A Below-middling New Vision of the Dracula Legend
DIRECTOR: GARY SHORE/2014
In the past several years the Syfy network has become known for its intentionally campy low budget horror and disaster films. Hypothetically, if the network did its very best to actually produce a good movie, given its usual budget limitations and B level casting, the resulting movie might be Dracula Untold.
History books tell us that Vlad the Impaler was a fearsome Romanian ruler, a bloodthirsty warrior whose penchant for executing his enemies by mounting them on stakes helped to birth vampire lore.
But what if Vlad was not such a bad guy after all? What if he was a prince committed to protecting his people from oppression by the Turks? Can an audience sympathize with his any-means-necessary approach, which does include impaling his enemies – but in this fantasy film also includes essentially making a pact with the devil. This sympathetic picture doesn’t correspond to the historical record, however. Despite the title, this is not so much the untold story as a completely reimagined one.
The bare bones of the story are these: Prince Vlad, of the house of Dracul, (Luke Evans) was a Romanian child slave of the Turks, trained to be their most brutal soldier, one whose name and reputation struck fear into the hearts of his opponents. Once freed from slavery, Vlad repented of his deeds and determined to be a wise and just ruler of his people. When a scouting party of Turkish soldiers disappears in Transylvania the Turkish Sultan (Dominic Cooper) holds Vlad responsible and demands a thousand child slaves as payment – including the prince’s young son, Ingeres (Art Parkinson). Facing the Sultan’s massive army – and with no army of his own to speak of – Vlad takes desperate measures. He seeks the help of an ancient vampire he’s discovered living in a cave (the real culprit behind those missing Turkish scouts). The vampire (Charles Dance) offers Vlad a serving of his blood and three days of his power with which to battle the Turks before he will return to his normal state – if he can resist feeding on human blood. Should he fail to resist, he will be permanently changed and the master vampire will be free to roam the earth once again. And so the battle is on – both between Vlad and the horde of Turks, and between Vlad and the darkness growing inside of him.
The use of language in historical fiction is always tricky, but a medieval prince bending over a fallen comrade and assuring him that everything is “okay” seems especially clumsy and anachronistic.
Dracula Untold is not terrible. The central actors give respectable performances, and the visual effects are eye catching. This Dracula doesn’t turn into just one bat, but into a swarm of them, flying impossibly fast to meet his meet his enemies. His strength is such that he can wield his sword and wipe out thousands (in a scene that would probably make far less sense if it wasn’t so fast that it’s a blur to watch). Vlad’s devotion to his wife (Sarah Gadon) and son never wavers, even as he begins to notice that pulsing vein in his wife’s neck and revels in his heightened senses. Nevertheless, this is still B movie material. The use of language in historical fiction is always tricky, but a medieval prince bending over a fallen comrade and assuring him that everything is “okay” seems especially clumsy and anachronistic. Additionally, the plot is predictable and sections which are intended to be exciting or suspenseful drag on too long. A scene in which Dracula manipulates bats through gestures evoked jazz hands as much as anything.
Late in the movie Dracula creates a small but efficient army of vampires. The difference between their transformation and behavior and his own is baffling. Why is the prince the only vampire with a conscience? For that matter, how does this curse that Dracula experiences work? Why is he not bound to the cave, as his predecessor was? Why does he remain physically attractive when the vampire who sired him is a skeletal horror?
There a lot that doesn’t add up here, and the final time jump to the present day seems not only illogical but silly. It should also be noted that this is not a horror movie, despite featuring vampires. There is a high body count but no gore, and the tone of the movie is more brooding and romantic than heart-pounding. The ending has a a “The End….or is it???” quality that indicates a sequel may be in the pipeline. But really at this level of filmmaking, a sequel seems uncalled for. Instead, I recommend a Syfy series, since Dracula Untold already feels made for TV. For the Syfy audience, this movie would be better than usual; for the rest of us this story could have remained untold.