Together with zombies, the nation of vampires has been a rich vein of source material for moviemakers. Some journeys into the world of pointy teeth and arterial blood spatter have been memorable – Frank Langella’s tormented immortal and George Hamilton’s comic riff on bloodsuckers. “Dracula Untold” does not rise to this level.
Framed as a prequel to the Bram Stoker classic, this original story explains how an abused prince grew up to become a legendary warrior who sacrificed his humanity to save his kingdom. It may be a tale worth telling; “Dracula Untold” does not tell it well.
Directed with a great deal of blood and thunder (naturally) by novice Irish director Gary Shore from a script by two screenplay newbies, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, the story is narrated by Vlad the Impaler’s young son. His father was the son of a Transylvanian prince handed over as a child to the cruel Turks to train as a soldier. Beaten and tortured during his training, an adult Vlad leaves the wars and returns home to marry for love, produce an heir and try to bury his bloody past together with his nickname of Impaler.
Unfortunately for a prince who just wants peace, the past will not stay buried. The Turks come calling to demand a ransom of 1,000 young boys including Vlad’s own son. Vlad’s army is meager and the Turkish forces mighty. But there is one potential power to whom he can turn. Living in a distant cave at the top of a high mountain is a Master Vampire, played with masterly creepiness by Charles Dance. Vlad’s deal with the devil turns out to be what all deals with the devil are. He will drink the master’s blood and become lord of the night. He will defeat the Turks but, and the script underlines this heavily several times, there will be a price. The full nature of that price is not spelled out in detail during the movie and since “Dracula” is hoping for a long line of sequels, there is a “tune-in next week” twist to the ending.
Luke Evans, a stand-out in “The Hobbit,” plays Vlad as an earnest but exhausted man who loves his family and just wants to get along with his former employers. In this he is foiled by Dominic Cooper’s sneering psycho Mehmed, lord of the Turks. But a little bad blood taken from the mountain cave’s resident evil puts Vlad on the path to victory. As Vlad’s princess, Sarah Gadon is not well served by director or script.
Originally from Canada, her tortured faux British accent is so rivetingly awful that it becomes a character all on its own.
When a film creates a fantasy world like those of “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings,” the fantasy acts as background to the story but it is the relationships among the characters that draw us in. Luke’s hatred for Darth Vadar, Sam Gamgee’s love for Frodo, Hermione’s devotion to Harry – these are the plot points that reveal the humanity common to both character and audience. They connect us to the film. “Dracula” offers no such connection. Vlad’s kingdom seems to consist of a roomful of extras with photogenic faces and nothing to do. Nowhere do we see a kingdom of people worthy of a wounded warrior’s ultimate sacrifice.
See you at the movies!