Though there are few solid jump moments and a few genuine scares in Dracula Untold, it is, essentially, just another superhero origin story – albeit for a slightly darker character than usual. At least he doesn’t sparkle…
Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) is a loving husband and father, but was once a warrior for the Turkish Empire – taken from his Transylvania home as boy and only allowed to return home a bare ten years ago, as the film begins. Now he rules Transylvania with an even hand, dispensing actual justice and raising a good son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson) with his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon).
One day he and a few of his best men discover a ruined helmet – a Turkish Janissary helmet – and that means there are Turks in Transylvania without his knowledge. Tracking the Turks to a spooky cave on Broken Tooth Mountain – the floor of which is shattered bones, Vlad and his men are attacked and only he survives.
Not long afterward, a squad of Janissaries arrive at Castle Dracula, where they spurn the annual Sultan’s Tribute which has kept the country at peace for the last decade. The sultan now demands a thousand Transylvania boys to be trained as Janissaries. When Vlad attempts to persuade the sultan, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) to settle for the usual tribute – or take him instead of the boys – the sultan refuses and adds Ingeras to his demand.
Instead of delivering his son to the squad of Janissaries as promised, Vlad kills all five of them and sets out for Broken Tooth Mountain to seek the power of the monster that is imprisoned there – an ancient vampire (Charles Dance). The vampire, seeing the possibility of escape from his prison, grants Vlad the power he seeks – with the proviso that, if he does not drink human blood he will be restored to his mortal form after three days.
Generally speaking, Dracula Untold unfurls at a fairly quick pace – coming in at about an hour and a half. The pace is such, though, that beyond Vlad and Mirena, we don’t really get to know any of the characters beyond a very quick brushstroke – Vlad’s men are valiant; the sultan is power hungry, the vampire is evil but lonely, and so on.
We know that Vlad is going to have to drink blood at some point and that his evil benefactor will be freed. Since there is little that cannot be predicted, the fun of the ride has to come from character and action. The action, when it comes, is well done and enhanced with pretty good effects (CG and practical); the character, not so much.
Evans does well as Vlad, but Gadon, Parkinson and Cooper aren’t given much to work with. The script – by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – is all sizzle and no steak and resists every attempt by director Gary Shore to make it more than pretty (occasionally bloody) pictures.
It’s pretty obvious that Dracula Untold is meant to be the first installment of a franchise, but it mostly just goes through the motions of a superhero origin story rather than a true horror film. On a purely visceral level, it does provide some entertainment, but emotionally, it falls far short of even the worst Marvel movie (think the Punisher movies). Technically, it’s done well, but if technique was all that was required of a movie, Max Payne and Punisher: War Zone would have been massive hits.
Dracula Untold is the rare movie that could have been better if it had taken more time to develop its characters – and especially its villain. It did not and so it becomes just another superhero origin story.
Final Grade: D+
Photo by Jasin Bolland/Courtesy of Universal Pictures