Dracula Untold (Movie Review)

Dracula Untold (Movie Review)
5 10

PLOT: Vlad of Castle Dracula must make an unholy bargain with a vampire in order to save his kingdom from a vicious Turkish army. By becoming a monster, he'll be able to defeat his enemies - but is it worth the price of his soul?

REVIEW: It's a strange case, DRACULA UNTOLD is. In a way, it's a necessary undertaking by Universal Pictures; an origin story about a man who becomes a monster in order to save his kingdom and his family. Clearly the studio wants to build a franchise around this charismatic warrior, elevating him to almost comic book superhero status. They might have called it DRACULA BEGINS.

But those looking for a movie actually about Dracula will not be too excited by the Gary Shore-directed film, which basically leaves out all the good stuff in favor of painting its protagonist as tortured, emotionally fragile and more or less benevolent. This Dracula, not unlike one of the cream-faced sparklers from the TWILIGHT flicks, takes no pleasure in sucking blood or turning others into his servants. He may indeed end up being a more traditionally menacing figure down the road, but in DRACULA UNTOLD it's all "woe is me" dramatics and agonizing.

Vlad was raised to be a vicious killer; kidnapped by the Turks who command the land with an iron fist before he was a teenager, he was groomed to know nothing but bloodshed. When we meet him, personified by Luke Evans, he rules as an altruistic king over a peaceful population. His beautiful wife (Sarah Gadon) and son (Art Parkinson) are his world, and though he did indeed slay thousands upon thousands of people during his days as a savage killer, but for now he appears to be a man without a care or worry.

That all changes when the Turkish army comes calling once again. As they did when he was a young boy, the Turks demand hundreds of boys to turn into a militia - Vlad's son being one of them. Vlad seeks to change the mind of the Turkish commander, Mehmed (a seemingly spray-tanned Dominic Cooper), whom he grew up with back in the bad old days, but Mehmed is a power-mad tyrant now and has no sympathy for Vlad's pain. The latter, naturally, cannot give up his own son so easily, so he denies the Turks' demands at the risk of the destruction of his kingdom.

What's a guy to do? Well, one option is going into the big scary mountain that hovers over the land and seek the alleged monster that resides within it. That would be Charles Dance ("Game of Thrones" fans will be hissing) as a centuries old vampire, confined to a cave for all eternity unless he can pass his curse on to someone else. Vlad, his back against the wall, decides to turn to the dark side: He'll drink the vampire's blood and become a vampire, with all the nifty powers that go with it, and become a one-man army. If he can resist the urge to drink blood for three days, he'll revert back to a man, and the curse will remain with the Master Vampire. So many rules.

The CG takes over once Vlad has his new tricks up his sleeve; he can turn into a swarm of bats and ravage an army of men, he can seemingly control the weather, he has the strength of a hundred badasses. Director Shore shows us a lot of LORD OF THE RINGS-style battle sequences that feel somewhat out of place in a Dracula movie, but by then it has become clear DRACULA UNTOLD is more interested in appealing to a fantasy film fanbase as opposed to a horror one. There are virtually zero scares in the movie, the only remotely creepy moment comes with Dance's glorified cameo. There's certainly nothing frightening about Dracula himself; as played by Evans, the man-beast takes no joy at all in his newfound abilities, not even when he's using them to slay his enemies. There's a distinct lack of joy in the movie all around, to be honest; for the most part it bears the same gloomy disposition as its dark prince. All work, no play.

Shore brings a few nice touches to his debut, which admittedly moves very swiftly. A veteran of commercials, he frames the action well and knows how to showcase his actors' attributes. The battle scenes are reasonably compelling - if not a bit familiar - although there seems to have been a scaling down in the violence in order to achieve a PG-13 rating. I'm curious if the Blu-ray will feature a bloodier extended version, since there is hardly any red stuff to be found here.

Evans does what he can with the role; he's not a bad actor, nor a bad choice, he just doesn't have much to do other than appear sullen and/or perturbed. Cooper is making a nice living playing over-the-top characters right now, and his Mehmed is appropriately douchey, although he's not really in it enough to qualify as a hateful villain. He's more of an egomaniacal jerk than an intimidating antagonist. Gadon is quite lovely and brings some gentle warmth to the part of Mirena, even if she is mostly relegated to role of concerned wife. But it's Dance who steals the show with his all-too-brief appearance; his scene makes the movie hum in a way it never does again, leaving you thirsty for more. Part of that is because Dance is just such a great screen presence, but it's also because the sequence itself hints at the temptation of darkness that is usually the crux of all vampire stories.



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