Silver Screen: Dracula Untold **1/2
Helpful hint to filmmakers: If your movie is patently unnecessary, perhaps don’t put the word “Untold” directly in the title. It only invites snark and puns of the worst order.
And Dracula Untold certainly is superfluous. This origin story answers all the burning questions you never had any interest in asking, such as “Did Dracula used to be a real good dad?” and “Before he was a bloodthirsty creature of the night, how were his sword-dueling skills?” It also has the odd distinction of being the first Dracula movie since the 1995 Mel Brooks spoof Dracula: Dead and Loving It that is not in fact a horror movie. This spin on the legend is an effects-heavy action flick with spooky diversions doled out like little rewards for the audience’s patience. It’s effectively an episode of Game of Thrones that, in an ironic twist, has been softened and edited for content to be suitable for the big screen.
Dracula Untold is all about finding sympathy for the devil, so this Vlad (Luke Evans) is a handsome prince who feels pretty bad about all that impaling he did. His father sent him to live as a royal hostage with the Turkish as a boy, where he was raised alongside bloodthirsty ruler-in-training Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) and schooled in the ways of brutality. So when he stuck those thousands of villagers on pikes, he was just doing his best to fit in, kinda like when you moved to a new school in junior high and told all the other kids in art class you were into Nine Inch Nails.
Now Prince Vlad is all grown up, happily married to milky waif Mirena (Sarah Gadon) with a son (Art Parkinson) of his own and struggling to serve the fine folks of Transylvania. But when the Turks threaten another invasion and demand he hand over the children of his kingdom, including his own boy, Vlad revolts.
The Turkish army is too strong for Vlad’s smaller Transylvanian force. To acquire the necessary power to defend his people, he makes a Faustian bargain with a demonic trickster (Charles Dance, upping the movie’s Game of Thrones cred). The bloodsucking fiend who lives in a cave transfers his vampiric powers to Vlad for three days. If in that time he can resist drinking blood, he will return to mortal life, but if he succumbs the monster’s curse will be his.
The film’s best scenes belong to Dance, who is so wonderfully menacing you can’t help but wish they’d just make him the headlining vampire. The gravitas he brings to his too-brief appearance perfectly captures the mix of charisma and repulsion of Bram Stoker’s famous creation. Alas, he’s doomed to sit in the second coffin so his younger, hunkier counterpart can take the lead. Evans is fine, but his Dracula is imposing only when he’s morphing into an army of swooping bats; Dance needs just some prosthetic fingernails, shadows, and the timbre of his voice.
Dracula Untold is a study in overcalculated franchise-building and special-effects excess. (When a battle scene is shown through the reflection in the blade of a sword belonging to a dying soldier, you can’t help but wonder what this adds to the scene other than a demonstration of director Gary Shore’s cleverness.) The movie is supposed to serve as the launching pad for a new wave of interconnected Universal monster movies. It hints briefly at an overarching mythology and teases it again in the epilogue, as though attempting to validate the last hour and a half of computer-generated imagery sturm und drang. This plays less like an assurance that the story is actually going somewhere and more like a grim prophesy of more bad movies yet to come: Maybe a shoot-’em-up Frankenstein, a crime-solving wolfman, a goofy road-trip romp en route to the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s bachelor party. Everything here could have been packed into a five-minute flashback in the Dracula movie we actually want to see, the one this movie teases but never delivers. I’d prefer Dracula More Expediently Told.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.