Dracula Untold (2014)

Vlad Tepes of Transylvania, the prince formally known as Vlad the Impaler, is trying to protect the peace and prosperity of his country and its people. But when the price of peace becomes too high, and the price of war seems equally unacceptable, he finds a way to tap into an unnatural source of power that will help him defeat his enemies. But a price has to be paid, and maybe this one is the highest of all.

 

I did not see Dracula Untold at the cinema when it was released, partially because of the overwhelmingly negative reception. Now I have seen it, after having snatched it up as a low-price DVD, and I enjoyed it more than I expected. My exceedingly low expectations may be a factor in that, but another reason is that – while there are plenty of small things to criticise – the film did not get anything horribly wrong.

One thing that dampens one’s enjoyment is the fact that many aspects feel derivative. In essence, this film is a superhero origin story, of which we have had so many in recent years. Some things are also reminiscent of historic endurance films of recent years, like King Arthur (2004) or 300 – and Dracula Untold does not always compare favourably to these other films. Mostly, however, this film seems to draw on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies – and again does fall short by comparison.

The film’s opening is already a visual reminder of 300 and of Tolkien, with the opening narration by a child’s voice being delivered in a way that also seems to be aiming at creating an “epic” tone. Unfortunately, this prologue is over far too quick. For it hints at a lot of interesting backstory, but then does not offer us more than a short glimpse of it. I feel that more could have been done with that. Alternatively, the filmmakers could have dispensed with the prologue completely, using flashbacks later in the film. This has worked well for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the past, and the plot of this film would have been especially suited for this sort of treatment.

After the prologue is over, we are introduced to our “hero” and the people around him: his knights, his courtiers, and his wife and son. Apart from the latter two, however, all of these supporting characters do completely lack any depth. We learn nothing about them, mostly know not even their name or their position. So we do not feel for them later in the film, and do not care what happens to them. With Vlad it is a different story. The aforementioned deficient backstory aside, he is a well-written, 3-dimensional character, and he is the kind of lead character the viewer connects with. Luke Evans is a good fit for the role and he does an excellent job in this film.

The dialogue in these early scenes is still very much reminiscent of Tolkien – but maybe the casting of Luke Evans distorted my perception to such a degree that this problem seemed much larger to me than it actually is.

In their supporting roles, Sarah Gadon and Art Parkinson give good performances as Vlad’s wife and son. all the more so as their performances are well-suited to support and complement Evans’s performance, and the praise for that should probably also go to the director.

The only other supporting character of note is Parkinson’s fellow Game of Thrones alumn, Charles Dance. He gives a captivating performance, as always, and his frequent talk of “the game” is probably a deliberate reference to Game of Thrones by the writers. Unfortunately, Dance’s make-up does not look all that great, in my opinion.

Speaking of which: there are a number of problems with the looks of this film. A lot of the designs are clearly modelled on both Game of Thrones and the Tolkien films, but some elements look cheap or otherwise unconvincing. Some external shots of CG buildings look a bit artificial; and the rocks on the so-called Broken Tooth Mountain – not CG, I presume, but some higher form of plastic – look plain fake. There is an interesting design idea concerning the visualisation of the way vampires sense the blood pumping through a human body, but this idea is for the most part very poorly executed.

On the plus side, the “dusting” effects look great, and the way bat swarms are used as a weapon is at least an interesting idea.

I am not entirely happy with the fights and battles in this film. There is a one-man battle by Vlad that basically consists of him running against large hordes of soldiers. To be visually effective on screen, a one-against-many battle should be much more stylized, as in Serenity, for example. But my problems with the battles are not so much with the choreography, I think, but more with the dramaturgy. As I said, we barely get to know any of the supporting characters, so we never feel the stakes, never feel that anything here is personal. Even with Vlad, some of the fighting just does not feel as personal as it should. Some people he fights against he knows from his past, some may have been his friends – much more could have been done with that.

In general, the film’s plot is quite convincing; and whenever someone in this film does something, there is a reason for that. The pacing and structure of the narrative is not as good, but not bad either.

Finally, the film’s epilogue feels a bit forced. Rumour has it that this epilogue was tacked onto the film later, after the studio had decided to pitch for an “extended universe”. It certainly feels that way. Also, the last line, which is meant to evoke desire and excitement for that upcoming universe, falls flat – which is largely a directing problem, I believe. I think that there could have been done more with that epilogue if either all of it or only part of it had been used as a mid- or post-credit scene.

So, as you can see, Dracula Untold – while not being a bad or even a mediocre film – has its fair share of minor problems which collectively keep this film from reaching a level were it could be called “very good”. Some of these problems could have been solved by devoting more screen time to certain things, such as the developing of supporting characters, etc. And the time was there: the film has just over 80 minutes of net running time.

Another problem for some might be the premise. This is a Dracula origin story which relies on Dracula not being the first vampire. And I believe that you can either have ancient vampires (of whatever origin) in a universe in which Dracula does not exist; or you can have a Dracula story, which then must have Dracula as the first, the original vampire. If you try to mix these two approaches, as this film does, the result will never be completely satisfying.

Still, as I said, this is far from a bad film. It is quite enjoyable, and thankfully short. There is nothing memorable about this film, nothing the world would miss if this film did not exist; and it is certainly never going to be a “classic” vampire film on anybody’s list. The problems I listed above lie partly in the writing, partly in the directing, and visual shortcomings are in part to be blamed on budgetary constraints. For all of this, the buck stops with the studio. If you are trying to create a cinematic universe, you do not start with a historic war epic that you try to do on a middling 70 million dollar budget, employing first-time writers (Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless) and a first-time director (Gary Shore). Yet, considering these limitations, the film still turned out surprisingly well, even if it feels more than just a little rough around the edges.

Still, things could work out fine if the studio gets their act together: two of the strongest elements in this film are the Dracula character and the character played by Charles Dance, so should the studio feel the need to include them in their extended universe, then they have something very solid to work with.

I would rate Dracula Untold roughly at 6.5 out of 10.

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