Movie Review - Dracula Untold
Dracula as a superhero.
Well, it’s not completely out of the ordinary…ish. After all, Marvel Comics had a book, Tomb of Dracula, that ran for a while…heck, that title even gave us Blade. But that’s just it, Dracula was the bad guy in his own book…fitting in with the American cultural perception of him. If you look at it differently, however, you might get what Dracula Untold is trying to sell. You see, in Romania, Vlad Tepes, whom Dracula is based upon, is regarded as a national hero…so to try and construct a superhero-esque type film around him is actually a rather novel idea. Ultimately though, it’s also where you run into some problems. The film flopped in the US, making only $56 million on a $70 million budget…yet flourished overseas with a final box office of $215.5 million making it fairly successful. I’ll admit, even in my first viewing, I tended to side more with the critics that gave the film a 22% on Rotten Tomatoes…but after a recent re-watch I’ll admit I’m actually a fan of the film. So let’s talk about why the film failed here, why my opinion changed and why this film is not only worth checking out but is also worth a sequel if Universal should ever get their Dark Universe house in order.
I’m figuring the failure of American movie audiences to rally around this film is likely at least twofold. First, as I mentioned in the opening, is the fact that the main choice for storytelling is that of a hero’s journey and ultimately a hero’s fall. While the most successful Dracula movies paint the character as the villain, some degree of success has been seen in painting the figure as a more sympathetic and tragic figure, such as in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 interpretation. Perhaps this interpretation pushed the dial a little too high…away from what not only fans of the character but also average movie-goers were comfortable with. I know that one of my initial problems with the film (and it’s still a bit of a problem for me now…but not as much a deal-breaker as it used to be) is that most of what we tend to associate with a Dracula film, most notably gore and sensuality/sexuality, are extremely minimalized here. Given this is ‘Dracula Begins’ I can see maybe shying away from the latter, but in watching the film, there were certainly opportunities for the former. Mind you, this came out before Deadpool…which proved that an R-rated superhero movie was not only possible but could make serious bank…so the studio was probably aiming for a PG-13 rating. With that being said though, c’mon…making a Dracula movie that doesn’t have an R rating almost shows an insulting amount of lack of knowledge or lack of respect for the material and vampire lore in general. It is, essentially, a Dracula without his fangs. Take for example a deleted scene that would have occurred near the end of the film. Dracula, with his vampire army, have completely wiped out the Turks. But they’ve done even more than that…they’ve drained the blood from all the 1000 children they were recruited to save. One step beyond that? Now they’re making a move on Vlad’s own son. Seeing his folly, Dracula allows the clouds to part…with sunlight now killing them all in order to save his boy. This would’ve proved to be one hell of a gut punch of an ending…and very fitting for the Faustian gamble style of story that Dracula Untold tries to be. Alas, I’m guessing there was some studio interference that favored the more mild ending that is in the film.
The other issue arises from the storytelling itself…in particular the first act. If you manage to get the film on disc and comb through the deleted scenes, there’s an entire subplot that should serve to amplify the conflict between Vlad and Mehmed. Yes, the conflict as it stands now, Mehmed demanding 1000 children from those under Vlad’s rule to serve as his soldiers…exactly what happened to Vlad when he was a child…that serves to put two forces at odds. But what got cut, the fact that Mehmed’s father, after raising both Vlad and Mehmet in his house, found Vlad to be not only the one better suited for rule but also the better son. This kind of personal undercurrent would have made the conflict much MUCH stronger and more investing to the members of the audience. Sadly, again, the only way to learn about this is to comb through the special features. Another problem is that the film really isn’t given the chance to develop any of the supporting characters, such as Vlad’s advisors and such. In the little bit we see them, we can tell that these are men he’s attached to, but the audience really doesn’t get much of any inclination as to why. Instead, the first act feels rushed and almost Cliff’s Notes in nature, ‘let’s just plow through this and get to the good stuff’, even though, as mentioned in the previous paragraph the good stuff isn’t quite as good as it should have been.
It’s worth a tip of the hat to say that the acting here is serviceable with no performance that jars the viewer out of the illusion created. I thoroughly enjoyed Luke Evans’ turn as the titular Lord Impaler as he proved to be both sympathetic and someone/something to be feared. He did well to convey everything that Dracula needs to be. Charles Dance as the Master Vampire that ends up turning the desperate Vlad and orchestrating this Faustian bargain isn’t much more than an extended cameo, but he uses his time onscreen to great effect and, had the film been given a sequel, it would have been very interesting to see what was to come for the character as he did seem poised for a larger role. The remainder of the cast, including main villain Dominic Cooper as Mehmed, weren’t given a whole lot to work with…as in, quite simply, while there may be an implied depth for some of these characters, the amount of screen time and/or lines do not allow for any real depth to be displayed. This, again, is especially most notable in the first act where the relationship between Vlad and his wife and son ends up falling into caricature and cinematic cliché…somewhat hindering the impacts of the events to come in the story.
Dracula Untold has a runtime of less than 90 minutes. If you’re going to adhere to the style and substance of other Dracula or vampire based movies, you can get away with such a short length because there is plenty of cinematic shorthand that the film can fall back on. After all, why re-invent the wheel, right? But when you set out to do a new take on the character, you need to do that very thing. You need to build and establish the world, set the rules…for example what harms or does not harm the vampire in this world, that’s kind of important…and create the ties between characters that you’ll be playing on in the later acts. The fact that Dracula Untold doesn’t do this as well as it should is a handicap, which is a shame, because as you get into act two where he’s learning to use his newfound dark gifts and act three with the giant battle against the Turks…the film overall succeeds in this new direction. So, yeah, Dracula DOES work as a superhero. The problem that the movie runs into is that it starts the story off in issue #2 where we really needed to start at issue #1. Sadly, given the domestic failure of this film…as well as the next film in Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’, the recent update of The Mummy with Tom Cruise, it’s probably safe to say there will be no issue #3.