Film Review | Dracula Untold

Not Another Unnecessary Prequel...! Yes, Yet Another Unnecessary Prequel.

Darkness risible: Luke Evans is happier to channel Lord of the Rings-era Viggo Mortensen than Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman in this Dracula prequel
Darkness risible: Luke Evans is happier to channel Lord of the Rings-era Viggo Mortensen than Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman in this Dracula prequel

The world’s most dreaded and beloved bloodsucking Count gets the Maleficent treatment in this prequel, a cynical attempt at a franchise kick-off from Universal Studios, who appear to be rearing to spit-polish the entire stable of vintage horror movie beasties.

With new versions of Frankenstein and the Wolfman seemingly on the way too, it appears as though Universal are both keen to capitalise on former glories – Tod Browning’s 1930 Dracula was one of the first big hits of the old school studio system – while also hoping to create real competition for the superhero films that are otherwise smashing everything that comes their way at the box office.

So it’s depressingly appropriate that Gary Shore’s debut film is more concerned with reducing everything to formula – even when it’s clearly just a cash-in film already: coasting on a public domain property to give us the dubious gift of an origin story that nobody really asked for.

Dracula Untold is what happens when a desperate recourse to pastiche meets the exigencies of the run-of-the-mill blockbuster in a head-on collision. It feels like a film made by a committee of geeks with blind faith in their passions – apart from the gothic horror of its key source material, there’s overtones of epic fantasy and undertones of ‘grimdark’ superhero origin story thrown in – but who have an equally submissive approach to the whims of their studio superiors.

It has its references lined up in a strict rank-and-file, but it has no real animating force to make them dance, instead commanding them to simply march onward. Calling it ‘de-fanged’ may be the most facile critical cheap shot of all time, but in this case, anything else would feel like an injustice.

Enslaved by the Ottoman Turks as a child, Vlad (Luke Evans) grows into a fearsome military enforcer, garnering the moniker ‘Vlad the Impaler’ because of his techniques of psychological warfare.

When his conscience starts to weigh him down, Vlad seeks solace in Christianity, eventually changing his ways and returning to his native Transylvania to preside over a peaceful kingdom, with his loving wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson) by his side.

But soon enough, his former masters, led my Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) come to collect, demanding one thousand soldiers from Vlad for their army. Hoping to negotiate a compromise with a man who was “like a brother” to him, Vlad asks Mehmet to turn back. But the arrogant and ambitious warlord rebukes him, tacking on an additional request: that Vlad send his young son along with the requested retinue. Vlad refuses – with a brutal panache that belies his violent past – and immediately finds Mehmed’s army at his door.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. So desperate, in fact, that Vlad opts for the ‘supernatural upgrade’ package.

Having learnt that a vampire (Charles Dance) is nestled in the nearby Broken Tooth Mountain, Vlad revisits the ancient blood sucker’s cave and asks to be ‘turned’, in the hope that his newfound powers will help him keep Mehmed’s forces at bay. Told that he will be restored to normal if he resists his thirst for blood, Vlad gets some pretty neat supernatural perks – ability to transform into a swarm of bats, super-strength – along with a couple of minuses (vulnerability to sunlight and silver).

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with telling the Dracula story as a fantasy epic first and gothic melodrama second. But there is something wrong in not taking advantage of these freshly injected generic elements and perspectives to tell a more brash and colourful story.

If newbie director Gary Shore had any hints of a singular vision for the film, it’s clearly been smothered by a committee of his studio superiors, because what could have at the very least been crazy fun is instead a dour and bland re-tread of nearly every trendy blockbuster tic of late.

This is, first and foremost, a superhero film. There’s a rush to tell Dracula’s ‘origin story’ before he gets his powers. Shore and his team – the script is by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – are clearly impatient with the historical context necessary to present their 15th century narrative in any meaningful way, so they muddle on through, shoehorning fights wherever they can and presenting the Ottoman antagonists with a good old fashioned dose of knee-jerk racism. (“Soon the whole world will be Turk,” Vlad’s right-hand-man sneers as they make their way to Mehmed’s camp).

Similar clumsiness abounds, with only formulae to hem in a clear lack of focus and vision. Vlad’s encounter with a criminally underused Charles Dance is an amateurish display of info dumping, which doesn’t help the messy supernatural logic at play here.

Not that one should expect realism from any story about immortal bloodsuckers, but Charles Dance’s Nosferatu-inspired cave dweller has a complicated back story – and equally strange, though plot-convenient – rules to impose on his new vampire charge: one that is certainly not served by a heavy-handed chunk of sneery and shouty dialogue.

Luke Evans has a markedly thin CV at the moment – arguably too thin to headline a big budget franchise starter. So The Fast and the Furious and The Hobbit star does his best Aragon impression – jutting out his chin and cultivating his best ‘I just swallowed a whole lemon’ face.

It all feels like an expensive but ultimately feeble effort – a bland non-starter for what should have been messy but joyous fun.