Dracula Untold

It began with The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, both starring Lon Chaney, based on the novels by Victor Hugo and Gaston Leroux respectively, the first films in the sequence which came to be known as the Universal Monsters, though it was not until 1931 when Bela Lugosi played the title role of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Boris Karloff appeared in the adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that the series would truly come to be recognised as such, with over seventy films produced through the decades that embraced pulp science fiction as much as literary horror before concluding with The Leech Woman in 1960.

Stoker’s character had of course been adapted for the screen before and has been again many times since, most notably in F W Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Werner’s Herzog’s remake Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Francis Ford Coppola’s less faithful than the name would suggest Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), with the definitive screen version remaining the BBC’s 1977 television, Count Dracula directed by Philip Saville and starring Louis Jourdan in the title role and Frank Finlay as Professor Abraham Van Helsing.

Universal themselves have revisited the character, most notoriously in Stephen Sommer’s reprehensible Van Helsing (2004) which attempted to relaunch the Monsters franchise with a fittingly universally wretched mishmash of reptilian egg-laying vampires, Frankenstein’s monster and werewolves wrapped in a package of incomprehensibly bad special effects, impractical costumes, embarrassing performances and painful defiance of the laws of narrative structure and gravity. Ten years later, Dracula Untold is the latest pretender to this soiled throne.

Despite claiming to tell the story behind the legend of the character, his childhood and enslavement among 1,000 boys forced into the Turkish army where he rose to be a feared and respected warrior with a penchant for massacres where his enemies would be decimated and impaled are dismissed in a prologue; played by The Hobbit’s Luke Evans, Vlad is presented a well adjusted family man with a beautiful wife, untroubled by the atrocities he has committed until word comes that the annual tribute to Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Dominic Cooper) must once again contain 1,000 boys including Vlad’s own young son.

After a session of handy plot exposition, with the ease of crossing a green screen and walking onto a set without even so much as a wind machine blowing to pretend he is outdoors, Vlad returns to conveniently nearby Broken Tooth Mountain where he and his men were previously attacked by the powerful creature which lurks within the caves. Confronting the nocturnal creature (Alien 3‘s Charles Dance), Vlad strikes a deal: for three days he will have the strength of a hundred men, the speed of starlight and dominion over men, but if in that time he succumbs to the urge to drink human blood, he will become an immortal monster, inheriting the curse of the creature who will in turn be set free.

The feature debut of director Gary Shore from a script by first time writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, it is immediately apparent that they have drawn inspiration not from the historical character of Vlad Tepes nor from Stoker’s incomparable text but from the opening scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s film and the standby of all modern directors, videogames, but it is most telling that the film has been produced by Legendary Pictures, a studio best known for superhero and action films including Batman Begins (2005), Superman Returns (2006), 300 (2007), Watchmen (2009), Clash of the Titans (2010), Jack the Giant Slayer, Man of Steel and Pacific Rim (all 2013) and it is these which set the tone rather than any literary source, Vlad immediately discovering and mastering the superpowers he has been granted, transformation, flight, enhanced senses (his ability to see his enemies across vast distances is suspiciously similar to Professor X viewing fellow mutants through Cerebro), crispiness near silver and flammability in sunlight.

With hundreds of retellings, the bane of any new version is predictability, yet this appears to be the goal of this version: the locations are green screen, the effects are digital, the script is obvious and the violence is sanitised, with blood only glimpsed when drunk despite vast armies being slain by newly baptised in darkness Vlad, now using the name Dracula, Son of the Dragon.

If the burden of inevitability was insufficient, the film leaves itself open to ridicule as the prince’s beloved wife plunges to her death, an interminable sequence as he futilely flaps after her in Chiroptera form yet never quite reaches her. Given than in only fifteen seconds a body falling from rest travels over a kilometre, that she actually survives, though mortally wounded, and is conscious, begging her husband to feed off her to retain his powers to save their besieged land when he should in fact be lapping her squishy remains from the rock face, indicates the level of credulity expected of the audience and the disregard for integrity of the filmmakers.

This is a shame, as Evans, often the best thing in the projects he is involved with (see not only The Desolation of Smaug but both 2011’s Immortals and 2012‘s The Raven), is never less than watchable, though like the battle scenes, his character is sanitised, never believable as a damaged man who has recovered only to be forced to become a monster once again in order to protect his people. Opposite him, Cooper is underused, reduced to a cipher of a villain with interchangeable one-note henchmen, any accusations of cultural insensitivity by featuring a villain of Arabic descent in troubled times deflected by having him played by the distinctly blue eyed Caucasian Cooper.

As the sole named women in the entire film (the film does not so much fail the Bechdel test as forget to apply), The Amazing Spid
er-Man 2
’s Sarah Gadon draws the shortest straw as Mirena, wife of Vlad, clinging, fearful, blaming, devoid of personality, a stark contrast to the powerful women championed by modern fantasy such as Brienne of Tarth or Queen Regent Cersei Lannister, all the more vivid when it is considered that filmed in Ireland and featuring actors Charles Dance and Paul Kaye and with a soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi, the film wants to be nothing so desperately as Game of Thrones by way of Middle-Earth, the costumes designed by Lord of the Rings’ Ngila Dickson, though Vlad’s battle costume is undeniably an imitation of the equivalent Eiko Ishioka created for Francis Ford Coppola’s production; Evans himself was graced by an Ishioka original for his role as Zeus in Immortals, one of the final projects the late designer worked on.

If anything, it is the expectation of the name Dracula which weighs most heavily upon the film; freed to create a new mythology, the battle scenes are impressive, the conflicts interesting, yet by shoehorning this historical fantasy into a pre-existing story with which it has no affinity or genuine connection it undermines anything which might otherwise have been achieved.

Dracula Untold is now on general release and also screening in IMAX


 

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