All words: Rachel Kurzius
You might have heard this story: there’s an exceptional warrior who lays down his sword and starts a family…until one last job throws all of that domesticity into upheaval. It’s the basic plot of most action movies. In Dracula Untold that man just happens to be Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), a child soldier in the Turkish military turned Prince of Transylvania.
Vlad starts off the movie as a peace-lovin’ prince who loves his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and kid Ingeras (Art Parkison, aka Rickon from Game of Thrones). He still has the scars from Turkish whips and remembers how they cultivated his “thirst for blood” (foreshadowing alert). Can Vlad suppress his thirst when Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) announces he’s restarting the conscription program with 1,000 of Transylvania’s young lads, starting with Ingeras?
Debut director Gary Shore’s origin story is based on Bram Stoker’s inspiration for the name of Dracula — a fifteenth century Hungarian ruler named Vlad III. Writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless want us to like Vlad, even if “I impaled one village to save ten more!” is a pretty bad excuse.
Vlad makes that excuse to the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) at Broken Tooth Mountain (seriously). Dance goes full Uncle Scar in these scenes, sneering “You have no idea” in The Lion King villain’s posh accent, minus the menace. Vlad and the Master Vampire make a deal. Vlad gets superhuman strength and senses for three days. If he can resist drinking human blood during that time, he’ll return to his normal, old self. But if he succumbs to his thirst, then he will be damned for eternity.
So Vlad has three days to single-handedly defeat the Turkish army, all while not tasting the blood he spills. Tough order for our friend the Impaler. Because this is Dracula’s origin story, we know that Vlad drinks the blood. The question becomes whose hemoglobin he drinks and in what circumstance. This is pretty effective tension, because every moment could be the moment.
That feeling is the closest the movie comes to mirroring the gothic menace typically associated with Dracula interpretations. Dracula Untold prefers bigger action sequences to eerie staircases. Huge, CGI tornadoes of bats whirl around the Turkish army in a trick that looks cool but doesn’t make much sense as a deadly battle tactic. The hand-to-hand fight scenes are chaotically edited, so it’s hard to see what is going on. In one scene, you see the battle through the reflection of a sword, which then moves as its owner uses and then loses it. Creative elements like this are for naught when the battle itself is so jumbled.
You can safely assume Vlad is winning, though. With Universal announcing its intention to create an Avengers-like movie universe for all of its monsters, so Frankenstein, van Helsing, and the Mummy can star in overlapping films, we know Dracula has got to make it – if not alive, exactly – to the ending credits. “Avengers-like” is the new buzzword for movie studios, but I think they’re mistaken if they think having Charles Dance show up in monster movies, Samuel L. Jackson-style, is going to make them oodles of cash. The Avengers had fight scenes, sure, but it also had clever quips and fascinating characters. Dracula Untold lacks these elements (“I am what they fear on Broken Tooth Mountain” and “What man crawled into his own grave in search of hope?” are the only two lines I wrote down verbatim, both for being leaden).
At its best, Dracula Untold looks at the sacrifices it takes to wage war. Vlad learns that you can only win by being bloodthirsty. What are you going to drink when the battle is over?