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‘Dracula Untold’ Review: The Early Adventures of Bland the Impaler

By  · Published on October 9th, 2014

Universal Pictures

Origin stories have become synonymous with Marvel films and other cinematic superhero adventures, but Hollywood’s love of the idea has long extended well beyond caped crusaders. The concept of taking an established character and delving into their narrative birth has, for better or worse, resulted in origin tales for literary creations as diverse as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter and Jesus Christ. It’s an (often unnecessary) opportunity to detail the events that led them to becoming the character we’re familiar with, and the best ones enrich the person while staying true to their persona.

An example of the opposite tact is Dracula Untold.

Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) is the beloved yet misunderstood leader of the Transylvanian people who after years of battle has delivered his country into a time of peace. It’s a tenuous calm though as the Turkish kingdom – a powerful empire under which Transylvania serves – is led by a cruel man named Mehmed (Dominic Cooper). When the power-thirsty ruler demands a testosterone-fueled donation of one thousand boys for his army Vlad refuses thereby dooming his people to destruction at the tips of Turkish swords. But Vlad is nothing if not a strong supporter of “the ends justify the means” and after making a deal with a monster in the mountains returns to open a can of supernatural whoop-ass on the Turkish Empire.

The deal Vlad makes with the powerful cave-bound creature (Charles Dance) gives him superhuman abilities – the strength of ten men, dominion over bats, super senses and the ability to turn into CGI – but it comes at the potential price of his very soul. If he can resist the accompanying urge to slurp blood for three days he’ll revert back to his normal self, but if not, he’ll be forced to commit to the undead life of a vampire. No sun, no silver jewelry and no happiness with his boy or his wife (Sarah Gadon).

The film reveals its entire premise in a brief exchange between Vlad and the elder vampire when the monster states that sometimes the world is no longer in need of a hero and instead craves a monster. The result is a revisionist take on the world’s most adapted literary character, one that paints him as a loving man forced by circumstance to embrace evil for the greater good. The historical antics of the real Vlad are spun into little more than a tough decision he had to make, brutality and carnage committed to prevent far more brutality and carnage.

I look forward to next year’s Hitler Untold where we discover that he was forced into a corner and begrudgingly had to engineer the Holocaust in order to save the life of his art teacher. Or something.

It’s a silly conceit that dampens a character whose greatest strength is his embrace of the darkness leaving a neutered and generic “superhero” in its wake. The film’s PG-13 rating keeps it suitable for families (?) but also makes for a mostly bloodless affair where atrocities are only hinted at while bodies pile up by the hundreds. Director Gary Shore’s feature debut is competent enough, but it does the job without anything resembling a personal touch.

The action on display is at least somewhat fun to watch, most notably Vlad’s first vampire-fueled attack on an entire battalion of Turkish soldiers. He single-handedly defeats hundreds of them, and while it consists as much of CGI as it does flesh and blood performers there’s a minor sense of style on display in the choreography and staging. Similarly there are a handful of shots and frames that attract the eye including the fog-shrouded monastery, dozens of bodies impaled on long stakes in silhouette and Vlad’s imposing armor.

His narrative through-line and emotional arc barely register beyond a flat line though, and Evans doesn’t help matters. He’s displayed a minor, roguishly charming presence in the past, but he’s best kept in a suitably-sized role as a supporting player. (The best being his villainous turn in No One Lives.) He’s just not up to the task of a heroically conflicted lead, and the script from newcomers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless doesn’t do him any favors. There are one or two exchanges here that hint at a more lively character, but for the most part Dracula’s as white bread as they come.

It’s perhaps too easy to say that Dracula Untold is a story that should have remained that way, but it’s also implying there’s much in the way of a story here. More than anything else it’s an excuse to throw CGI at a known character in the hope that something will stick with audiences, and as a simple action/fantasy the film will find its fans. But as a Dracula film it’s not just bloodless, it’s also lifeless and weightless too. Dario Argento’s Dracula by contrast may be an utterly terrible movie, but at least he had the chutzpah to add a giant praying mantis into the mix.

The Upside: A handful of fun action sequences and visuals; some laughs

The Downside: Fairly dull for a movie featuring vampires and warfare; script fails to create compelling characters or drama; sorry, but maybe Dracula didn’t need to be a tragic hero?; sequel setup is a narrative non sequitor

On the Side: Sam Worthington was originally cast in the lead role, but he ultimately passed because he felt the character wasn’t bland enough.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.