Review: DRACULA UNTOLD Reimagines A Reluctant Vampire Action Hero

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Review: DRACULA UNTOLD Reimagines A Reluctant Vampire Action Hero

Surprisingly effective, the latest iteration of the Dracula legacy seeks to rebuild vampire-movie mythology by going back to the beginning.

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker's novel inspired F.W. Murnau's unofficial adaptation Nosferatu in 1922, which then sparked a series of stage plays, one of which served as the more direct source for Tod Browning's Dracula in 1931.

That movie entranced moviegoers with a startling vision of an elegant, bloodsucking vampire, following in the footsteps of earlier horror productions from Universal Studios. Though it plays somewhat flat and dry today, it established characters -- and character traits -- that Universal copied in subsequent editions, establishing a fair portion of the monster movie mythology that it is now seeking to reboot.

Serving as a prologue -- or "origin story" -- Dracula Untold presents Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), as a prince, warrior, and family man in the Middle Ages. He rules his small kingdom of Transylvania with a kind hand, enjoys a comfortable marriage with his beautiful and supportive wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and dotes on his son Ingeras (Art Parkinson).

Vlad has maintained peace and tranquility for years, in part through a treaty with the neighboring, war-mongering nation of Turkey. But Turkey is evil, through and through, and Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) demands that Transylvania hand over 1,000 young men under the age of 18, including his own son, with the idea that they will be trained as soldiers in service of the Sultan. Having undergone the same thing himself, Vlad is repulsed by the Sultan's demand. Knowing that his tiny kingdom cannot defeat Turkey's mighty armed forces, however, Vlad reluctantly turns toward a secret supernatural force, hidden away in Broken Tooth Mountain, in order to protect his countrymen -- and his family.

Eventually, Dracula Untold picks up steam and reveals a greater variety of tones, including some much-needed comic relief, as well as undertones of melancholy and great yearning, which tie it, however tenuously, to some of the best depictions of Dracula on screen. Like an overeager child, it embraces a variety of non-traditional lore for a vampire movie, which ties it to modern superhero movies. Yet it feels like a stodgy drag until then, and the inertia is difficult to shake off.

dracula-untold-poster-01-300.jpgMatt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, who wrote the screenplay, spend an inordinate amount of time setting up the story, although far less attention is paid in the finished production to supporting characters, which drains much of the juice that's needed to spice things up. Once Vlad gets a taste of the supernatural, his giddy delight becomes palpable, and the adventure becomes more engaging, but it's almost a case of too little, too late.

The third act of the movie is the strongest, even though it, too, falls prey to the modern action-movie aesthetic of quick cuts and tight angles that confound clarity. Still, it pushes the emotional family connections to new depths of anguish, and aims for poignancy.

Making his directorial debut, Gary Shore sticks to a dark, inky palette, well-photographed by John Schwartzman, a veteran cinematographer. It's so dark, however, that it appears nearly monochromatic, at least in the AMC multiplex theater auditorium where I saw an advance screening. If intentional, it's a stark choice that, unfortunately, sucks away some of the color that's needed for a modern action-adventure picture.

Even setting that issue aside, the decision to pare away establishing notes for the supporting characters, as mentioned above, detracts from the notion that the movie is intended as something other than a straightforward origin story. Luke Evans is fine as Vlad, and the rest of the cast follows his lead, furthering the tone of decent respectability that dominates. I was never bored by the proceedings, but neither was I truly enthralled.

Smart, narratively speaking, in ways that step too far into spoiler territory to discuss, Dracula Untold weighs in as an average drama with above-average moments that reach for something more elegant and piercing than expected. It falls short, but it still provides a thoughtful, modestly enjoyable ride.

The film opens wide throughout the U.S. and Canada on Friday, October 10. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

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Bram StokerDominic CooperDraculaGary ShoreLuke EvansvampireMatt SazamaBurk SharplessSarah GadonArt ParkinsonActionDramaFantasy

More about Dracula Untold (2014)

Gopal NatarajanOctober 10, 2014 12:35 AM

Vlad The Impaler as a mild-mannered, benevolent family man? LULz. What is the point of such revisionist hokum?

Christopher MelkusOctober 10, 2014 8:04 AM

Ah, mediocrity, the eternal critical dilemma. Do you slam the product as half-hearted and lose favor or defend its finer points despite looking soft?

BosOctober 10, 2014 9:23 AM

I still don't understand why people just can't make fantasy movies without referring to pre-existing footage.

Hansel and Gretel witch hunters was fun, but do we really need to call it Hansel and Gretel? I enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman a lot, but next time please call it "The Dark Sorceress" or something like that.....and now Dracula Untold....Dracula? Why they can't just call a movie THE NIGHT OF THE WARLORD and tell us this exact same story without calling him Dracula?? This is just stupid, and it will never end to annoy me.

HowardOctober 10, 2014 10:02 AM

Vlad is Bruce Wayne

RawBeardOctober 10, 2014 10:18 AM

The Monster Squad is my favourite team up of the Universal Monsters. Really like the design of the Black Lagoon Creature

Ard VijnOctober 10, 2014 10:29 AM

Dammit man, put up a "Spoiler Alert" before saying these things!

FistacuffsOctober 10, 2014 1:28 PM

Really want to like this movie. Fingers crossed!

Dave BaxterOctober 10, 2014 4:00 PM

Because however much money these films may or may not have made, they all would have made significantly less if they weren't called these things. If you're annoyed, be annoyed with your fellow theater goers and the choices they make.

Mr. CavinOctober 10, 2014 4:40 PM

oh I am.

Pa Kent Says MaybeOctober 10, 2014 6:03 PM

Yeah. I really am.

Stuart MullerOctober 10, 2014 8:28 PM

Really really.

GBannisOctober 10, 2014 10:28 PM

Stoker's Dracula had no such beginning. Instead, he was a creature of the Christian church, many say a result of Christian sexual repression. Notice that he sleeps in a coffin on hallowed ground, and only on hallowed ground. Stoker himself harbored a lifelong, repressed love for a male actor.

GBannisOctober 10, 2014 10:29 PM

How much money the movie would otherwise have made is impossible to calculate.

Dave BaxterOctober 11, 2014 12:30 AM

That's not really true. It's calculable insofar as anything in business is calculable before something actually happens - theory, history, comparables, etc. All are proper uses to determine how much a business move might make or lose money, or did make or lose money.

billydakingOctober 11, 2014 12:04 PM

A flawed film that is entertaining isn't mediocre. And I didn't get a sense that the film was "half-hearted" from this review (normally, you don't write "smart" and "occasionally elegant" with something that is rote and lifeless). It sounds that, from the reviewer's viewpoint, the film makes some mistakes at the beginning that it doesn't fully recover from, which prevents it from being a marvelous movie. So, it's simply a decent film with some surprises.

Maybe you should just learn to enjoy a movie, with both merits and flaws, rather than decide to slam or defend. The vast majority of storytelling does fall in that gray area afterall.....

billydakingOctober 11, 2014 12:05 PM

Or, it could be that was the genius of the story: to retell a fable a different way. I don't think you can really separate this film or Hansel and Gretel from the original source myth, so why not be honest?

BosOctober 12, 2014 8:50 AM

Meh......a King who makes a pact with a dark force to obtain enough power to defeat his enemies can easily be everything in this need to link it to something specific if you are going to change 90% of the source material

Dave BaxterOctober 13, 2014 2:35 AM

Maybe you should learn to allow people to have their own opinions, readings, and views of what "the vast majority of storytelling" falls into. Personally, I would say the vast majority falls into lazy, uninspired, not-worth-the-time area. If you want to call that "grey", that's fine. But I would say "grey" = not worth the time or money or effort, then.

Martin WagnerOctober 13, 2014 2:51 AM

It's called branding. People will see a movie with Dracula in the title because they have heard of Dracula. Random Warlord Guy doesn't have the same marketing hook. Simple as that.

GBannisOctober 24, 2014 12:11 AM

What coulda been is not "calculable." It is perhaps something that can be estimated, but it's pretty much impossible to estimate what a vampire movie would have made if it weren't a vampire movie. A lot also depends on how good the movie is.

Dave BaxterOctober 24, 2014 2:28 PM

Yes, it is "calculable". You're conflating "calculable" with statements of pure unbridled fact - sums are not the only calculations used by mankind. Most calculations are theoretical, or at least used to support theoretical conceits - you tally the money made form one type of film (called "Dracula") and others (vampire films not called Dracula) and draw a basic conclusion. From that context, it's absolutely "calculable", like most things in business are.

Mr. CavinOctober 24, 2014 3:01 PM

Like when someone calculates the odds a certain horse (or sports team or stock) has of winning a race (or game or market). Properly calculating the outcome of events that have not happened is, like, a trillion-dollar industry in this world. The people who do it successfully are the richest people on the planet.

GBannisOctober 24, 2014 9:20 PM

I get your point, and agree that the estimation you posit is a "theoretical conceit." I would appreciate it if you didn't assign me thinking that isn't mine. Nowhere did I conflate calculable with statements of pure unbridled fact. That is your assumption. In fact, it's clear that I used the word "estimates."

Dave BaxterOctober 24, 2014 11:09 PM

To be fair, while you said the word "estimates" you used it as an exact opposite of "calculable", which is what I'm disagreeing about. "Calculable" absolutely includes estimations and projections as is not as narrowly a defined term as you're arguing it is. I'm not assigning you thinking that isn't yours, I'm responding to words you clearly wrote with an opposing opinion.

EDIT: Ooohhh, I see, you're saying about "impossible to estimate what a vampire movie would have made if it weren't a vampire movie". But it is possible: because "vampire" is not the only content included in the movie. It's also a horror movie, or action, or gore, or gothic or modern or period or fantasy or urban or whatever. It's always estimable to take all the other elements and figure what the difference would be if you then added "vampire" to the list or not.