Review: Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold

Trailer

Bats!

Batman!

The Wicked Witch, Maleficent, now Dracula. Is this an age of rehabilitating villains? Who will be next to get this kind of treatment? Studios seem to be chomping at the bit to find traditional bad guys and turn them into something much more sympathetic, even when those attempts, like with the aforementioned Disney villain, are remarkably bad.

Of course the iconic blood sucker has always had a strange appealing aspect despite his antagonist status, something that has, no pun intended, bled into various other “vampire media”. The vast majority of people seem to want their vampires various shades of Twilight: dark, brooding, handsome, mysterious and maybe just a little bit evil (but not really). Whenever Dracula pops up on screen, there always has to be an attempt to pull him back from the well of pure malevolence. And here’s Universal’s latest shot at the character, a mix of Bram Stoker’s horror and the historical basis for the same book, which might just be the start of something much bigger, if reports are to be believed.

In the 15th century, Transylvanian prince Vlad (Luke Evans) tries to live peaceably with his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), leaving behind his bloody past as a conscripted warrior for the Ottoman Turks, which earned him the epithet “the Impaler”. But when the new Ottoman leader Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands he give over his son and a 1’000 others for his army, a desperate Vlad turns to a monstrous figure (Charles Dance), who offers him an array of superhuman powers – and an insatiable thirst for human blood.

In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Dracula Untold is a bit of a strange one really. On the face of it, it’s an entertaining action-fantasy romp, which maybe takes itself a bit too seriously at times, but is generally of an acceptable level in the various parts of its production. On the other, you might well wonder at this sympathetic (and very anti-Ottoman/Turk) portrayal of Vlad III Tepes, and whether such historical aggrandizing and forgiveness of such a brutally cruel figure is really to be desired. Vlad wasn’t a pleasant individual after all, and no matter how much some people in Romania might like to think of him as some kid of folk hero, “the Impaler” sobriquet was not given unjustly.

But I suppose that it is important to leave that aside. Vlad III Tepes is not Dracula, just a loose basis, and Luke Evans’ character in this is not really Vlad III Tepes. With that in mind, you can begin to appreciate what works about Dracula Untold – it is, in many respects, the origin story for a 15th century superhero, with all of the hallmarks of that genre. With whatever it takes from the historical record, the skew is always obvious and forced – Vlad good, Ottomans bad – but that’s what happens when you’re making a film that is less biopic and more comic book.

In a world where vampire fiction is awash with bad romance and empty shells of characters, Untold at least goes back to the true entrancing nature of the “vampyre”, which usually manifests itself in an orgy of violence and an explosion of supernatural power. Untold succeeds, I think, at melding the recognised gory nature of Vlad III Tepes’ life with the creature he inspired, creating Dracula, a monster with a sympathetic side. At least in the sense of creating a good fictional narrative. I’m sure there are some historians tearing their hair out (and with good reason).

Of course, it is all wrapped around a fairly formulaic tale really, whose plot beats most will see coming a mile off, or at least the second we’re introduced to Vlad’s perfect family life early on. Untold is at pains to paint Vlad’s life as picturesque as possible, to a degree that not only causes, but actively encourages, eye-rolling. The beautiful wife, the loving son, the peaceful Kingdom. Jeez, I sure hope nothing goes horribly wrong for all of these people, thus giving Vlad a motivation to become Dracula!

I jest, but there is a certain lack of subtly throughout Untold’s opening stages. When the film actually does get around to it, it finds firmer territory in opening up on the relationship between Vlad and his son, ably played by young Art Parkinson. For Vlad, his son is both a cherished family member and a smooth succession, a continuance of the peaceful reign he has thus far enjoyed. Being  asked to give him up introduces an effective mirror for Vlad’s past life and a choice his own father made, and I found that the narrative of Untold was driven along nicely by this crucial choice, made better by some of the scenes shared between father and son. Vlad fights back against Mehmed for his wife, his people, his family, but it is made clear, in a very good way, that it is all about his son and what the freedom of his son represents. How far is a father willing to go to protect his child? It is a question asked many times in film, Untold is just doing it in a relatively unique setting.

That’s certainly a little bit better than the constant fallbacks on Vlad being a pacifistic soldier. Untold likes to hammer on that point a bit too much, of Vlad having enough of the bloody life that has given him his nickname, but he’s Ghandi now. But all of that sort of falls a bit flat when Vlad ends up slaughtering thousands with ease, and doing very little after the first act to try and find a peaceful way out. It’s just sort of shallow characterisation meant to make us feel a little bit more for Vlad that doesn’t get followed up on enough as the film progresses. If they had done more on an idea that Vlad was a very violent person through and through, but was just hiding this fact, maybe it would have been a little better. But that might have been too dark a path to take.

The meat and bones of the plot falls on the rivalry between Vlad and Mehmed, but the Ottoman ruler’s lack of screen presence leaves this aspect of proceedings a bit lacking. Untold works better when focusing on immortals, with the interaction between Vlad and Charles Dance’s vampire one of the stand-out moments. Vlad turns to him out of a well presented sense of sheer desperation, and the scene focusing on this vampire in the cave were well constructed horror pieces, if not particularly imaginative. Dance brings a very unnerving but entrancing quality to his character and the double edged sword that he offers Vlad. Enough work has been done beforehand to make us believe why Vlad chooses to drink the (literal) poisoned chalice. Dance’s character takes a back seat from there of course, but in terms of a catalyst it was quite good work from him.

Untold tries to be the story of a man who wants peace and who suffers through an appalling addiction crisis because of it, but the tension for such a story is a bit absent, since we all know how this tale is going to end. While the moments that try and portray that addiction are quite good and visceral, the punch is rather lacking – Vlad is becoming Dracula, it’s just a matter of which of his family are going to kick the bucket before he does so. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have some fun and games in the meantime, and that is where Untold really starts to come out of its shell.

It is the action scenes where Untold does its best work then, thanks both to a willingness to go for the over the top exploration of undead power and just down to earth battle choreography. Two particular sequences stand out especially, the “Vlad versus a thousand” scene being the first. Its fantasy violence at its most fantastical, as Vlad shows off his new powers of strength, speed and transformation to wipe out a small bit of the Ottoman army. The effects are thrilling and some of the cinematography choices – the reflection in the sword most of all – really do add a very special something to the proceedings, with Shore seemingly focused on trying to put the audience in the shows of one of the helpless mortals that Vlad is flinging around with abandon. Giving us the first person view of the insects being trod on really does set the tone in the right way, as we come to see just what being this supernatural monstrosity means.

Better still is the whole “bat battle” sequence, well spoiled in trailers, but still very effective onscreen. On the face of it, the whole thing seems ridiculous, but I found it surprisingly entertaining and endearing, the way that this staple of the Dracula myth – the connection with bats – was elaborated and manipulated to give a proper sense of the kind of vast magical power that these creatures control. This is the inner warrior in Vlad spilling out and becoming manifest through a bizarre and grotesque manipulation of nature, which exudes power and terror in the process. Vlad smashes through an Ottoman army using just the dark power of the night, and only threats to his family prevent him from finishing the job. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a piece of media where I was actually impressed with what vampires can do. That’s something Untold is to be praised for.

It all leads up to a dark and noticeably bloody final act. The inevitable tragedy comes to pass with Vlad’s wife, whom he is directly unable to save, even with the amazing powers. This leads to the last grim sacrifice of what remains of himself – or so it appears – and the final confrontation with Untold’s true bad guy, the reckless and uncaring Mehmed. It’s all boilerplate storytelling, straight out of the Blake Snyder beat sheet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it just isn’t very imaginative. But what gives it a little spice is the way that Vlad turns against his better nature, and then drags numerous other “good” characters down with him, creating this undead army that proudly declares “I used to think there were too many of you Turks. Now I think there is too little!”

A bloodbath of a finale ensues as Mehmed, in contrivance to the historical record, is ironically staked by Vlad. Their final fight was mildly interesting with the well done use of a recurring visual motif, the coins that Vlad tired to pay Mehmed off with. It leads to the final endearing moment in Untold, as Vlad, still that decent man underneath it all, realises that he has created an army of monsters, not same-thinking comrades, and makes the final choice to not be a monster himself. I suppose that was the right way to bring Vlad’s character arc to an end, showing him, once again, rejecting that warrior’s path and choosing something that will ensure a peaceful legacy and the reign of his son.

Or so it appeared. The closing moments may well confuse rather than sting as the director would have liked, a sop to a possible sequel that just sort of doesn’t land as well as it could have. Shore and Universal may well have been trying to do their own “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative” moment, but I felt like it just didn’t work, and rather undermined the emotional power of Vlad’s supposed last moment a few minutes earlier. I guess it all depends on what the studio is willing to make of it.

In terms of female characters, there’s Mirena and little else, save some unnamed women late on who join the vampire horde. Sarah Gadon does alright in the portrayal, but she has a total lack of agency or really interesting character traits, defined almost entirely by her love for her husband and her obsession with keeping her son safe. In narrative terms, she’s dominated by the Vlad character and never gets to do anything for herself. Her death is an inevitable part of the plot beats Untold has to take, and this film will be getting no kudos for the way that it treats women, underlined by the conclusion, where Vlad bumps into a similarly underagencied “Mina”, played by Gadon as well.

Untold isn’t afraid to be sombre and downbeat when it needs to be, without going too far. But there are aspects of its narrative and pacing that might rancour, with the film rarely stopping for breath past the mid way point, frequently taking some of the more ridiculous aspects of itself too seriously (and add the rather incomprehensible final shots). But the story, while formulaic to a fault (and God knows I find myself saying that a lot recently) is still enjoyable if you’re willing to accept the premise and settle into a tale that tries to re-imbue vampires with some of the supernatural power and terrifying wonder that they used to have before “R-Patz” came along.

Theme wise, while Dracula Untold doesn’t ask you to use too much of your brain, it still has a few points that it wants to make. The most pertinent is probably about addiction, which manifests itself in Untold in two ways. First, there is obvious thirst for human blood that characterises Vlad’s journey through the second act, a horrible draw towards taking the lives of others for his own gratification, a choice that he eventually does make for the best reasons possible. Vlad has the willpower to resist such an allure, and maintains that will even after his final transformation.

But in a larger sense, Vlad’s true addiction is not to blood, or at least not in the way that vampires have that addiction. His addiction is to the shedding of blood. He’s established in the opening moments as a particularly brutal warrior, whose cruel renown made him a feared man. The gaining of vampire powers allows him a release for that kind of need, as he tears Ottoman armies apart with ease, revelling in the death and destruction he is now able to met out all on his own. Vlad resists the drinking of blood, but is all too happy, despite his protestations, to take up the role of a warrior once again. Perhaps that is why he is such a perfect choice for the role of a vampire, why Dance’s bloodsucker was happy to give him the gift/curse. Vlad started out with an addiction to seeing blood flow, and while he could keep it under wraps for a time, like with the vampiric lust, he could not refrain forever.

I certainly liked Untold a bit more than I expected too. At its worst, it’s a bog standard fantasy/action film, with some dubious wordplay and a fairly lame villain. At its best, it’s a refreshing interpretation of a well worn character, utilising some modern film techniques to add something special to the Dracula mythos, with a fine lead performance and some great action moments. There is the possibility that Universal may be trying to reboot many more of their “Monsters” properties, with the aim of working them into a single continuity, Avengers-style.  Dracula Untold then could well be seen as Universal’s Iron Man, dipping its toes in the waters and seeing if the audience is there. I think this film is good enough to get that audience, and open the way for a lot more.

A surprisingly decent 90 minutes entertainment.

A surprisingly decent 90 minutes entertainment.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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