Dracula Untold (United States, 2014)

October 09, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dracula Untold Poster

Dracula Untold purports to relate the origin of how the world's most famous vampire became the creature we all know and fear. Unfortunately, Gary Shore's film suffers from narrative issues and problems of execution. Some of these are likely beyond his control but they result in a generic vampire tale in the Underworld vein that comes closer to the infamous Van Helsing than a memorable re-interpretation of a legendary monster. Instead of being respectful of Bram Stoker's creation, it attempts to remake him as a tragic figure with superhero powers.

One of the first rules of horror cinema is that it isn't possible to make a good PG-13 vampire movie. Vampires are all about sex and death and gore. They're hideous, frightening creatures. Done right, they're scary. None of this can be effectively represented given the restrictions of the MPAA's PG-13 classification but that doesn't stop Shore (making his feature debut) from trying. And failing. In order to keep the violence and bloodshed at acceptable levels, he resorts to a lot of fast cutting with objects obscuring the camera's view. A scene in which 1000 men are slaughtered is an incoherent mess; it's impossible not to be distracted by the manner in it is shot. Then there's the sex, which is presented in a typically chaste PG-13 manner. Dracula Untold could have used a little eroticism not only to emphasize the bond between the main characters but to amplify the tragedy of what Dracula loses along with his humanity.

There's nothing wrong with the premise, which blends a cherry-picked selection of facts from the life of the "historical" Dracula with those of the mythological beast Stoker birthed. Dracula (Luke Evans), born Vlad Tepes, spends his childhood and young life serving in the Turkish army. Following a series of bloody, brutal campaigns, he's allowed to return to his home country of Transylvania, where he reigns as a prince and vassal to Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), the sultan of Turkey. After years of peace, the sultan decides that, in additional to the usual monetary tribute he collects from Transylvania, he wants 1000 boys for his army, including Vlad's son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Deeming this to be too steep a price to pay, Vlad goes to war. Recognizing that he cannot defeat the mighty Turkish army with a small, largely untrained force, he seeks supernatural aid in the haunted caves of a nearby mountain. There he meets the Master Vampire (Charles Dance), who offers him a bargain: power for damnation. He accepts and uses his new abilities to save his people but when they learn what he has become on their behalf, they turn on him.

For the better part of an hour, Dracula Untold does a reasonable job establishing the setting and characters. This isn't an atmospheric motion picture but there are some unsettling moments in the caverns where the Master Vampire is entombed. We're presented with the beginnings of a loving relationship between Vlad and his beautiful wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon). Sadly, the final half-hour is as unsatisfying as one can imagine; the aforementioned PG-13 limitations combine with an excess of computer-generated special effects to ruin the climax. The film's epilogue takes the curious step of repudiating the entirety of Stoker's classic novel. Although the majority of Dracula Untold provides the backstory leading up to Dracula, the movie's final scene indicates that the events of the book never transpire in this alternate universe.

Perhaps there's a fundamental failing the filmmakers don't recognize: could it be that Dracula as an entity is passé? Over the years, there have been so many different interpretations of his legend that it's no longer possible for a story about the character to be interesting, surprising, or compelling. (The last noteworthy Dracula adaptation was Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu.) Although Tod Browning's 1931 version isn't a great movie, Bela Lugosi's iconic performance has loomed over the character for nearly 85 years. Luke Evans wisely doesn't attempt imitation but his interpretation devolves into that of an undistinguished vampire in a production that is little different from any other recent (non- Twilight) movie about the bloodsucking undead. The use of the name "Dracula" is a marketing tool. This isn't so much an expansion of the legend as it is a complete rewriting of it. There's nothing here to convince that the story of Dracula Untold needs to be told.

Dracula Untold (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2014-10-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1