Of all the Famous Monsters of Filmland, Dracula is arguably the most famous. The bloody terror of Transylvania owes a large debt to Universal Studios for cementing his cinematic legend with Tod Browning’s 1931 film. Starring the iconic Bela Lugosi, the movie started Universal’s long association with horror and monsters.
While the heyday of Universal horror is certainly of the 1930’s and ’40’s, the studio periodically likes to get back into the Dracula biz. The results are all over the place, like the sublime Dracula (1979) starring Frank Langella or the slapdash, steampunk, monster mash Van Helsing (2004). They never can quite recapture that old black magic, but gosh darn it they keep trying!
So, misguided or not, we’re delivered Dracula Untold, which attempts to merge the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord into one story. An intriguing, if overwrought notion, but not the worst idea for a vampire film and one that was already played around with by Francis Ford Coppola in his famous take on Dracula. As well as Dan Curtis’s hard hitting TV movie version. As I said, it’s an idea with legs, but unfortunately the results here are mixed.
Dracula Untold owes far more to Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien than it does Bram Stoker. Indeed, the movie should thrill fans of the sword and sorcery genre. Although vampire nuts who are looking for Gothic horror are going to be feel left out in the cold.
The movie opens with Vlad, a stoic Luke Evans, pursuing Turkish invaders to the ominous sounding Broken Tooth Mountain. This brief sequence has the best horror bits in the whole film as Vlad and his men are attacked by a mysterious creature in a dark cave. After seeing his men get picked off, Vlad escapes rattled but unharmed. The scene is a reminder that there is still terror to be mined from vampires on film, but this movie isn’t overly interested in scaring it’s viewers. Which is a shame, because first-time director Gary Shore does show a good, if basic understanding of the horror genre.
Vlad returns home to his wife Mirena (Sara Gadon) and son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson). It is here where Evans actually does shine a little bit as an actor. While I never quite buy him as a ruthless badass, I do believe he loves his family. Which is a very good thing, since it’s a driving force for much of the film’s action.
The Turks do indeed show up on Drac’s doorstep demanding tribute, a thousand boys for their army, and Vlad’s own son. Dracula rebels, knowing full well that it will lead to war. Not knowing how to fight off whole armies, he returns to Broken Tooth Mountain and makes a Faustian pact with the monster who dwells there.
Here Charles Dance plays the Master Vampire who turns Vlad and I have to say even though his screen time is limited, he’s really terrific. Channeling all kinds of old school monster movie charm, Dance is utterly sinister and loving it. He’s far closer to what horror fans are wanting from a cinematic Dracula than Evans. And light years closer to the ghoulish Count from Stoker’s original novel. If anything this scene really illustrates how off the mark Hollywood vampire films have become.
There is human villainy on display here as well. The reliably good Dominic Cooper plays the smugly evil Sultan Mehmed, another character loosely based on a historical figure. Cooper’s character is somewhat lacking in depth, but he does have much of the same pulpy charm as classic a James Bond villain. His minions are also equally nasty, even if only in a PG-13 kind of way, which is a major issue I have with the film. Much is made about the idea of becoming a devil to fight devils. An interesting theme to be, sure, but Vlad’s inner demons always remain just that, below the surface. Thus, potentially fascinating ideas are only talked about and frankly, Evans never really feels like Dracula, but instead comes off like Aragorn with longer teeth.
It isn’t all bad. You’d have to be awfully cynical not to get at least a visceral thrill from Dracula mowing down hordes of his enemies. The vampire king’s supernatural powers are entertainingly used for superhero action. I’d be lying if I said my inner ten year old didn’t get hyped up. But as an adult horror fan, I’d like a little less Marvel Comics and a lot more Hammer Studios DNA to be present in this flick.
The neither fish nor fowl vibe present throughout the entire movie sort of trumps the good things about it. It’s hard to really tell who the movie is geared towards. Action movie fans are likely not going to be interested in a film about Dracula. Horror fans like myself, are going to want something a little more old school from a Universal vampire movie. The horror trappings are likely to keep away parents wanting to take their kids to a superhero movie. The movie isn’t awful, but by trying to appeal to everyone, nobody wins.
The movie ends with a scene promising a sequel, setting up Dracula in the modern day. There is also talk of rebooting more of Universal’s classic monsters and leading up to an Avengers style team-up. With this movie being such a mixed bag I can’t say that I’m overly excited about the prospect. If the studio does move forward with further Dracula movies, I hope they look more towards their own back catalog than what is currently popular for influence. The potential for truly great monster movies is still there, just waiting to be mined. As for Dracula Untold, it’s likely just going to end up another footnote in the long history of Dracula on screen.