“Men don’t fear swords. They fear monsters.”
When it comes to film adaptations of literary classics, Dracula Untold is definitely at the B-movie end of the cinematic spectrum. Not that there has been many Dracula adaptations outside of B pictures; any that aim for a higher quality, Francis Ford Coppola’s overrated Bram Stoker’s Dracula for example, tend to be as crap as the flashy cgi messes that make up the numerous B-movies. Thankfully though, the genre of ‘critically reviled adaptations of classic literature’ is surprisingly deep and it’s one I enjoy enjoy exploring the depths of. So while it was more or less critically hated, I found Dracula Untold to be a very enjoyable film, full of baffling, enjoyable, and bafflingly enjoyable creative choices. Think of it as this decade’s Van Helsing.
One thing that was appreciated, even by most critics who hated the film, was the stellar performance by Luke Evans as Dracula. Going by Prince Vlad (the Impaler) when we first see him, we learn he was a royal hostage and soldier for the Ottoman Empire when he was a child. He was in the Sultan’s elite Janissary corps where he became their most feared warrior and earned his title ‘the impaler’. He then returned home to rule over his kingdom. This is all given to us in a neat opening with a voice over quickly giving us exposition as the camera moves around a static battlefield. Like the rest of the film it’s CGI heavy but knocking all this info out before the film has even properly started is a good move. Studios know nobody wants to spend longer than about 90-100 minutes with films like these so quickly summing up the background details let us get on to the properly fun stuff. Grown up, and ruling over of Wallachia and Transylvania in peace, Vlad discovers an ancient cave dwelling Master Vampire (Charles Dance) during a scouting mission. Escaping him at first, Vlad is forced to return to the cave after the much feared Ottoman empire declares war on his people, after he refuses to supply them with 1000 boys for their Janissary corps. Only with the power supplied to him by Charles Dance’s Master Vampire will he hope to defeat the Ottoman’s and their gold-clad leader Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper). There isn’t much to the story, it’s really more of a jumping off point for the action scenes. But I did enjoy the films attempt at putting the lore of Dracula on to the screen while simultaneously adding their own touch. It’s refreshing to see a mainstream action film have such a bittersweet ending too, something it shares with other similarly critically reviled, mid-budget adaptations based on classic novels (Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
The story is good but it’s the performances that really hold the the film together. Charles Dance’s Nosferatu looking vampire master is one of the best parts of the film, especially as his creepiness is achieved through just performance and practical effects. Dance already has an otherworldliness to him anyway, but slather him in brilliant make-up and convincing prosthetics and he plays a creepy but articulate monster better than anyone else. It’s Luke Evans who carries most of the film though with his performance as the seemingly good and just Prince Vlad. Arguably a monster even before drinking from Dance’s kool-aid, he’s a man trying to separate his violent past from his (hopefully) peaceful reign by doing what’s best for his family and people. Evans is a talented actor, just take a look at his excellent performance in this years High Rise He commits fully here too, even if it does have more in common with a Saturday morning cartoon than the work of J.G. Ballard. The relationship between him and his wife Mirena, played by 11.22.63’s Sarah Gadon, is well developed too, despite the films hectic pace. Gadon commits as fully as Evans and even manages a surprisingly good British accent. Vlad’s relationship with his son is good as well, thankfully so as a key scene hinges on it. The most enjoyable part for me though has to be Dominic Cooper as Sultan Mehmed, a childhood friend of Vlad’s and the hammiest part of the film for sure. These sort of films need an enjoyable and over the top villain; Van Helsing had Richard Roxburgh for example, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had… er, Richard Roxburgh again. He might not go full Roxburgh but Dominic Cooper is the perfect villain for Dracula Untold, what with his fake Turkish accent and gaudy gold armour. His confrontation with Evans at the films climax is one of the films best moments and is a surprisingly restrained and calculated finale for a genre renowned for it’s in your face CGI.
The action is pretty great throughout and director Gary Shore adds some interesting flourishes. The best/worst (it’s so over the top it’s hard to tell which) of these is when the camera continues to follow a sword after Vlad stabs it into a man, showing the rest of the battle through the reflection on the blade. Any moments where Vlad uses his bat powers are also stupidly cool. Not only can he turn into a legion of bats whenever he wants, he can also control great swarms of them. Think Imhotep’s sand face from The Mummy but, y’know, with bats. Seeing Dracula punch through an army of thousands with a giant fist made of bats is ridiculous but it’s also extremely awesome. The stand out action scene happens earlier on however, after Vlad rushes back to the castle, now imbued with vampire abilities. He faces down a thousand of the Sultan’s men alone single handedly takes them all down. Shore directs clearly as Evans’ Dracula tears through the enemies, bouncing from one to another. The direction is good throughout, the fight at the end is another example of this. The heavy use of CGI does give the film the appearance of a cheap blockbuster at times but the action scenes are really well done. The CGI is usually pretty good too and even when it isn’t it still works in the films favour. The mixture of dodgy CG and practical effects gives off a late 80’s early 90’s vibe and the whole film screams ‘future cult classic’.
The bottom line: Dracula Untold isn’t ‘good’ in the traditional sense and more cynical viewers could certainly find a lot wrong with it. But if you go in expecting a fun, innovative, and unique action/fantasy film then I think you’ll get the most out of it. The action is a lot of fun and the actors all give it their all. If you like CGI heavy ‘horror’ films like Van Helsing or The Mummy then you’ll enjoy this. There are better films about Dracula sure, but for the life of me I’m struggling to think of one as fun as this.