Hollywood has always loved sequels. But the early 2000s saw studios pursue a new direction for franchise-building – prequels or origin stories. Ever want to know why Hannibal Lecter is a cannibal? How about Michael Myers’ childhood? Or what about Father Merrin’s first encounter with The Exorcist demon, Pazuzu? Though Rob Zombie’s Halloween has its fans, Hannibal Rising and Exorcist: The Beginning – along with most origin stories – generally fell flat with critics and audiences alike. And poor Dracula Untold was something of a double failure. Not only was its domestic box office underwhelming but it failed to kickstart Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’.
In the 15th century Prince Vlad Drăculea rules peacefully over Wallachia and Transylvania. Years have passed since Vlad forcibly served as a soldier for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. During this time, Prince Vlad’s ruthlessness earned him the title, “Vlad the Impaler, Son of the Dragon”. But when the Sultan’s armies return demanding 1000 children as a tribute, Prince Vlad makes a desperate pact with a creature in a mountain cave. With new strength and powers, he can save his people … at an unspeakable price that may cost him his own soul.
Dracula Untold a Visually Impressive, If Somewhat Empty, Spectacle
For all of its shortcomings, Dracula Untold isn’t a bad mad movie as much as it is misguided. Director Gary Shore, along with writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, likely too cues from action-horror franchises Resident Evil and Underworld that were popular several years earlier. While there’s horror elements, Shore et al emphasize large-scale action. No one is going to accuse this movie of being boring. At just over 90 minutes, Dracula Untold is a lean movie that wastes little time advancing its story. And Shore capably stages several big set pieces that are visually dazzling in all their CGI-crafted glory. Even if some viewers tire of the overreliance on digital effects, there’s no denying it makes for impressive spectacle.
Amidst all the action, character and story – as well as historical accuracy – take a backseat.
If Dracula Untold looks good, it never particularly engages or impresses on any emotional level. Everything about the movie feels perfunctory. Amidst all the action, character and story – as well as historical accuracy – take a backseat. Sazama and Sharpless’ story plays out like a connect-the-dots with each scene feeling like it exists just to take us to the next time Dracula turns into a swarm of bats. And Shore eventually drains that effect of any excitement. Ultimately, what’s missing from Dracula Untold is a sense of emotional investment in Prince Vlad’s dilemma. You should care, but the movie’s glossy tone lacks much in the way of resonance.
Dracula Untold Misunderstands Its Title Character
Arguably, Shore et al’s biggest misstep was its handling of the Dracula mythos. Turning random vampires’ and werewolves into larger-than-life superheroes and villains a la the Underworld series is one thing. In contrast, Dracula is a recognized character with decades of interpretations in film, television, and literature. Unfortunately, Dracula Untold doesn’t so much re-interpret him as it does reduce him to a one-note character in his own movie. And Shore isn’t quite as adept at the horror elements as he is the action. There’s little in the way of the Gothic horror one expects and even fewer scares.
Unfortunately, Dracula Untold doesn’t so much re-interpret him as it does reduce him to a one-note character in his own movie.
No one should blame Luke Evans for Dracula Untold’s shortcomings. On one had, Evans possesses an aristocratic and physically imposing presence. In addition, he brings an intensity to the role that balances well with Vlad as both royalty and warrior. In fact, if there’s anything more disappointing than the Dark Universe’s failure to launch, it’s not getting to see Evans in the role again. Everyone else just gets lost in the visual spectacle. Poor Dominic Cooper (Preacher) deserved better as Dracula’s foil, Mehmed. But the screenplay gives him nothing with which to work. Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, playing Prince Vlad’s wife, Mirena, gets little to do. Worst of all, Dracula Untold wastes Charles Dance under a lot of make-up in a small role.
Dracula Untold a Decent, If Underwhelming, Blend of Action and Horror
To be fair, Dracula Untold is nowhere as bad as its reputation suggest. In fact, it’s not really a bad movie at all. If Universal hadn’t abandoned its ‘Dark Universe’, Dracula Untold’s scope and tone would have meshed well with The Mummy. But it’s certainly a misguided movie that doesn’t understand its source material. In place of Gothic horror, Shore et al substitute overblown action scenes and CGI-crafted vistas. Nonetheless, Luke Evans is quite good in the title role and it’s never boring. It may not be a true “Dracula” movie, but it’s still an entertaining mix of action and horror.