Last night I watched Dracula Untold. I had missed the film when it released October 10, 2014. It was a film that had interested me, especially after seeing the trailer, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing it. I had known about the film and of how Universal considered using it as the springboard for their rebooted Universal Monsters Universe; especially with a re-shot ending featuring stars Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, and the always great Charles Dance. With so much of my time currently spent thinking about the currently in development Universal Monsters Universe films like The Mummy and The Invisible Man, it felt timely that I finally got around to watching the Gary Shore directed picture. So, last night, I finally watched Dracula Untold. Was there a valid reason for its 22% tomatometer and 58% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes? Did the film suck? Was Dracula’s story truly better left “untold”?
Dracula Untold is described as “a 2014 American dark fantasy action horror film” on its Wikipedia entry. Yes, it is a dark fantasy with action horror elements. It does succeed in all categories, however, the overall picture felt lackluster and suffers from what too many “American dark fantasy action horror film[s])” suffer from nowadays. It’s primarily flash and style with little substance. The Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless written screenplay, based off of Bram Stoker’s novel, provides a thoughtful retelling of the Dracula story, but one that doesn’t have as much a bite as it should when considering the subject matter. Maybe it’s because Dracula is pretty much reduced to a gothic super hero within the too quick 92 minute runtime.
Dracula Untold begins with a stylish opening that introduces us to the world of Vlad Tepes. We learn that he was a “princely hostage” of the Ottoman Empire as a child and as he grew through their military ranks, Vlad soon became one of the most fearsome of figures. Known for impaling and slaughtering thousands, Vlad eventually turned away from his gruesome lifestyle in order to return to his home and bury the monster within his soul.
We see Luke Evans play Vlad as a thoughtful, repressed, and devout man with a love for family, country, and God. We see him seek to provide for his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his son (Art Parkinson), along with the men, women, and children under his domain of Translyvania. When the Ottoman’s threaten his people with a tribute of 1,000 boys to be taken and trained as soldiers, Vlad attempts to reason with Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), but to no avail. Alas, Vlad is forced into only one option – turn to an unknown creature for help.
Luke Evans is a solid actor and I’ve been a fan of his since The Raven and Immortals. There are few actors that share his quiet intensity yet carry an emotional weight to their performance. While Evans’ performance as Vlad isn’t Academy Award worthy, we need to remember that it’s not written, nor meant to be played that way. When he meets with Mehmed II and realizes the severity of the Transylvanian and Ottoman conflict, we understand why he feels he must take a desperate measure in a desperate time. Evans captures this perfectly. He also brings a certain charm to the role that while different than Gary Oldman and Frank Langella’s performances, it’s still very much recognizable as the same DNA that all actors have shared since Bela Lugosi’s original take.
As the trailers would suggest and as Dracula Untold plays out, we see Vlad turn to the mysterious creature located at the top of Broken Tooth Mountain. The creature played by Charles Dance is revealed by a monk to have once been a man, who after making a deal with a demon for powers, was eventually tricked and cursed as what we would refer to as a vampire. Dance, the Master Vampire, as legend has it, lies in wait for a person willing to drink his blood and share his power, which in turn will set him free of the curse while passing it on to another.
Dracula Untold succeeds in grounding the rules of the world and story in a heightened and fantastical reality. It’s also surprising in how much the Sazama and Sharpless script ventures into dark contextual themes invoking the ideas of Heaven, Hell, and the Devil. While the monk’s story refers to the origin of Master Vampire’s curse as a deal with an unspecified demon, the positively Faustian underpinnings make it clear that the demon is essentially the Devil.
Charles Dance is magnificent as the haunting yet magnetic Master Vampire. But then we are talking about Charles Dance, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006. Dance plays Master Vampire as a man haunted by his curse, tormented by his pain, and amused at one man’s willingness to damn himself for the saving of his people.
The quality of Dracula Untold is never betrayed by its cast, especially Evans, Dance, and Cooper, but also Sarah Gadon’s understated performance is worth mentioning. Unfortunately while she’s not given that much to do as Mirena, it’s the setup of her as *SPOILER WARNING* Mina that seems far more promising.
There’s a scene that shows us Vlad realizing his powers for the first time. We see his extra senses, his strength, and his ability to fly via turning into a swarm of bats. Visually it looks great, but we’ve seen a play on this too many times before; most notably Spider-Man and Man of Steel, It’s cool seeing Vlad essentially become the Dracula that we know, love, and maybe fear, but surely it could have been done in a more inspired way. Instead of giving Dracula Untold a more horror quality to Vlad becoming Dracula, we get a more super-hero-fied version. It works, but maybe it’s too heavy on the “dark fantasy action” element and too little on “horror.” At least we have Charles Dance for that.
However, as much of Dracula Untold works on screen visually and dramatically, the film suffers from feeling rushed, too concise, and ultimately breezy. It’s exactly for this reason that the film ends up feeling passable. And, is that really the way Universal wants to start their shared universe films? If Marvel opened 2008 with The Incredible Hulk instead of Iron Man, would we still have gotten to Thor, Captain America, and Avengers?
Dracula Untold, directed by Gary Shore, by no means feels uneven. It just feels a bit underwhelming and a tad unfulfilled in its quest to reinvent Dracula. If anything, Dracula Untold feels more like a prologue/prequel and extended set up of sorts for the much grander Universal Monsters Universe. The film concludes with an ending re-shot to tie into the shared Universal Monsters Universe films. The Hollywood Reporter informed fans that Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, the architects of the UMU films, were brought on board to consult with Dracula Untold, particularly the ending, in order to see that the film could fit into the coming films, since Untold was shot in 2013, sometime before plans for the UMU became concrete.
Most believe that Universal is leaving the door open to add Evans and Dance into the monsters universe but wanted to see how Untold fared at the box office before committing (or potentially recasting Dracula in a future film). Now that Untold debuted to $23.5 million domestically and a strong $63.3 million in two weeks overseas, Evans, 35, likely will return. But sources say Universal still is hoping to make a bigger splash when Mummy “officially” launches its monster mash.
With the modern day conclusion of Dracula Untold, it’d be great seeing Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, and Charles Dance re-appear in a later film; possibly even The Mummy. While I doubt that will happen, it would serve wise in order to remind audiences that Evans’ Dracula is connected to the rest of the Universal Monsters Universe films. It’d also be rewarding to see them return as if Dracula Untold were to be considered non-cannon, it would awfully seem like a sad and missed opportunity.
Let’s take into consideration that by the time The Mummy releases in 2017, it will have been three years since the 2014 release of Dracula Untold. That marks the same time difference between 2013’s Man of Steel and this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And BvS is seen more as the proper “bigger splash” to open the DC Films as opposed to MoS.
As Master Vampire says, “Let the games begin.” And, as I say, only time will tell.
Dracula Untold is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital. Universal Monsters Universe gives it 3 stars out of 5.