There’s only a droplet of historical truth in Dracula Untold, a film that dares to take the king bloodsucker and give him a full-blown superhero origin. That’s right, Dracula, once the scourge of Universal’s classic array of movie monsters, is now on the side of the angels…which is weird considering his lack of soul and all. This version is a fearsome warrior, a defender of the innocent, a caring father and husband who gave up literally everything to protect his people. It’s the Marvel-ization of Dracula in a PG-13, multiplex-ready package, but in exploring the myth of Vlad the Impaler the film offers plenty to sink your fangs into.
So how in the world do you make a guy named Vlad the Impaler a good guy? It seems like the kind of task any writer would balk at, but you do it by coming up with an enemy that’s far worse or giving him a just cause to fight for. Luke Evans, whose chiseled features have been seen recently in Fast & Furious 6 and The Hobbit, plays Vlad before he becomes the Dracula we’re all familiar with. Voiceover gives us his origin before the origin, recounting his time as the brutal slayer nicknamed “The Impaler”, for reasons that are pretty obvious. But he’s given up fighting and has retired home to Transylvania with his lovely wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). However when Turkish ruler Mehmet II (Dominic Cooper, looking none too Turkish) demands 1000 boys to fill his army’s rank, Vlad does what any self-respecting leader would do. He climbs a mountain where he encounters he knows a vicious creature (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) lurks, and enters into a Faustian bargain he may soon regret.
While we all know how Vlad’s story will eventually turn out, Dracula Untold keeps us intrigued by the sheer desperation of his scheme. Granted incredible vampiric powers for three days, Vlad must also refuse to give in to the blood thirst that plagues every vampire. If he can deny it, he’ll return to normal; but if not he’ll be damned for eternity. The creature, credited simply as Master Vampire, is a trickster of sorts, gambling his own freedom on Vlad giving in to the lust for human blood.
It’s the constant struggle for Vlad’s soul that drives much of the story, as his family begins to fear him and so too the people he’s sworn to protect. Glimpses of his evil future arise in brief flares of anger directed at his own soldiers, but Vlad’s wrath is mostly reserved for Mehmet’s army. Impressively scaled battles, murky and violent CGI showcases ala 300, nonetheless are pretty bloodless which may disappoint those looking for something more gruesome. They’re in the wrong place if looking for horror thrills as debuting director Gary Shore has mapped out this story as an action flick, first and foremost. The visual effects are incredibly well done, from Vlad’s “radar vision” to his ability to use transformation as a deadly battlefield weapon. Ever seen an entire battalion wiped out by a swarm of bats? You will in Dracula Untold and it looks spectacular.
There’s very little connection to the Dracula we’re familiar with, and the film works best when you forget everything that came before. If you can’t, it may be tough to swallow that Dracula is really just a nice guy who made a noble, if tragic mistake. Evans is probably the most handsome Dracula to ever hit the screen and there’s real passion in his performance. Other than Charles Dance who strikes a fine balance between mischievous and menacing, the rest of the cast barely register.
Designed as the beginning of Universal’s newly-minted “cinematic universe” of classic monsters, Dracula Untold makes for a curious yet successful franchise-starter. Mostly it deserves credit for putting the teeth back into Dracula’s well-worn story.