Sunday 12 November 2017

Dracula Untold

Taste The Vlad Of Dracula

Dracula Untold
Directed by Gary Shore 
Universal Blu Ray Zone 2

Warning: I guess this is technically somewhat spoilery.

Okay so, after seeing the recent version of The Mummy (reviewed here) I was reminded that the new Universal Dark Universe* monster movies were originally to have begun with this one, Dracula Untold. However, I don’t think this one did very well at the box office and so, even though it would fit like a glove, hand in hand with the new version of The Mummy, Universal have stated that this is not part of that new cycle.

Now, this is a film I totally ignored at the cinema (like a fair few people, as it turns out) because the trailer looked truly dismal and more about Vlad The Impaler, the real life figure whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula was said to be inspired by, rather than actually treating him in his more common version of a contemporary, womanising vampire. And, strangely enough, that’s actually a fairly accurate portrayal of what this film is about, although the main character, played here by Luke Evans, does take possession of various vampiric and demonic powers fairly promptly in the course of the story. However, I’d noticed that, just lately, this film has been getting some good word of mouth from people on Twitter and so, when my local Computer Exchange had a Blu Ray of the movie going for only £3... I figured I’d give it a look.

Well... you have to give the cast and crew some brownie points for trying.

The acting is all pretty good from Luke Evan’s Vlad to his lover played by Sarah Gadon and, of course, Dominic Cooper as Mehmed. We even have Charles Dance on hand as a sort of ‘almost but not quite’ Nosferatu style, old vampire geezah who strikes a bargain with Vlad when he is in desperate trouble. Added to this is the really quite nice cinematography and for anything else negative you might want to lay at the feet of the movie makers here, you have to give it credit for being really nice to look at, at the very least.

However, while it’s certainly a ‘far from terrible’ movie, it’s hardly a great one and I personally believe that its chief problem is that the script and dialogue is just not that great and the fairly dull structure of the film is really not doing it any favours... especially when it comes to the sensibilities of a modern audience. To say it’s singular in its storytelling would be pretty accurate and the structure is like something out of an old Universal or Republic serial... just without the variance in locations and inventiveness which was often on hand in the best of those.

So the story structure is... Vlad comes back from his wars and discovers the source of the power he will use later in the film. Vlad is threatened with something horrible and, when he attempts to comply, his strong moral centre (seriously... this is Vlad The Impaler?) means he refuses and brings the full wrath of his enemies on him. So he strikes a deal for ‘supernatural vampire powers’ and fights the armies, moves his people somewhere else, fights the armies all over again... then loses both his motivating spirit and becomes a full fledged vampire... so he creates a vampire army to finish the war off once and for all. And.. that’s more or less it.

The film has some pretty major flaws other than the trite dialogue and singular structure, however. I mean the writers are on a losing battle trying to make Vlad Tepes somehow a bit of a family man who all his army and close friends love... without denying the fact that he went around impaling his enemies in truly horrible ways. Um... yeah, it doesn’t quite work does it? Especially when he continues to do that rubbish later in the film and everyone is still all... “Alright geezah! How’s it going? We all missed you.” Luke Evans, who is a pretty good actor (see him in Professor Marston And The Wonder Women as soon as possible, reviewed here), does his best with the material but it’s a seriously conflicted kind of script to be honest.

Another stupid thing is that, while I would never have predicted that the film was going to go off and do something interesting at some point, there’s a whole thing where the head vampire played by Charlie Dance strikes a bargain with Vlad. With great vampire power comes great vampire responsibility and Dance wants to lose his vampire powers forever and pas them onto somebody else (an outcome which is clearly contradicted in the final scene of the movie, by the way). So Vlad has the useful, army crushing vampire powers for only three days unless he gives into his unnatural thirst and drinks blood before then... in which case he’s cursed forever and is bound to walk the countryside only at night because sunlight is lethal to him (something else which is totally contradicted by the last scene, by the way). So I guess it’s a case of Vlad-u-added Tax in terms of his unearthly powers. And, since you know this is a Dracula origin story... you know he’s going to have to drink blood at some point before the end so, well, it’s not going to be that surprising is it?

Oh yeah... and about those vamped up, ramped up powers. After discovering that if he runs through the forest fast enough he can become a swarm of bats (there might be some unintentional humour in this scene... just saying), he starts doing it a lot more and that’s how he defeats thousands of men in an army single handedly... by becoming bats and, presumably, batting them to death. The fight scenes are not that great or clear, to be honest. Oh, and there’s a scene where he faces off against the villain of the piece, who worked out he’s a vampire (the bat swarming must have given it away) and somehow deduced he’s got a somewhat powerful allergy to silver. So, you know, he fights him in a tent standing in loads of silver coins and thus weakening Vlad in the final battle to, presumably, build up tension in the audience in case they think he somehow can’t win. Which is ridiculous because, you know, he’s Dracula now. And, yes, there is a bit where the villain throws silver coins at our hero in much the same way as somebody might throw sand in the face of an opponent. There might have been vague, smiling disbelief at the silliness of it all at this point... from this member of the audience, anyway.

Now, all the above taken into account, it really isn’t a terrible movie... just not a good one. The film features an epilogue scene set in the modern day featuring our vampish hero encountering Mina Harker for the first time and the presence of Charles Dance as a voyeuristic background figure... thus setting it up to possibly be the first past of that Dark Universe sequence. Now, all things being equal, I really wouldn’t mind if Luke Evans returns as Dracula in one of the new Universal Monster movies because, as completely ludicrous as this film gets in some places... it’s fine as a basis for a character which could be better written. So, yeah, bit of a wasted opportunity here but we’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I end this review by saying that, unless you have a lot more than just a casual investment in the Dracula character and his history, then Dracula Untold is probably not going to ring your bell very much. If you’re into historical horror, there might be some bright spots for you but, for the most part... I was certainly Vlad when it was all over.

*It looks like the Dark Universe franchise at Universal has, since the time the first draft of this review was written, stalled somewhat... possibly for good. I hope it comes back to our screens soon though.

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