitched, it was along the lines of 300 with vampires. But the end result feels somehow decidedly less. An uneven stitching together of Northern Ireland location shoots and awkward CGI, the vision for the film is less a fevered dreamscape than it is the hangover that follows. And for a movie meant to be about the birth of the vampire to end all vampires, it quite literally has no bite until the third act of the film.
Set around Vlad III (Luke Evans) after he has earned his nickname for being “Lord Impaler,” the story picks up with a Vlad who has been at peace for decades. Earning that quiet ease on the backs of thousands of dead innocents, he is still curiously presented as a God-fearing good man who wants nothing more than to live in peace at his castle with beloved wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson).
However, it is not to be since Turkish Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) is hellbent on expanding the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and he demands that Vlad conscript a thousand sons to his army, including Vlad’s only child who will be Mehmed’s royal hostage. Choosing war over subservience, Vlad kills Mehmed’s men before suddenly recalling the random excursion into a vampire’s cave during the movie’s opening prologue. There he meets the Master Vampire (Charles Dance), who will give Vlad the strength of the Undead that will be needed to defeat the Turks for three days. If Vlad can resist the taste of human blood in that time, he will then be free of his curse. You’ll be damned if you can’t guess how this is going to end.
Favorably acted by Evans, Dracula in this film is less a man who becomes a monster than a tragic hero out of the swords and sandals playbook via modern CGI superheroics. Clearly meant to elicit Tolkien, from where Evans hails as Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit films, there is little of Stoker in this onscreen creation. Nevertheless, Evans does well playing the reluctant warrior faced with great power and great responsibility, providing the only thing faintly resembling a pulse in this film’s not-brisk-enough 92-minute running time.
Yet curiously, Dance’s “Master” (who along with fellow Game of Thrones cast member Parkinson check off another genre fanboy box) is far closer to embodying what old Bram had in mind than the rest of the film, and indeed blesses the movie’s few meager “scares” when he hisses hostility at Vlad during their two scenes together. Sadly, even Dance is staked to the ground with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ lumbering screenplay, which crawls from one lifeless exposition dump to the next with the vain hope that it might find some new blood at any moment.
This sunlight is all the harsher with director Gary Shore’s workmanlike aesthetic. While Ngila Dickson’s costume design is undeniably impressive, particularly in its presentation of both Dracula and the Turks’ armor, the film is as visually slight as the movie’s pace, with the early moody puppeteer work of the impale-heavy prologue (taken straight out of Coppola’s Dracula) clashing with the location shooting and dubious computer animation. Choosing to speed through leaden dialogue groaners like Dance’s emphatic “let the games begin” may be prudent, but even the battles have a perfunctory quality, appearing as underwhelming as much else in the production values. In fact, the violence of the film, save for the batty finale, relies mostly on generic and muddled shots of Vlad and his enemies running into each other in an orgy of confusing close-ups that cut too quickly to see the gore—or anything else that could be mistaken as interesting.
The rest of the cast is left to rot long before Dracula’s fangs ever sinks into them. Gadon, who proved eerily haunting in her few brief scenes in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, is given nothing to do here but fret for her prince and wear beautiful dresses. A better movie would have made something out of a figure whose watery grave caused Romanians to change the name of a waterway to “the Princess’ River,” but the sole feat of Mirena in Dracula Untold is how she absolves Vlad from any guilt when she tempts his Adam to taste the forbidden apple.
Vlad Tepes is a fascinating figure even without the fangs, and Dracula Untold works in a few interesting nuggets about the figure, such as once being a royal hostage for the Turks. Conceivably a film about how this terrifying historical figure, whether hero or a villain, became a vampire should be fascinating. And it was in 1992 at 10 minutes in length, but that is because, among many other reasons, Coppola wasn’t afraid to leave God out of the equation. Dracula Untold conversely steers as clear from religion as it does from strong characterization, coherent plotting, and entertainment. Universal got far closer to resurrecting its monster stable with 2010’s slightly off Wolfman remake. But this bloodless affair promises to keep Dracula back underground for the foreseeable future.