Director: Gary Shore
Writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless (screenplay), Bram Stoker (novel)
Stars: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance
Release date: October 3rd, 2013
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Countries: USA, UK
Running time: 92 minutes
Best part: The production values.
Worst part: The overbearing performances.
Since Hollywood’s transition from ‘classic’ to ‘modern’, big-budget entertainment has focused entirely on sex appeal. Defined by awe, devilishness, and attractiveness, Tinseltown promotes aesthetic beauty over substance. Even the idea of ‘style’ itself – distinguishing one’s work from everything else – has been watered down to an extraneous extent. Now that the studio system has exhausted trends like fairytale adaptations, comic book movies, and nostalgic actioners, the world’s biggest media hub is turning cannibalistic. Dracula Untold may be the high point of blockbuster/remake/reboot fatigue. What’s next, a cuddly wolfman? A sensitive mummy? a sexy invisible man? Good luck, Universal!
Recently, there have been several similar big-budget extravaganzas. Most of them, Twilight included, are directed at teenage girls. While some of them are mindless adaptations of classic texts. All of them, however, bend vampire mythology to their will. Mixing classic horror with explosive action and sappy romance, Dracula Untold is a horrific experiment in itself. Staggering toward its release date, this action-horror flick means little to either the people involved or those watching it. We begin with a highlight reel of one of history’s most disturbing people. We first meet Vlad III Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) in a rushed opening sequence. Depicting his fearsome fighting skills and determination, Vlad’s reputation is built on the bones of fallen enemies and kingdoms. The movie jumps forward to the central conceit, and Vlad has become a cunning warrior keeping guard of his people. Tracking a battalion of Turkish soldiers, our ‘hero’ and his men head to Broken Tooth Mountain to find answers. Instead, Vlad – the expedition’s sole survivor – unearths the world’s most terrifying secret. Vlad must also keep his home, Castle Dracula, out of the Turkish army’s hands. Led by Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), the army asks for 1000 able-bodied boys in exchange for ever-lasting peace.
As the land’s most fearless and skilled warrior, Vlad refuses to go down without a fight. Keeping his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and child, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), away from the Turkish forces, our lead character takes on the world’s largest army. As the launchpad for Universal’s new Avengers-style franchise, Dracula Untold has been whittled down by the studio, director, screenwriters, and editor. Turning potentially-entertaining material into October-bound schlock, this production wastes several opportunities. The story, spoiled thanks to an egregious marketing campaign, is messier than a corpse in Dracula’s possession. The aforementioned opening, delivering cold-blooded exposition with static images, doesn’t deliver anything original or interesting. Those wary of the original material might stand a chance of following this sequence. However, those without said knowledge might become lost. From there, the movie leaps between concepts without purpose or warning. The first 15 minutes promises a down-and dirty superhero origin story/reboot for the archetypal vampire character. Showing off his powers – turning into a swarm of bats and utilising infra-red vision – it defines our lead character’s inner conflict with visual effects and tiresome cliches. The movie also throws two more story-lines at us. The love story and medieval warfare sub-plots turn this straight-forward actioner into a convoluted foible. Transforming this alluring villain into a misunderstood anti-hero, the movie delivers nothing for viewers to sink their teeth into.
“Do you think you are alive because you can fight? You are alive because of what I did to save you!” (Vlad/Dracula (Luke Evans), Dracula Untold).
I could say Dracula Untold “lacks bite” or “sucks”, but that would be too damn easy. The biggest problem resides within its flesh and blood: it takes itself way too seriously! The performances, drifting between maudlin and over-the-top, are difficult to comprehend. Evans, despite the charisma and immense physicality, never meshes with his fruitful character. Gadon is underused in her plot-device role. While Cooper makes for an unconvincing Middle-Eastern/moustache-twirling villain. However, Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance heartily tackles his make-up-induced role. Quicker than you can say: “Transylvania”, Matt Sazama and Burk Shapless’ screenplay delves into sprawling conflicts, overblown speeches, and Greek tragedy-like drama. Giving the story or characters little development, the alliance switches, noble sacrifices, and revelations become increasingly stupid. Speed-reading the original text, the movie pretends to understand Stoker’s words. Explaining everything with stilted exposition and silly one-liners, its thrills are few and far between. While its comedic moments fall flatter than the lid of Dracula’s coffin. Lacking experience, first-time feature director Gary Shore succumbs to the monsters leering over him. Bullied by producers and studio executives, Shore turns this gothic staple into a transparent actioner. Despite the immense budget (for a British production), his action-direction hammers the stake into the heart. Thanks to quick cuts, shaking cameras, and shoddy camera angles, the action is incomprehensible. Despite the sword-and-sandal vibe, the video-game-like sequences shrink the story’s heart and brains. However, thanks to sterling sets, costume designs, and cinematography, the production values elevate it above I, Frankenstein (but that’s not saying much).
Despite the minor positives, Dracula Untold succumbs to a mystifying and laughable case of prequelitis. Telegraphing specific events ahead of time, the movie tests its audience’s patience. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula suffocating aura lingering overhead, this action-oriented version is a spineless adaptation of Stoker’s masterpiece. Despite the brief run-time, the movie becomes as deadly to cinema as sunlight to a bloodsucker.