With Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh. Written by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless. Directed by Gary Shore. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality. 92 minutes.
It takes some guts to make yet another vampire movie–particularly one about Dracula–given how many have been made in the past. However, Universal Pictures, which made some of the greatest horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, seems poised to do a 21st century reboot of their cast of characters. In that context, DRACULA UNTOLD isn’t a terrible film, but it doesn’t make one eager to see whichever one they do next.
This is an origin story, and Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) has to be made a sympathetic character before he is transformed into a creature of the night. When we meet him, he is a prince whose reign is being celebrated by his people, but it has come at a price. They pay tribute to the Turks to stave off further attacks. As a boy, Vlad’s father had turned him over to the Turkish authorities for military service, where he grew to be a fearsome and ruthless fighter (hence his nickname).
Now they’ve come to demand his own son, as well as the boys of his people, and he decides to fight back. Unable to raise a military force equal to the Turkish army, he instead returns to a mysterious cave where the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) is imprisoned. Vlad is given the opportunity to assume vampiric powers for three days, provided he can resist the lust to drink the blood of humans. If he can’t, then Vlad will no longer be able to return to human existence, and his maker will be freed from his curse.
It’s not like there’s a lot of suspense here. We know where the story has to go. Instead, the film tries to impress us with its locations (Ireland substituting for Transylvania) and special effects (mostly involving swarms of bats). Ultimately it’s the acting, not the scares, that make this engaging.
As Vlad, Luke Evans is a man who has been a monster in battle and prefers to live in peace with his beautiful wife (Sarah Gadon) and young son, doing what needs to be done to ensure peace and prosperity for all. When Hamza Bey (Ferdinand Kingsley) demands a price too steep, Vlad makes the deal with the devilish vampire, hoping he can achieve victory before the transformation becomes permanent. The plot contrivance that makes that impossible is a bit too neat.
Evans pulls off the tragic hero, and Dance, under prosthetics and make up until the end of the film, adds a definite touch of class to the production. Still, it suffers from the problems of all reboots that start with an origin story: since we know where it’s going, there’s got to be a lot of stuff to grab our attention. “Dracula Untold”–and even the title makes no sense–seems to be saying, “This is just the prologue; the next film is going to be great.” Maybe it will be. While this one is adequate, it falls short of being anything special.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.