Dracula Untold

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 10, 2014

Luke Evans stars in 'Dracula Untold'
Luke Evans stars in 'Dracula Untold'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

No one, it seems, is safe from the fad of the origin story. The problem is that efforts to reveal an iconic character's beginning often kowtow too much to what's already been established; also, when dealing with a monster (say, Hannibal Lecter in the dreadful "Hannibal Rising") the gimmick is self-defeating. What makes a baddie so fascinating is the mystery of what he is and what compels him.

All of those flaws are present in "Dracula Untold," where writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless create a historically-grounded tale about the notorious Vlad the Impaler, a goo dman in a violent time who went wrong for the best of reasons.

In their reading, Vlad (Like Evans) is King of Transylvania. As a youth, he was a royal hostage, raised in the home of the Turkish Sultan and trained as a ferocious warrior. After returning to his home nation and assuming the throne, Vlad promised his wife, Queen Mirena (Sarah Gadon), that he'd never allow any son of theirs to be similarly taken away... but lo, here's Vlad's Turkish foster brother Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), the new Sultan, looking for a tribute of 1,000 boys to serve in his armies. Make that 1,001: Mehmed wants to honor tradition and take Vlad's son Ingeras (Art Parkinson) under his armored wing for an extended stay of, say, twelve years or so. Against the counsel of his advisors, henpecked Vlad decides he'd rather go to war with Medmed than surrender his son.

Lacking an army to repel Mehmed's troops, Vlad ventures to a cave on sinister-looking Broken Tooth Mountain, where a fearsome creature dwells. This is the ancient Master Vampire (Charles Dance). Intrigued by Vlad's audacity, the Master Vampire allows him to live... sort of. Offering Vlad some of his blood, the Master lays out the rules of the game: For three days, Vlad will possess the speed, strength, and supernatural powers of the vampire. After that, he will revert to his human form once again. This time limit means Vlad has only three days to win the war with Mehmed. But there is a further catch: during his time in Vampville, Vlad's going to be tormented by an overpowering thirst for human blood. If he restrains himself, all will be well. But if not, he all remain a vampire forever.

This sets things up nicely for director Gary Shore to mount intense, CGI-enhanced battles (which are nicely choreographed, with Vlad flickering between his human form and his newly discovered alternate manifestation as a swarm of bats) and indulge in some handsome production design. Meantime, the writers gleefully ravage Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 take, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," riffing on some of the earlier film's most striking elements. When they're not rummaging in the cupboards of Dracula canon, though, the writers fill in the gaps and meet current cinematic expectations with shallow and obvious plotting, barely-sketched characters, and liberal amounts of silliness, all rounded out with a dash of misogyny. (The film's core message? A prince's first duty is to his subjects... and it's a grave mistake to let weeping, sentimental women meddle in affairs in state.)

Like all big movies these days, "Dracula Untold" is set up to spawn sequels. What's both promising and disheartening is the idea, implicit in the material, that the next chapter (if there is one) will be some sort of contemporary remake of the Coppola film. At least if there is a Part II, it's likely to feature Charles Dance as the Master Vampire. Not only is he the best part of "Dracula Untold," his character is the best new idea for a Dracula film in ages. He is the Master, after all, and there's something intriguing in the idea that, even if you're the most famous vampire in the whole of the genre, you're still gonna... as the Bob Dylan song puts it... have to serve somebody.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.