Dracula Untold Review
By: Brandon Wolfe
How many Dracula movies have there been? Hundreds, right? Dracula has to be one of the most frequently adapted characters in the history of cinema. His story has been told six ways to Sunday, making it deeply difficult to get excited about any new Dracula movie by this point, even one that announces right in the title that this particular Dracula tale has been untold. It’s been told. They've all been told. Get over yourself, with your “untold.”
Yet one of the chief surprises of ‘Dracula Untold’ is that it does indeed find a new spin on the old Dracula chestnut. This version of the story is something new, a yarn that truly hasn't been told before, something the film accomplishes by throwing out the old story altogether and inventing a new one in its place. ‘Dracula Untold’ positions itself as half-superhero movie and half-‘Braveheart’ with a William Wallace that turns into a flurry of bats. That probably sounds ridiculous, but it certainly doesn't sound creaky or old-hat. Better still, it actually works.
In 15th Century Transylvania, Prince Vlad (Luke Evans, suggesting a rugged Orlando Bloom) has built a cozy little empire after a life spent on the battlefield, where he was known as Vlad the Impaler for reasons I trust don’t need explanation. With his dark past behind him now, he just wants to live a quiet life with his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). But Vlad has made many enemies in his past, and now emissaries of the vile Turkish sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) come to the Transylvanian castle to demand that Vlad hand over 1,000 boys to be bred as soldiers, including Vlad’s own son. Vlad refuses to comply, effectively condemning his people to war with an army so vast that they cannot possibly fend it off. Desperate and hopeless, Vlad embarks on a journey to a cave high atop nearby Broken Tooth Mountain that is known to be haunted by an ancient and powerful evil. Vlad attempts to barter with the cave’s occupant (Charles Dance) to be granted the power to fight off the Turkish hordes and protect his people. The creature offers Vlad a Faustian bargain: Drink of his blood and be granted immortality and the strength of a hundred men for three days. If Vlad can go that long without quenching his thirst for human blood, he will return to his mortal state. If he can’t, he will remain damned for eternity.
Imbued with inhuman abilities, Vlad singlehandedly makes short work of a battalion threatening his castle. He then leads his people to a secluded monastery where they will have more of a tactical advantage and spends the next couple of nights tearing through wave after wave of enemy soldiers while fighting an internal struggle to keep his insatiable thirst at bay (it’s not a vampire movie without an addiction metaphor, after all). Eventually, Vlad’s own people learn of why their prince has become a one-man army and threaten to turn on him. But Vlad’s true concern is keeping his wife and child safe, something that might be beyond even his considerable skills.
The main pill to swallow with ‘Dracula Untold’ is that it’s not a horror movie at all. Apart from the sequences involving the cave vampire, its aim is not to frighten. This is a fantasy action film, more a superhero origin story than a creepy vampire tale. It also gives us a fundamentally different Dracula than we’ve ever seen before. This Dracula is a hero who only wishes to protect his family and do right by his people. He embraces darkness only as a means to achieve his noble goals. He never even flirts with embodying evil in any way. He merely wields the resources of evil as a weapon, never succumbing to it. So pure of heart is this Dracula that even his past exploits of slaughtering and impaling, something he admits to having felt nothing about, never sticks to him as something sinister. It’s strange to have a Dracula portrayed as a virtuous champion of the people. It’s like if they made ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street Untold’ with Freddy heroically protecting Americans by killing ISIS in its sleep.
But in spite of the whitewash done on Dracula, ‘Untold’ is a ripping good time. Evans brings the appropriate gravitas to his role (he also gets the film’s best line, as he crushes a rock by accident and sums up his newfound might with “That’s useful”) and the film is consistently engaging, more so than anyone had any right to expect. The battlefield action sequences are somewhat jumbled and chaotic, as is the style these days, but beyond that, the film looks fantastic, very lavish and sweepingly epic. The film sets itself up with the requisite sequel hook and reportedly will tie into Universal’s forthcoming attempt to craft an interwoven Marvel-esque series out of its classic monster properties (though there’s no hint of this plan evidenced within the film itself), which would make this the ‘Iron Man’ of that series, fitting since, again, this has more in common with modern superhero lore than with anything Bram Stoker wrote. But to focus on what’s right here instead of what’s yet to come, ‘Dracula Untold’ somehow manages to make Dracula feel fresh and enjoyable again. No mean feat, that. Good thing this story wasn’t left untold.
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