Dracula Untold is not a masterful or deep re-introduction to the franchise; but as basic genre fare, it's relatively fun in its depiction of the monster in a different light.
Dracula Untold revisits the origins of Bram Stoker's iconic monster, who we are told began as Transylvanian prince Vlad III Țepeș (Luke Evans), a man who, as a boy, was trained by Turkish overlords to become the savage warrior known as "Vlad The Impaler." As a grown man, free of Turkish hold, Vlad rules peacefully over Transylvania, loving every day with his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson).
That time of peace comes to an end when Vlad's old companion-in-arms, Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), comes to Transylvania demanding tribute of 1,000 young boys (including Ingeras) for his army. Distraught at the thought of his son sharing the same bloody fate he suffered, Vlad seeks out anything that can help protect his family and kingdom from Mehmed's endless horde of soldiers. That desire leads to Broken Tooth Mountain, where a dark creature of myth holds the secret to a great and terrible power.
However, in asking for that powerful gift, Vlad tempts a fate that may be worse than the death of his kingdom. And from there, the nightmarish legend of Dracula begins.
After a long road and many changes (remember Dracula: Year Zero?) Dracula Untold finally arrives in theaters, marking the feature-film debut of former commercial director Gary Shore. With an iconic character and a big-budget period story as his focus, Shore set lofty goals for his freshman effort. And while the final film may reflect many freshman pains, it also hints at some solid filmmaking talent - as well planting fertile seeds for a fun monster movie shared universe to come.
Visually, Shore turns out to be adept at creating a visual shorthand to his film - one that both honors the vast iconography of the Dracula character, while also managing to root that iconography in a new aesthetic (Medieval-style period tropes) that feels fresh when married to this over-exhausted source material. The pacing is good, but the film also comes with many obvious markers of rough editing and recuts, which makes the middle section feel muddled and disjointed; it's hard to see certain scenes as sequential and purposed, rather than stitched together from parts of what was seemingly a deeper (and longer) character study.
Though there are some clear seams showing (in terms of construction and sequencing), to Dracula Untold's credit the condensed narrative (90 minutes of runtime) does result in efficient movement - with action sequences coming steady and regularly to break up any lulls or muddled moments of development. While the action isn't very sophisticated, it is satisfying in its intensity (and implied gore); even with a PG-13 rating, these vampires are nonetheless the classic fearsome and ferocious kind - and they look that way in design and action.
Shore also displays some directorial style of his own signature, creating shots that are the epitome of the word "cinematic," or attempting to use Matthew Vaughn-style techniques (like 1st person POV) to create distinct and different styles of action sequences (to varying degrees of success). The director even goes so far as to incorporate imagery cues from the superhero genre (the Superman parallels are hard to miss) and on the whole, the movie has hints of a director who can do some fun things with a big canvas - even if he stills needs some practice with the brushstrokes.
The script by newcomers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless is a familiarly straightforward tale of a hero's fall, but it does manage to fashion a solid core out of the character motivations and arcs. Unfortunately, the film also suffers from "prequelitis," leaving very little room for surprise or freshness - not to mention a total lack of stakes (no pun). In an old world setting Dracula is basically Superman, and with his enemies painfully unaware of what they're facing, there is little-to-nothing at risk, externally - while internally, Vlad's battle for his soul is a forgone conclusion from the moment the movie opens. For a project that has Untold in the title, this film plays like a by-the-numbers recounting of a story we've heard time and time again.
Luke Evans has gained notice for a string of strong supporting roles in films like Fast & Furious 6 and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug - and in each role it's been apparent that he's built for leading man status. Dracula Untold may seem an unlikely venue, but theater-trained Evans runs the full range of acting (drama and gravitas, physicality and action, horrific intensity) and sells it all enough to make Vlad (and the film as a whole) a worthwhile vehicle. Best yet, the narrative leaves room for future installments to explore other dimensions of the Dracula character - and Evans has laid the groundwork here to make himself an asset and necessity should opportunity for more monster madness arise.
Sarah Gadon (Belle) and Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) hold up strong supporting positions as Vlad's wife Mirena and his vampiric "maker" - with Dance getting far less play in the film than he arguably should have. Dominic Cooper (Captain America) is quite underwhelming (arguably miscast) as Sultan Mehmed, and a lineup of solid character actors - Diarmaid Murtagh (Vikings), Paul Kaye (Game of Thrones), Noah Huntley (SWATH) and William Houston (Sherlock Holmes), to name a few - are all pretty much generic props as Vlad and/or Mehmed's soldiers and subjects. Finally, unlike his brief appearances on Game of Thrones (as the elusive Rickon Stark), young actor Art Parkinson gets to show off some dramatic chops playing Vlad's son, Ingeras.
Dracula Untold is not a masterful or deep re-introduction to the franchise; but as basic genre fare, it's relatively fun in its depiction of the monster in a different light. While this film may not be all that engaging as a standalone story, it does feel like a suitable entry point into the shared monster movie universe that Universal Studios has planned. With players like Evans and Dance in the mix - and plenty of history left to toy with - Dracula Untold manages to secure a new lease on life by the time the end credits roll - hopefully with clearer vision and better results the next time out.
Dracula Untold is now playing in theaters. It is 92 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality.