Like the main man himself, the mythology of Dracula has been around for a long, long time.
With Dracula Untold, we have an attempt to go back to how it all started with the Prince of Darkness receiving an origin tale that screams “Game of Thrones meets gritty superhero reboot origin.” — Dracula Begins, if you will.
While it may be a pretty derivative way of handling the material, and the film certainly isn’t high art when it comes to story or characterization, Dracula Untold overcomes its roadblocks by putting stake (get it) into simply being a fun, energetic time at the movies.
When the Sultan demands his son as an offering for his army, Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans), known once as The Impaler, strikes a deal with an ancient evil and is granted three days to eradicate his enemies with all the powers of darkness at his disposal. However, if he gives in to his unrelenting thirst for human blood within those three days, then he is cursed to roam the Earth forever as a creature of the night.
It has not been a good year for revisionist action films based on literary characters (maybe it’s due to the whole “revisionist action film based on literary characters” part). This summer’s Maleficent was an abscess of wonderment while this past winter’s I, Frankenstein was a bigger abomination than its title creature.
Really, it’s not like Dracula Untold is the Dark Knight of the unfortunate subgenre, either. First-time director Gary Shore and screenwriters Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama play the story out in completely routine fashion — gee, I wonder if Dracula will ultimately become Dracula? — with a lot of the main cast, like Sarah Gadon and Dominic Cooper, just there to be necessary pieces in the puzzle. The film’s story is nothing if not straightforward and predictable, with a healthy dash of unintentional dopiness thrown in, just for good measure.
However, the deciding factor here, above all else, is that the film is largely really entertaining. While not big on dramatic depth, Shore tries many inventive visual ideas in showcasing Dracula and his powers, a large majority of which pay off. For an action-horror movie, the blend between the two is surprisingly fun to watch, as visual representations of Drac’s nocturnal POV and his ability to transform into and control bats are slickly rendered on screen.
Although the film has some blood let out of it by the PG-13 rating, which keeps things from getting too graphically sloppy, the mood and efforts to adhere to mythology are spot on here. It makes no bones about going for a GOT feel, but Untold‘s moody visual aesthetic — shot in atmospheric Nothern Ireland — feels genuine, while its depiction of both vampire lore and the Dracula legend is a nice callback to the classic days of horror. Ramin Djawadi’s score also carries a lot of weight to it, excellently mixing the Gothic tones of Dracula, as well as the medieval action heft of GOT.
To its credit, it’s also not a terribly long film, whizzing by at around 90 minutes, giving us just the bloody meat of things.
Evans has natural star charisma, and unlike many of his previous roles, he actually gets to put it to good use here. As a torn warrior, fighting against his own urges and past life (as well as the obvious invading army), Evans has the act down. As the undead nocturnal predator of nightmare lore… not quite there yet. That particular creature is embodied here by Charles Dance’s elder vampire, an eye-catching mustache twirler who could have an interesting role to play in future films in this franchise.
And yes, it’s quite possible this could be the first in Universal’s new monster series, picking back up with Alex Kurtzman’s Mummy remake. In that case, starting off as a medieval actioner is fine, but the series will benefit much more going forward by abandoning the war approach in favor of atmospheric horror and a much better script.
The good casting choices, strong tone and impressive visuals, however, can live on.