I can see what Dracula Untold is trying to do, and I can see how it is trying to do it. I applaud its efforts. It is a visionary movie with a keen eye for narrative upheaval, washed over with competent visual effects. This, I suppose, is inevitable in today’s computer age. No humble story is safe anymore. They will eventually be made into blockbusters and lose whatever identity they once cherished. Roger Ebert thought this of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films and criticised the director for blanketing Tolkein’s themes under layers of computer graphics and action sequences. I heartily disagree. But if Bram Stoker were alive today, he might lean towards Ebert’s side and regard the latest adaptation of his perennial novel with despair.
Dracula Untold is not so much about Dracula the vampire as it is about the man who became Dracula. To be sure, none of this is specifically covered in Stoker’s novel; much of the movie is original material, written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. We live in a cinematic age of recycling and reinvention, which to me is sad because cinema is still such a young art form. Earlier this year Disney spun Sleeping Beauty (1959) around with Maleficent (2014), a reworking of the fable facilitated by wall-to-wall visual effects and very little effective character development. The only thing that prevented it from being a catastrophe was its lead character, played with a delicate vengeance by Angelina Jolie. It’s the same with Dracula Untold. Luke Evans plays Dracula, and while the movie buckles around him, he rises like a pillar of cool.
Unfortunately, the movie is suffocated by computers, so it’s hard to tell where CGI ends and Luke Evans begins. Yes, when he stands tall in the middle of a doorway with the backlight illuminating his wavy hair, we know it’s him. But when he curses the skies or takes on hundreds of Turk soldiers, chances are we are looking at a weightless animation. Of course, when he dissolves into a cloud of bats there can be no doubt.
The plot is such: The Turks are merciless conquerors. In an ambitious prologue, where the camera ethereally tracks around motionless people, we are told that the Turks invade, steal all the young boys and train them to become ruthless killing machines, a bit like the Spartans. There is a boy named Vlad from Transylvania, whose modus operandi is to impale his victims and showcase them in neat rows. Vlad the Impaler. We know the name.
Vlad grows up to become prince of Transylvania, where he surrounds himself with the usual consorts. He has his advisors, some so stern we are not sure if they will betray him. And he has a family, which is common in the Tragic Hero Package. He must have something or someone to lose. It’s a sympathy device. His wife, played by Sarah Gadon, is a lush beauty. The kind who welcomes her husband from his ventures with a longing smile and frets miserably when he has to leave again. Occasionally she provides counsel, but most of the time she is a placeholder for beauty and danger. Their son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), dreams of adventure but has to put them on hold when the Turks come again and threaten to steal him away.
The Turks are led by Sultan Mehmed II, played erroneously by Dominic Cooper. Sometimes he sounds Italian, sometimes Russian. Never Turkish. And his eyes are perpetually dark-ringed. It’s the Hollywood way to turn a white actor into an ethnic villain. Mehmed wages war against Vlad, who retreats to the hollow of a distant cave and seeks the help of a demon bestowed with Satanic (vampiric) powers. This demon (Charles Dance) wants out of his pact with the devil, and Vlad wants powers. They make a trade. Vlad has three days; if he doesn’t drink blood during this time, he will return to his normal self on the fourth. If he does, he will remain the undead forever, thus becoming, of course, Dracula. It’s that old chestnut.
I will not say if he drinks blood or not. Stoker’s novel has already done that for me. Much of Dracula Untold focuses on the action, which it uses to make its characters seem supple and robust. This they might be during times of great physicality, but not when they’re required to sit down and talk about meaningful things. Its director, first timer Gary Shore, has said that his movie is not meant to be horror but serious drama. I say it’s an action movie with dramatic elements lifted from classic literature. And a mediocre one at that. He was right about one thing though: Horror it is not.
Best Moment | It might have to be the bat army.
Worst Moment | Mehmed’s army marching blindfolded. This is an idea so ridiculously stupid I was expecting his soldiers to recreate the KKK scene from Django Unchained (2012). It’s a miracle they managed to keep in line and not trip over their own feet.