‘The world seems full of good men, even if there are monsters in it’. From Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897.
In an era where the most celebrated screen vampires are teenagers choosing between their vampire and werewolf suitors, it feels timely to go all the way back to revisit the Grandfather of all bloodsucking characters. Bram Stoker’s creation has seen endless screen incarnations over the decades – from the 1930’s Universal black & white Bela Legosi films through the garish Technicolor Hammer stylings with Christopher Lee in the 60’s, the Blaxloitation movement’s Blacula in the 70’s and Gary Oldman’s more modernist and flamboyant take in Francis Ford Coppola’s film in the 90’s. Aspects to all of the above were mercilessly parodied in Mel Brooks’ comic misfire Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1996, which caused its director and the legendary character to go into temporary retirement.
But you can’t keep the undead buried for long and here we have what feels like a Batman Begins-esque take on the well-worn story. Recalling the opening scene of Coppola’s film, Dracula Untold takes us right back to the roots of his time as Vlad the Impaler in the Middle Ages and largely stays there, showing him at first as a mortal man and leader of a Kingdom in Transylvania under threat by a mighty Turkish army. We also see he is happily married with a young son – a sympathetic moral guy trying to protect his family and people from outside forces. It’s a clever and fresh way into an age-old character but it doesn’t quite gel with his ‘Impaler’ reputation. It is a compelling sight to see the reason for Vlad’s title when we are shown an army of hundreds of his oppressors held aloft by wooden stakes he has impaled through their bodies but it’s hard to imagine he then goes home and sings his son to sleep. This could have played out from this point on as a standard period action film but of course given the film’s title, more sinister forces are at work and when Vlad looks set to lose everything he’s fought to protect to the leader of the Turkish army, he seeks help from a supernatural monster he encountered in a cave on his travels to increase his strength and agility.
The Hobbit trilogy’s Luke Evans carries the film well in his first significant leading role by playing the part sincerely and straight with the kind of physique that makes all the men in the audience feel inadequate. Although for this reason and as with Daniel Craig’s Bond I do miss the relish and charm with which previous actors have portrayed the role. Charles Dance is given the token elder thespian role as the cave vampire, whose powers Vlad inherits and his presence lends the film some class – but then this man can make Peter Andre’s autobiography sound like classic prose. Dominic Cooper’s star continues to ascend as Mehmed, leader of the Turkish army, although it’s a 300-sized racially prejudiced plot element skewed against Turkish people that feels extremely outmoded in the 21st century. Sarah Gordon plays Vlad’s sympathetic wife well and while as ever in these films it’s a tragically underwritten lead female role, there’s enough chemistry between her and Evans to make his sacrifice credible.
Debut feature helmer Gary Shore equips himself well with a decent if basic plot and he holds the more bloodthirsty viewer’s attention well to the point where you almost forget the kind of film you thought were getting until a sharp-fanged final reel shocks with the amount of neck biting that sets in. He is aided and abetted considerably with impressive visual effects by Oscar-winning British effects company Framestore, who help give the film a rich and epic aesthetic. It’s a fun if undemanding crowdpleaser that from the title on you know won’t tax your brain too severely or put you off your popcorn, clearly designed by Universal to kick off their Marvel Studios-style Monster Shared Universe franchise. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become as quickly tired as that series did once the first Avengers film broke records.
Dracula Untold is out now in UK cinemas
Words> Roy Swansborough
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