Dracula Untold (2014)
Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality
Good news: Dracula Untold isn't the total disaster it could've been. Granted, it's still not a great movie, or even very good. It feels like it was heavily cut down in the editing room; a lot of supporting characters feel like they originally had much larger parts, and the action scenes are noticeably devoid of blood (odd for a vampire movie), cutting away so much that, at times, the action was hard to follow. However, it looks gorgeous, it's got good actors, and overall, it works on much the same level as the Resident Evil and Underworld movies. It's a solid, B-grade action/horror film that you can't go wrong with for a matinee, even if the specific problems I had with it leave me with little hope for Universal's planned reboot of its classic monsters.
As the title suggests, this is an origin story for Dracula. Like many such stories, Dracula Untold mines the history of the man who served as the loose inspiration for the character in Bram Stoker's original novel: Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler after his trademark method of executing criminals, rebels, and his vanquished foes. Here, he is instead the prince of Transylvania (because this is a vampire movie), he and his kingdom chafing under the vassalage of the Ottoman Turks. He wishes to avoid having to pay a tribute of one thousand boys, including his son, to serve in the Sultan's Janissary corps, having himself served in the Janissaries before setting off to establish his own kingdom. And so Vlad seeks the help of a vampire living deep in the mountains who has been preying on both Turkish soldiers and his own. Here, he is turned into a vampire himself, gifted superhuman strength and speed and the power to command animals to do his bidding, in exchange for the traditional weaknesses against sunlight, silver, and the sign of the cross. He has three days to use his newfound vampiric powers to fight back against the Turks before he returns to normal, so long as he resists the temptation of drinking human blood. If he gives in, he will be a vampire forever, permanently enslaved to his sire.
Seeing as how this is a Dracula origin story, the fact that he will give in is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the biggest weaknesses of the film largely come in the story department. We are introduced to characters like Vlad's wife (Sarah Gadon), his aides, a Romani clan, and his brother-in-arms from the Janissaries, but many of these people get barely any screen time. As the film runs at a very brisk pace (92 minutes including credits), it feels like all of these characters had much larger roles in the original script, and that they were cut from the film in order to turn it into a more straightforward action film. Who is this monk who tries to start a witch hunt against Vlad and burn him alive in his tent? Who is this Renfield-esque guy who's slavishly devoted to Vlad, only appearing in one scene before bringing him back to life at the end? It's not so bad in the first act, where we get to see Vlad with his family, but after Vlad is turned, the film becomes all action, all the time. I'll grant that it worked on this level, but it still felt like a mistake to cut so much story and so many characters from the film. If Universal really wants to build the "Monsters Universe" that they set up at the end of this film, then they needed to create a world of interesting characters that viewers would want to follow through several films, not leave all of the development for Dracula on the cutting room floor. I may have knocked The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for being virtually nothing but world-building for sequels, but this film has the opposite problem, with most of the characters, Dracula included, being one-note and hard to care about when they inevitably bite it like you know they will.
The action in this works, even if it could have, and really should have, been much better. Again, it feels like a film that was butchered in the editing room, cut down to a PG-13 on orders from the studio. You can tell during the action scenes exactly where they cut away to avoid showing blood or dismemberment, and the result is one of the most toothless "adult" vampire films I've ever seen. We are frequently shown hints of impalements, slashings, bloody sword fights, and of course, vampires sinking their teeth into people's necks, but it's always just that: hints. Given the already pulpy, B-movie feel of the film, they really should've been allowed to cut loose and go for a hard-R rating in the action scenes. It's a miracle that the action still works as well as it does even after being Bowdlerised. But it still does work, whether it's in the violent, personal encounters or the big CGI action set pieces. In spite of the choppy editing, the action is still well-directed and intense, and the dark, gothic style of the film still shines through. The makers of this film were clearly passionate about at least making it look like a classic horror film, and it was always a beautiful film to watch, especially in IMAX.
Also helping to save this film from being fully disposable is the cast. Luke Evans plays Vlad the Impaler, and he makes for a very charismatic action hero while also selling the concern for his family and his kingdom that motivated him to become a vampire. Sarah Gadon as Vlad's wife Mirena was one of the few people whose role didn't get totally cut from the film, and while she still doesn't have much to do, she was still solid. Likewise for Dominic Cooper as the Sultan Mehmet, as well as Charles Dance as the vampire who turns Vlad; the two of them stand out as villains despite limited screen time.
Score: 3 out of 5
This film didn't exactly sell me on a new Universal Monsters Universe, but it's still an enjoyable diversion, nothing more, nothing less. Watch it for the action, the style, and Luke Evans as Dracula, but turn your brain off at the door.