Film Review: Dracula Untold (USA, 2014)

Dracula Untold

There have been plenty of movies made about the infamous character of Dracula, most of which centre around his blood-sucking, bat shape shifting, and supernatural ways. There have been less films made that focus on his beginnings and how he came to be this villainous monster, and even less that have some grain of truth to them. Dracula Untold attempts to fuse the truth of the real man with the fantastical and vampire mythology. It’s an interesting and bold concept for an origin story, but it’s also a large leap of faith to take to try and mix in the believable truth with the unbelievable fiction.

With a little department of backstory narration we’re given a brief and simplistic explanation as to why the Transylvanian people hate the Turks, and it mainly revolves around the acquisition of Transylvanian boys to become young brainwashed and manipulated pawns in the Turkish armies. We are then introduced to our anti-hero Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans), his father the King had offered him up as a boy to the Turkish Sultan to maintain peace, and under the training and torture of Turkish soldiers grew up to be a reputedly fierce and cruel warrior, with a penchant for impaling his victims. Skip to sometime in the future and Vlad has returned to his homeland of Transylvania and been pleasantly ruling the kingdom for 10 peaceful years. That is of course until Sultan Mehmet (Dominic Cooper) decides he wants to recruit the Transylvanian boys for his army and to further his empire by conquering more realms. This of course doesn’t sit well with Vlad, who needs a way to not only save his own son from being recruited but save his people and kingdom from falling to the Ottomans. Cue coincidental run-in with Caligula, the Master Vampire (Charles ‘Tywin Lannister’ Dance) who bestows upon Vlad some super cool vampire powers complete with foreboding curse. Let the battles of the SFX and CGI and grandiose musical scores commence.

Now for me, my initial drawcards were the ridiculously cool special effects, the dark horror fantasy nature of the film and the fact that it was touting itself as more of an origin story. And on all of these counts it did deliver, though some more strongly than others. I thought the special effects, particularly the sequences involving Vlad’s ability to transform into a cloud of bats (as opposed to just a singular one) was well done, and the final battle sequence where we get a tornado cloud of them was pretty crazy. The costumes in this film are ridiculously gorgeous too, and the attention to detail and time period accuracy is spectacular. Also Vlad seems to have a constant supply of magnificent coats or capes, and a badass warrior prince should always have a great wardrobe. This film is also dark, very very dark, not just in nature but visually as well. There are a lot of scenes where it’s so dark it’s hard to make out the outlines or setting or who or what we’re looking at, I found myself squinting a few times to try and make out what was going on. Now the story, here’s where it gets a bit tricky. For say the first half hour or so of the film most of what we’re shown is actually fairly close to the mark to the true history of Vlad Tepes. He was indeed a prince, stolen away by the Turks to become a soldier and soon turned into a reputable and feared warrior. Even how Vlad started the war with Mehmet and the Ottoman’s is fairly accurate based on historical reports to what we see in the film. Feeling burdened by the need to protect his kingdom he waged a war with what little army he had, taking it upon himself to once again become the villain he had been in the past.

The frustrating thing though was that the story had the potential to be something interesting, but instead it just ends up being a little boring. It also collapses under its own weight of constant angst and the fact that Evans is almost always looking troubled, or in deep brooding thought. We are repeatedly reminded that he has a duty and he needs to protect his people at all costs, forsaking his own mortality and morality to become the monster and antihero. It almost gets a little too psychologically analytical at times and for a fantasy movie it really shouldn’t. Also our real bad guy Mehmet, aside from his obsession for expanding his empire doesn’t really seem all that dastardly, and really back in those days wasn’t conquering countries the thing to do? Sadly Cooper’s portrayal also falls flat and he barely registers on the evil scale and his attempt at a Turkish accent just seemed off. Out of the entire supporting cast the only one even worth noting is Charles Dance as Caligula or the Master Vampire. He manages to set the creepy factor right off the chart, somehow combining Gary Oldman and Tywin Lannister into his portrayal of a man now turned into a twisted monster intent on manipulation for his own pleasure and preying on people who stray too close to his mountain lair. You might also recognise a couple of other Game of Thrones alum in this film, including Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark) who plays Ingerson, Vlad’s son and also Paul Kaye (Thoros of Myr) playing Brother Lucian. But really it’s Luke Evans who manages to succeed in carrying the lion’s share of this film and at least doing a decent job of it, with what shoddy writing and script he had.

This film starts off interesting with a mix of drama and politics and incorporates historical truth but sadly fails to deliver once it devolves into its fantasy and supernatural elements and relying too heavily on long dramatic close ups of Luke Evans looking pensive and broody or angry and fierce. It’s not terrible but it’s nothing fantastic either so it just ends up being mediocre viewing material.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time: 92 minutes

Dracula Untold is out now through Universal Pictures Australia