Film Review: Alright but not worth crossing oceans of time for
Drac’s back. This time we get to see his origins as Vlad III ‘The Impaler’ Tepes, a 15th century Transylvanian prince famed for skewering his enemies on big sticks. So much for gothic romance.
Essentially an elaboration on the artful prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish 1992 adaptation of the classic novel, we get to see Prince Vlad deliver bloody diplomacy to the Ottoman Empire after he refuses their army’s demands for one thousand of his male subjects including his own son.
In a desperate effort to overcome his adversaries, Vlad enters into a Faustian pact with a pasty-faced, cave-dwelling sorcerer (Dance) who grants him preternatural powers.
A crowded genre
Among recent attempts to reanimate the corpse of Bram Stoker’s most famous creation, there was Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D (2012), which bafflingly saw the count transmogrify into a praying mantis.
Elsewhere the vampire granddaddy found his home on television, featuring in Showtime’s brilliantly revisionist Penny Dreadful and most notably in NBC’s Dracula (2013), for which he’s reimagined as a Victorian-era advocate for clean energy in a smog-filled London. This cancelled series showed promise but suffered from a mixed bag of a cast, led by Jonathan Rhys Meyers who lacked presence as the titular monster.
In contrast, Dracula Untold also has its flaws, but its lead is not one of them. Luke Evans, a Welshman, does his damnedest to imbue a weak, overly expositional script with his full-blooded, emotionally-charged performance.
Some scenes between Vlad and his young son (Game of Thrones alumni Art Parkinson) are genuinely touching, while the same cannot be said for those shared by Vlad and his beloved wife, Merina. Sarah Gadon is a poor foil for Evans, giving a flat, sap-filled, puppy-eyed performance that fails to measure up. This shifts the emotional core of the film towards father and son, which functions well enough, but pushes a tacked-on epilogue, set in the present day, further toward redundancy.
Robin Hood – with fangs
Despite an altogether different scale and budget, all the British accents contribute a distinctly 1970s Hammer Horror flavour to the proceedings, which is not at all unwelcome. Detractors will rightly point out that the film works neither as historical document nor as an out and out horror, but it does partially succeed as historical fantasy – a fictionalised biographical picture about a legendary folk hero in much the same vein as Robin Hood.
This is in keeping with Vlad Tepes’ pre-Stoker status in parts of eastern Europe, where he is remembered as a fearless warrior prince who rose to defend his kingdom against the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire.
It’s unlikely that Dracula Untold will, as Universal apparently intended, kickstart a revival of their classic monster series – modelled after Marvel Comics’ incredibly successful superhero films – due to the poor reception of this film. This marks the studio’s second attempt, following the failure of its (not reprehensible) 2010 production, The Wolfman.
Nevertheless, taken as a stand-alone entry in an over-crowded genre, Dracula Untold just about holds its own as a new take on an oft told tale – unwittingly falling into B-movie territory, but with charm enough to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure.
Dir: Gary Shore; US horror, 2014, 92 mins; Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson
Premiered October 9