Dracula Untold isn’t a film I’d seen advertised anywhere. Granted I’ve not watched broadcast TV for 3 years and I don’t keep up very well with current events, so I really didn’t know what to expect as I stood in line waiting for what, from the name alone, seemed an interesting idea. “Dracula Untold”, the name rolled around in my head with a delicious promise. I imagined a story of Dracula the Human Being, a story of folly, addiction and a fall from grace, a dedicated and intense character study of one of the most vicious, tragic and enigmatic figures who is oft represented in contemporary cinema and literature, but who I feel isn’t often explored.
Dracula Untold was not that film I fantasised over in line for tickets. In-fact Dracula Untold was so much so a hybrid of films and TV shows I’d already seen that it really had nothing to offer to me. In terms of a new film or in terms of the Dracula and vampire mythos, it achieved very little.
To explain the actual plot of the film and not my fantasy screenplay for the best Dracula movie made since Gary Oldman donned that strange wig and hung out with Keanu Reeves for tea and biscuits. Luke Evans (known for his role as Bard in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug), portrays our titular character of Dracula or “Vlad Drăculea”, naming the infamous Vampire Lord and the figure who inspired his creation; Vlad the Impaler, one and the same. As a boy Prince, Vlad was drafted by the Turkish Empire as tribute for Transylvania’s fealty. The Prince grew up to be a monstrous slave-soldier who impaled his enemies and left their bodies on the battlefield as warnings to those who would resist the Turks. This conveniently pardons Vlad the Impaler’s potential monstrosity as the actions of a slave who had no choice, shifting the blame solely onto the shoulders of the apparently perverse and evil Turks, which is notably similar to the questionable way Zach Snyder’s presents the depraved Xerxes in the film 300. After escaping this servitude, Vlad returns to Transylvania, ruling as gentle husband/father and righteous Prince for ten years before the throngs of Turks once again threaten his lands. Vlad elects to seek aid in the form of a mysterious blood-lusting monster, Caligula (Yes, THAT Caligula) played by Charles Dance, who is lurking in the mountains and offers him the curse of the vampire in order to save his land from the Turkish hordes. In exchange Caligula aims to be set free from his mountain prison, which he will achieve if Vlad succumbs to the infamous thirst. The rest of the film plays out almost exactly as you’d expect with various mediocre CG effects, uncomfortable characterizations and conversations (Vlad the Impaler, loving Dad, kind Husband and murderer of countless innocents), and several big-budget battle scenes which achieve very little in terms of pay-off.
This filmsees the emergence of a new director in Gary Shores, who is unfortunate to have been given such a script as Dracula Untold as his debut film. A film in which newbie scriptwriters Mark Sazama and Burk Sharpless demonstrate the prosodic capabilities of a four year-old in writing dialogue so disjointed and awkward that characters speak as though they’re talking at each other for the majority of the film. Only Dominic Cooper’s (The Devil’s Double) performance as the antagonistic Mehmed and Luke Evans’ as Vlad hold any believable or engaging dialogue in their relationship as former adoptive brothers turned enemies, though it’s easy to believe this is borne from their own abilities as competent actors as opposed to the strength of the direction or the script. This is especially true given that the supporting cast fold into the dreary landscape of “Transylvania” with the exception of Charles Dance, of course, whose performance as Caligula – the ancient Roman Emperor and Vampire Lord – is engaging and delightful for the whole five minutes he is on screen.
Gary Shore clearly wants to frame Dracula Untold as a dark, bloody and brooding extravaganza in a style similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s films or Zach Snyder’s 300 with an obvious nod to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but when you are juggling with a script that demands your protagonist create a “bat tornado” (It’s as laughable as it sounds) which will then attack an army of blindfolded Turks, you’re going to encounter problems in maintaining that kind of tone. In the tension between its darker themes of addiction, tragedy and the meaning of humanity, against the more extravagant battle scenes coupled with a frankly ridiculous interpretation of vampire lore and abilities which would make Twilight’s vampires blush, Dracula Untold slips down between the cracks.
One element of Dracula Untold that Gary Shore really does deliver, however, is in the way the landscapes of the film are shot. The bleak, imposing and unforgiving presentation of the Transylvanian scenery is instantly reminiscent of the Game of Thrones TVseries, the reverence and apprehension at the bleak and beautifully desolate powers of nature are fully appreciated in this film. The landscapes of Northern Ireland (where the film was shot) and the beautiful way in which Gary Shore shoots them are one of the more subtle and striking aspects of the movie, however too much of this scenery is digitally altered in a way that is distracting. The slow foreboding shots that show genuine locations, which are few, are much more visually interesting than the epic fabricated landscapes with fast, sweeping shots that are clearly artificial, though this is a criticism of a much more wider habit of modern film-making then specifically Dracula Untold.
It is almost impossible for a narrative, especially one placed in a quasi-medieval setting, to be completely original. Indeed Dracula Untold has to compete and thus be compared to movies such as Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, asthey reign supreme as paradigms of the epic-fantasy genre. However, it is uncomfortable to see how Gary Shore borrows from Game of Thrones for his film: the casting of Charles Dance; acclaimed Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi composes the entirely unmentionable soundtrack for Dracula Untold; and the majority of the shooting locations throughout Northern Ireland are also used or visited by the Game of Thrones production team. All of this besides the uncanny likeness of Luke Evans as some conglomeration of Orlando Bloom, Kit Harrington and Viggo Mortensen seem a bit too uncanny to be coincidence or simple homage, and it makes an already confused film much denser in one’s ambivalence to the storyline when you’re trying to ignore all the clumsy references.
Dracula Untold apparently represents Universal Studios newly inspired attempt to revive their legendary Universal Monsters studio, which, for those of you who don’t already know, produced some of the most famous monster movies of the 20th century such as Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi. Universal Monsters Studio is hoping to create a cinematic thread of movies that will be led by Dracula Untold and hopefully will refer to and around each other. However, Dracula Untold, falls flat in its contribution to a monster-movie legacy as prolific as Universal Monsters’, and falls further in its contributions to cinema. If Universal’s plans to create a larger cinematic universe in the style of the Marvel Studio’s Avengers franchise hinder around Dracula Untold as a fairly generic and merit-less start to that franchise that can’t be that promising for the series as a whole.
Dracula Untold, like so many other movies, does not leave a sour taste on your tongue, but it isn’t sweet either. The spice of accomplished actors such as Charles Dance and Dominic Cooper cannot lift it out from its soup of adequacy; the films not-so-casual racism is atypical of a mediocre epic-fantasy film like itself and does nothing to spoil the broth considering that it was already so bitter; the visuals established by Gary Shore can be gorgeous representations of a dark and cold Transylvania but generic CG effects and a script that is clearly poorly assembled spoil any hopes of the film hiding a rich inner layer of taste from a cinematographic perspective. Dracula Untold is a film that will likely fade out of public consciousness all together and find itself in a supermarket bargain bin with other unmentionable titles in years to come, and that’s not necessarily the end of the world.
review by Thomas Smee