Dracula Untold (Review)

Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold is an interesting combination of two genres – it’s a vampire film, but one with all the tropes and trappings of a superhero origin story.

Instead of focusing on the traditional Dracula story, with Harkers and Carfax and Whitby, the film focuses on Dracula as a human, and his transformation into a creature of the night.

The trailer is below.

Dracula Untold starts off with Vlad (the Impaler) as a happy man – no longer serving in the Turkish army, he rules a pocket kingdom, is happily married, and has a son. This happy situation does not last.

The Turkish Emperor, once a childhood friend of Vlad’s, encroaches on the smaller kingdom. Vlad has to pay a larger tribute than he can possibly afford, or face the might of the Turkish armies. It’s an impossible situation, and calls for an impossible solution.

Desperate, he makes a deal with darkness – borrowing a monster’s power so that he can deal with the more immediate threat. In doing so, he becomes Dracula – a force of darkness, sustained by blood.

Dracula isn’t the villain here – there are no heroic monster hunters or weakening women. Instead, the film presents his story as a tragedy; he does what he has to do, trading everything to defend his family. Throughout the film, he doesn’t really do anything evil – it will be interesting to see how that is managed in later sequels, whether he switches sides or remains the protagonist and the expected storyline is dispensed with.

The best part of this film is definitely the action – it’s reminiscent of 300, with the constant use of changes in pace (though not as extreme as 300) to emphasise the choreography and how incredible Dracula is meant to be. His major power is turning into a swarm of bats, and that is used heavily throughout the combats – swarm of bats to dodge a sword blow, reappear behind a soldier, slow motion beheading. It looks fantastic,  very balletic with lots of spinning and theatrical flourishes.

The special effects look expensive – given that it’s a Dracula film, most of which tend towards the terrible, I was waiting for plastic fangs and clearly-CGI bats; that’s not really the case here. Instead, the whole thing looks rather polished – the bats are frequent, but used subtly, and nothing stands out as too obviously fake.

So visually, it’s quite impressive. The effects blend into reality, and the action is organised and exciting. The setting, too, is fine – it’s dark and atmospheric, and the only problem is that the castles occasionally change size – towering and gothic to humble and homespun. Frankly though, if that’s the worst that can be said of a vampire film’s visuals, that’s pretty good going.

The weakness of the film though, is the plotting. It’s over-complicated. There are two antagonists, and its unclear for quite a lot of the film which one is the important one. There’s the Turkish Sultan, whose evil gets established through lots of flashbacks (creating an unnecessarily complicated backstory), and then there is the vampire that Dracula gains power from, who is established through portentous dialogue and visual reminders that he still exists.

In the end, the film is focused on the Turks, and the vampiric stuff fizzles out, being preserved for a sequel. Given the effort taken to establish the vampire’s evil though, it’s an odd choice – leaving Chekov’s Gun unfired. There are even points during the narrative when it could have been pursued – the Turks get an extra couple of scenes that don’t really advance the narrative (another fight, only bigger!) and the vampire sits in his cave some more.

The lore used is a little odd too – vampires are vulnerable to sunlight, and stakes do feature, but silver is the weapon of choice against the undead in Dracula Untold. Obviously, legends and so on change and have massive variety, but silver is traditionally for werewolves, not vampires. It is, again, another odd choice on the film’s part – the weakness to silver is not one of the central parts of Dracula’s legend, but it plays a big role in the film that could be covered with something else.

Dracula Untold takes itself quite seriously, but lacks the gravitas to pull that off.  The director wants a sombre, thoughtful tone, but the conventions of the genre demand big action scenes and over-the-top stunts. Perhaps my favourite scene in this film was the standard training montage, except for learning to be a vampire. The acting is fine, but it too suffers from this problem – scenes that should be tragic don’t ring quite true, and the action-heavy highlights of the film seem slightly out of place.

In the end, this film is visually prettier than most other vampire films I’ve seen, but has many of the same pitfalls – dialogue a little wooden, incredibly poor tactical understanding displayed by the generals, antagonists who come across as pantomime rather than truly threatening. It’s what kept Blade from being more than entertaining (it’s a stellar action film, but a ridiculous, guilty-pleasure film in general), it’s what chewed up all of Van Helsing’s promise, and its what stops Dracula Untold from being as gripping as possible: it’s just slightly too difficult to take it all seriously.

It is said that this is to be the first film in a “shared universe” of monsters in Universal’s stable, creating something similar to Marvel’s current strategy of standalone films and then ensemble ones. I’m not entirely sure how that will work – all of the monsters are traditionally villains, and it’s difficult to think of a problem that would require Dracula and the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster to solve. Still, I’ll almost certainly watch whatever films result.

Dracula Untold is not a very good film. It’s a bit ridiculous, a bit long-winded, and it makes some odd choices that weaken the whole thing. It’s watchable though, especially if you like self-consciously dark vampire films; I love them, but they aren’t to everyone’s tastes. This one, though, is more solid than most: it’s fun, quite pretty, and might kick off a whole new wave of monster films.

Buy it here.

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