Do audiences really enjoy seeing movies about famous characters in which little of what makes said characters famous appears? We’ve been living with the glum and ponderous self-serious “gritty reboot” for at least decade now. We’ve had a mortal Hercules, a non-journalist Man of Steel, a Robin Hood without his Merry Men, and a King Arthur without a roundtable or a wizard. That it works marginally well about half the time is probably why they keep coming. Now we can add Dracula to the pile of iconic figures stripped of some iconic ideas.
We have Luke Evans, previously a Musketeer for Paul W.S. Anderson and a Middle-Earthling for Peter Jackson, playing the famous vampire in Dracula Untold, except he’s not a vampire and would rather not drink blood, thank you very much. He’s really Vlad the Impaler, so named for impaling his enemies and leaving them stuck in the battlefield on spears, the better to intimidate his enemies. We see this sight a few times, but silhouetted and shrouded in fog, the better to maintain a PG-13. Vlad was a real historical figure, and the movie tries for some token amount of Dark Age verisimilitude. It looks muddy, people are poor, and Vlad’s head weighs heavy with worry that Turks will bother his Transylvanian kingdom so peaceful he doesn’t even bother having a standing army.
But, sure enough, Turks, led by their villainous king (Dominic Cooper), show up demanding 1,000 boys for their army. When Vlad refuses, the Turks demand 1,000 and one more, his son (Art Parkinson). Vlad kills the messengers and prepares for battle, promising his wife (Sarah Gadon) he’ll do anything to protect their family and citizens. Anything, in this case, involves climbing an impassably craggy cliff to a cave where a vampire (Charles Dance) lives. Here the pale, fanged beast – more Nosferatu than Lee or Lugosi – offers Vlad a deal. Drink some vampire blood and have the powers of one for three days. If he makes it to a third sunrise without succumbing to the desire for human blood, he’ll return to normal. Drink, and he’ll be a vampire forever. He makes the deal.
At first this is all rather deftly handled, historical portent and creepy legend freely mixing in a dumb fun sort of way. It seems poised to be something like David Lean epic meets Hammer horror. Instead, it ends up closer to a Peter Jackson knockoff with long shots of characters wandering over hills and CGI armies marching across fields, the better to pad out the runtime I suppose. Characters are barely fleshed out, worldbuilding is half-hearted at best, and the production design is cramped and dark, the better to keep costs down I suppose. All the while, vampirism is exploited for effects shots and atmosphere, but is served up as a choose-your-own-metaphor. Sacrifice, temptation, grief, power, take your pick. It’s a painfully thin script telling a simple story with woefully underdeveloped motivations and undercooked characterizations. Gadon and Dance, especially, are wasted in one-note roles that start intriguing and go nowhere fast.
And yet, there’s potential here, and it’s the actors and art directors who get close to finding it with the sturdy competence of first-time director Gary Shore and no help from screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. Evans’ Vlad is a sad dad who’s just protecting his family, and we can see the pain of the responsibility in his eyes, as well as the exhilaration of vampiric powers that allow him to take on the entire Turkish army single-handedly. He can heal from his wounds – save sunlight, or a stake in the heart – and see in the dark, control creatures of the night, and turn into a swarm of bats if he moves really fast. He’s intimidating his enemies but he’s scaring his people and, hoo boy, does he vant to suck some blood. There’s a dollop of tension there, sitting beneath Evans eyes as he poses like a fantasy illustration in armor and flowing red cape. It’s impractical, but looks pretty cool, like most of the action and effects, which swirl around somewhat confusingly, but look striking from time to time.
There are plenty of reasons not to see this movie. But if you go hoping to see an impossibly large flock of bats slam into a massive army like a fist, or a vampire get staked in the heart so forcefully all his skin falls off, or a villain look across a CGI landscape full of ominous storm clouds and lightning and intone, “It’s the prince. He is coming,” you won’t be disappointed. If you get on the right flimsy B-movie fantasy wavelength, it’s not too terrible a way to pass 95 minutes, even better if you leave before the wholly unnecessary tease for a sequel that may or may not ever exist. Dracula Untold barely has enough to it to support itself, let alone a franchise.