Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

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Director: Gary Shore
Screenwriters: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless
Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Art Parkinson, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye & William Houston
Runtime: 92 min // Certificate: 15

There’s an unwritten rule in storytelling that states that if a story is “untold”, that is how it should remain. See, for example, the recent attempt to reinvent Maleficent as a modern anti-hero, or Marc Webb’s attempt to tell the “untold story” (except for when it was told in the comics…) of Spider-Man. Though both of these examples are perfectly fine films, they both struggle to overcome their inherent pointlessness. The same is true of Dracula Untold.

The plot goes thus; Vlad the Impaler (Evans; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), prince of Transylvania, lives in reluctant peace with the Turkish Empire, for whom he was once a slave and warrior. When the Turkish Sultan, Mehmed (Cooper; Need for Speed), demands that 1000 Transylvanian boys be given to him as slaves – including Vlad’s own young son, Ingeras (Parkinson; Love, Rosie) – so that he can continue to wage war on the rest of World, Vlad resists. With an unwinnable war with the Turks now on the horizon, Vlad seeks assistance from a nightmarish creature that has been haunting the nearby mountains for many years; a creature that we soon discover to be a vampire (played by Charles Dance; Alien 3).The vampire grants Vlad immense strength and the ability to fly and command bats at his will, but there’s a catch; Vlad must resist the insatiable lust for human blood for three whole days, lest he be lumbered with the curse of vampirism forever more.

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With a plot as outright bonkers as that, you might expect Dracula Untold to possess all the qualities of a hilarious cult classic, but no such luck I’m afraid. Without wishing to do the film down too much, as it’s a perfectly passable action film that gets whatever unnecessary job it wants to get done with as little fuss as possible, it is an unconscionably po-faced and sullen experience that fails to make the most of its potential. It’s enjoyable pap for the most part, complete with all the CGI craziness and bloodshed that such an enterprise demands, but considering how ludicrous the fundamental concept of the film is, I was expecting something much more tongue-in-cheek than what Gary Shore’s feature debut had to offer.

Indeed, with the exception of Charles Dance, who seems to relish his role as a campy version of Christopher Lee, everyone involved approaches the mundane material with the utmost seriousness. Evans, though perfectly suited to the chiselled, brooding anti-hero role to which this take on Dracula pertains, spends the entire film growling angrily at the Turks and looking as though he might shit himself, while Dominic Cooper – who gives a performance so intensely hammy, I can’t decide if it’s awful or brilliant – cannot help but turn every scene he’s in into a homoerotic dick-measuring contest between himself and Evans. If Dance were on screen long enough to make some sort of impact then maybe the film mightn’t be as unbearably self-conscious and sombre as it is, but as things stand it’s rather difficult to invest in or be affected by a story as simultaneously daft and dour as this one.

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Furthermore, and maybe it’s just me, but isn’t Dracula meant to be… y’know, scary? Like, he’s the most infamous vampire in the World, so surely he should be positively terrifying? Here, by contrast, he’s just a handsome Welshman who’s a bit too sword-happy for his own good. I know this is his “origin” story and whatnot, but it might have been nice if Dracula weren’t so whiny and vain. I mean fair’s fair, I had a bit of fun watching Evans go batshit (quite literally) in his battles with his enemies, but it’s nowhere near as grim or horrifying as a tale about Dracula ought to be. Even when the violence is cranked up and the eponymous monster takes an entire battalion on single-handedly, the gore and the aggression is smothered by a musty, grainy cloud of CGI nonsense.

Dracula Untold is inoffensively bland, and that’s about all there is to say. It’ll help you pass a quiet evening, and there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching Luke Evans kick arse, but other than that there’s simply nothing going on here at all. It’s nowhere near as execrable as I, Frankenstein, but this trend of reinventing classic villains by making them sappy and full of regret really does need to stop, because it’s pretty insulting to the rich and complicated history of their characters.

★★

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