2014, 92mins, 15
Director: Gary Shore
Writer (s): Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Cast includes: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper
UK Release Date: 3rd October 2014
I’m doubtful Bram Stoker would have found much to love in “Dracula Untold”, a flashy, pedestrian and sporadically bonkers attempt to decode the Count’s early legend. Helmed by debutant Gary Shore (hailing unsurprisingly from the world of commercials) “Untold” plays like the lovechild of Peter Jackson and Zach Snyder, the latter’s influence immediately evident from a slow-mo monologue recounting the battlefield prowess of Vlad the Impaler (who’ll later “vant to suck your blood!”). The film takes itself pretty seriously, but in the spirit of other recent swashbucklers (I’m looking at you “Hercules” and “47 Ronin”), “Dracula Untold” almost satiates with its brand of over-directed, underwritten hokum. It’s pure junk food, but at least what’s on offer resembles one of those primly arranged, succulent big macs that exist only in advertising, rather than the hastily compiled, mayo-laden slop which inevitably rocks up on a tray after you’ve guiltily lodged an order. Simply put, it’s a bit shit, but looks gorgeous and delivers some Hammer-esque amusement.
Prince Vlad (Luke Evans, treating proceedings with the severity of a “Schindler’s List” sequel) was a venerated warrior, but is now intent only on protecting his people, including wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). When the Turks, led by Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) threaten peace, Vlad must find a way to compensate for his lack of military heft. Choosing to believe an old superstition, Vlad ascends a local mountain, finding a bloodletting creature (Charles Dance) willing to endow the Prince with certain powers, all at a dark and potentially lethal cost.
Dracula has been on and off screens since 1922’s “Nosferatu”; at this point he’s as much a son of cinema as literature. His legacy as a formidable soldier was lightly traced in Stoker’s text, then resuscitated more pointedly with Francis Ford Coppola’s flawed 1992 adaptation, but for the most part “Untold” is the first major work to treat this side of the Count’s legacy with conscientious interest. And when I say “this side” I mean big battles and moments where he snarls a lot, before barrelling into the predetermined thralls of evil. For those seeking a reflective or illuminating passage into darkness, “Untold” isn’t your jam. It’s a silly feature with a sharp visual sense, some solidly constructed set-pieces and just enough unintentional camp to entertain, but a character study it is not. The script sets Vlad up as a hero seeking to protect his family, a man with a murderous past, now driven to save the people he loves. It’s acceptable motivation for the perfunctory plotting, but not really enough to render him a character of substantive depth. Evans trots out his t and a commendable grimace with aplomb, but the George Lucas styled dialogue and regular adherences to formula mean he’s stranded at basecamp. Plaudits for executing the overwrought transformation with a straight face are warranted, but it’s not enough to make the character three dimensional. Co-star Sarah Gadon is both equally beautiful and vacant, placating Evans’ Vlad at every available turn. Their marriage is a potential source of human tension, but according to “Untold” the Draculas’ enjoyed a steady domestic rapport. They never even smash a plate. If only it weren’t for those pesky Turks…
We know things aren't going to end well, so from the offset “Dracula Untold” presents itself as a tragedy. The screenwriting may harbour Shakespearean aspirations, as Vlad damns himself for the good of his peers, but the dialogue is a cut below the Bard’s best work. Still, I can’t recall any Elizabethan theatre that combines CGI bats, a scene where the titular anti-hero dump tackles 1000 enemy soldiers and Charles Dance queening around in make-up reminiscent of German expressionism into one easily digestible package. That’s a Friday night, right there. It’s disappointing to see Gary Shore debut with such little enthusiasm for character or dramatic innovation, but his command of imagery is definite. “Untold” looks resplendent, the cinematography textured and thoughtfully arranged, with fast-paced montages that root the picture pleasurably in genre tradition. You may never much care for Drac or his brood, but the luxuriant designs and fast-pace (“Untold” clocks in at 92 minutes) mean it rarely drags.
The final scene represents a major WTF, and promises a sequel nuttier than a sack of almonds. Whether it happens is questionable (I’m not sure Stoker’s creation still has box-office legs), but if it does, I’m in. “Dracula Untold” is objectively a load of old tosh, unsophisticated with an onus on appearance over imagination. Yet, there’s a charm in its badness, warmth in its irony-free desire to batter villains and wobble atop clichéd melodrama. There’s something decidedly old school about this one. It’s not good, but the monster-movie fan and schlock apologist within can’t quite condemn Shore’s bombastic bow to hell.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014