Review: Dracula Untold – A toothless affair
THERE’S a Welshman at the heart of Transylvania. Much like Anthony Hopkins before him, Luke Evans seems to be carving out a sullen Glamorgan niche in the heart of Hollywood. Unlike Hopkins, however, Evans has – so far – engaged with a different audience: Game of Thrones-lite. Following his breakout performance in The Desolation of Smaug and previous stints in Clash of the Titans and The Three Musketeers, Evans has gravitated toward fantasy fare, schlocky or otherwise. The most egregious contender for this title, however, is Dracula Untold, a brooding back-to-basics vampire film that details the apparent bloodsucking tendencies of the old Count’s original source: Vlad the Impaler.
Pushing the running amok with history aside for a moment, Dracula Untold is a staid affair, chock full to the bloodbowl with clichés, speechifying and endless rolling mists of gunmetal grey. What works is abandoned in the wake of CGI silliness and misdirection. The flashes of directorial ingenuity that occasionally show up are blotted out by pedestrianism. Good acting is undercut by some very hokey accents and dodgy casting. Oy vey.
Evans is Vlad himself, a man who forever looks like the corners of his mouth are ready to downturn. The film ostensibly acts as an origin story for Bram Stoker’s creation; it’s not all that difficult to detect the traces of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy here, transposed into Medieval Eastern Europelvania. Rather bafflingly, this film tries to humanise one of history’s most vilified monsters by, er, turning him into a literal monster.
It’s impossible to feel a trace of sympathy for a man who had a predilection for hoisting people up on ten-foot stakes, even if he does have a loving family and a tortured past. Of said family, incidentally, wife Sarah Gadon’s accent is all over the place and gets no development beyond doe-eyed blissnorance, while son Art Parkinson (another Thrones alumnus) looks a bit upset most of the time.
When ordered to pay a tribute to Turkish emissaries, Transylvanian Vlad heads to Broken Tooth Mountain (yes, really) to visit Charles Dance, who turns him into a vampire on one condition: Resist the thirst for three days while you massacre the Turks and you’ll be golden. This takes approximately forever to happen. Prior to this, there’s only thuddingly dull exposition bursts that establish Vlad as a tormented soul without ever truly addressing the ethical problems of, you know, impaling thousands.
Once he’s finally – mercifully – granted his powers of darkness, Vlad proceeds to flagrantly mow down hundreds, if not thousands, of hapless Turkish goons by running at them and NFL shoulder-charging them in the face. Aside from throwing all tension off a Transylvanian cliff, these sequences do little to exonerate Vlad or even faintly characterise him; the most he ever stops to worry about post-slaughter is the issue of his vampirism. The Ottomans are simply targets, and the question of his wanton mass murder is never raised.
Evans grapples with the role, bringing lots of simmering brooding (and Welshness) in a far more convincing way than, say, Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, but he can only do so much with a limited script that never gets to grips with the Dracula character. The distinctly Not-Eastern Dominic Cooper is woefully miscast as the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, slopping on a bizarre Russian accent in the 10 minutes or so he spends onscreen.
Charles Dance is the only one to give any kind of performance, lending seductive wiles and a silky voice to his Master Vampire. It’s exactly the sort of performance that the Vlad character should be giving, but Evans is never given the opportunity; he’s far too dashingly harrowed to piss about with all that fun.
Sub-plots and characters are mooted and dropped within single scenes. Zach McGowan’s Shkelgim pops up twice – out of nowhere – to prostrate himself before Vlad and set up a patently absurd, hilariously random climax. The film appears to have been shredded to ribbons in the cutting room, which is particularly bizarre given its 15 rating and 95 minute running time.
Even with that runtime intact, there are entire scenes that serve no purpose beyond grinding the production to a screeching, clawing halt. There’s also a serious lack of blood and guts and sensuality; a grievous oversight for a vampire film, especially a 15-rated one with Dracula himself in it. Francis Ford Coppola got it spot on with his own Dracula, so maybe Hollywood figures he can’t be bettered (hint: they’re not wrong).
Gary Shore, in his directorial debut, shows occasional bouts of visual ingenuity. The sequences involving Vlad’s CGI bats are very impressive, ably complemented by sweeping shots of grey Eastern Europe (actually Northern Ireland). During the first battle scene, Vlad is given ample room for his shenanigans, with some delightful shots of goons haphazardly flung aside; the carnage is palpable, yet later action sequences unfortunately lose the sense of viscera. It’s all a bit toothless.
Though not quite as ill-advised as I, Frankenstein, another recent Hollywood humanisation of a beloved monster with a devilishly handsome chap as the lead, Dracula Untold is certainly a misstep, albeit a harmless one. It’s not sweepingly epic, it’s certainly not scary and it’s far too beige to ever truly recommend. There is, however, just enough good to prevent me dismissing it entirely. It’s worth watching for Evans and Dance, certainly; just don’t expect a bloodfest.