IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 92 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
It’s 1462 and, decades after being enslaved by the Ottomans as a child and becoming their most feared warrior, erstwhile impaler Vlad is now the loving ruler of his homeland Wallachia with a wife and child, his brutal past hopefully behind him. However, history is about to repeat itself as Vlad’s former brother-in-arms, the power-hungry sultan Mehmud, demands that 1,000 Wallachian boys be drafted into his army to keep the peace, including Vlad’s own son. Vlad journeys to Broken Tooth Mountain, where he encounters an ancient sorcerer, Caligula, and enters into a Faustian bargain – one that gives the prince the strength of 100 men, the speed of a falling star and enough power to destroy his enemies…..
I’ve always thought that there is great potential in a non-fantastical film about the real-life person who inspired Dracula. Hammer even toyed with the idea in the early 70’s. They have seriously messed up Dracula Untold though, a highly misconceived exercise that certainly doesn’t bode well for successive films in Universal’s rebooted Universal Monsters franchise, an idea that seems to me to be both artistically redundant – they’ll never top some of the classic originals – and foolish. However ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ they try to make them [i.e.so they aren’t much like their previous incarnations at all], the Yoof of today isn’t very likely to consider Dracula and Frankenstein as exciting as Iron Man and Captain America, so I don’t think this Marvel-inspired franchise will go very far. Which is a good thing, judging by the poor quality of Dracula Untold, which thankfully doesn’t seem to have attracted much excitement. What a shame that Alex Proyas didn’t get to make Dracula: Year Zero, the previous form of this project, back in 2007, even if it would have starred the dreadful Sam Worthington.
You’re better off watching the far more historically accurate Dark Prince: the True Story Of Dracula or even just the first five minutes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Dracula Untold, because this is a film that is just one bad idea after another, while of course the main premise is seriously flawed anyway. The evil, scary Dracula that we all know just becomes another misunderstood anti-hero of the kind that studios keep annoyingly hurling at us these days. In fact, the idea of showing how Vlad The Impaler became Dracula is extremely problematic, because Vlad, despite his brutality, remains a national hero of Romania – he saved the country from what are basically Islamic State precursors – while Dracula should always be a figure of horror….well, unless you have the filmmaking skill of a Francis Ford Coppola. The only way it would really work, and Dracula Untold fails to do any of this, would be to have Vlad be genuinely repulsed by his transformation into a immortal creature of the night, really struggle against his vampiric urges, and have the moment where he fully becomes Dracula be a true moment of horror. Then again this film, which doesn’t ever seem to attempt to actually scare, isn’t really horror for much of its length. It’s a fantasy battle actioner, which is fine except that this doesn’t bode well for other Universal Monster movies should they still decide to go ahead with their stupid plan. If you’re going to have Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man et al in a series of films which are not actually horror films, then that’s pretty insulting to the legacy of the characters and the wonderful early films made by James Whale, Tod Browning etc.
Dracula Rising is mercifully short, but it misses a serious beat when, after some opening narration of past events, we properly meet Vlad in 1462 where he’s already got himself a reputation and his nickname of Vlad The Impaler. Surely if you’re going to tell the story of Vlad, it’s best to start at the beginning and have his violent acts gradually brought in so their horror is stronger. But no, Matt Sazama’s and Burk Sharpless’ mostly stupid screenplay commences much later, unless they did originally shoot some of these early scenes, a distinct possibility considering how much of this film was hacked to bits including the removal of characters played by Charlie Cox and Samantha Barks. Maybe the original script was really good, but it’s hard to tell when the resulting film has been made as generic and bland as possible except for some unintentional hilarity caused by the poor CGI, some of which is barely SyFy standard. There are lots of scenes of large numbers of bats flying around – in fact most of the unimaginative action scenes involve large numbers of bats flying around – but the effects in these scenes are so shoddy that you just have wonder whether the director or whatever actually took the time to approve them.
There are a few good scenes early on. Vlad’s visit to Broken Tooth Mountain, and his encounter with a very creepy looking Charles Dance, have a genuine sense of fear about it, while there is some real intensity in a scene where Vlad is about to acede to Mehmud’s demands and give him his son as a child soldier, then changes his mind. The resulting fighting is, perhaps predictably, hard to make out because of the ‘shakycam’ and fast cutting, and, while later action scenes don’t suffer from this nearly as much, they are still mostly very clumsy in staging and execution. They’re also very tame – sure, lots of blood is spilt – but it’s mostly off-screen. For God’s sake, this is a film about the origins of Dracula, so a decent amount of the red stuff would be nice please – and arguments about a shortage of grue preserving the integrity of the classic horrors don’t hold water because some of those films were actually considered strong stuff for the 1930’s or 1940’s. The first time Vlad tastes human blood should be a really horrifying moment, especially considering whose blood he’s tasting, but the scene is almost thrown away. Of course it’s all crappy CGI blood anyway. There is one quite startling effect of a vampire landing on a stake dying horribly, but for much of the time it just seems like we’re watching a computer game. The film doesn’t even seem to be aware of how cheesy most of it looks, unlike for example the last three Mummy movies, instead taking it all very seriously. The result is boredom for long stretches, a terrible thing for me to say when I love my historical epics, my battle scenes and Dracula.
Luke Evans actually does really well as Vlad. It’s not his fault that the script barely gives him any scenes showing how is good and bad sides are battling, or goes into any detail into the ultimate price Vlad had to ‘pay’ [his humanity] for becoming a vampire to save his people, family and kingdom. Evans subtly shows internal conflict when he’s given little by the script. Virtually everyone else is given short shrift. We are told that Vlad and Mehmud were once really close, but it’s not evident on-screen. It was obviously just thought that a couple of lines would have been enough. Any interesting aspect tends to be thrown away. Vlad was renowned for his brutality in warfare, something he justified due to the terror he inflicted in his enemies which resulted in their surrender. This difficult choice, that a man must become evil and inhuman to ultimately defeat an even greater evil, should have been the focus of the story, but instead it barely registers. I did smile at a scene with a guy who I reckon is intended to become Dracula’s fly-eating servant Renfield, but by the time Dracula Untold came to its sad [but entirely predictable] plot ‘twist’ and its baffling present day final scene [don’t tell me that all the others in this proposed series are going to wind up or even take place in the present day? No No No!] which once again employs that bloody reincarnation angle which really has been done to death, I had long stopped giving a damn about what was happening on-screen.
First-time director Gary Shore has certainly made a film that looks good, with a few stylistic flourishes which do work [love fighting being reflected in his sword], and some great filming by cinematographer John Schwartzmann of well chosen Irish locations. The cast generally do their best. Ramin Djawadi’s score is typically workmanlike but hardly detrimental. There are a few good moments here and there [Vlad having sex with his wife but finding her neck more enticing], and I suppose that if you really want to switch your brain off there is a modicum of enjoyment to be had. It’s a very badly judged film though and, while I love the character of Dracula so much that I usually find some enjoyment in almost any Dracula film, I really struggled through this one, not helped by the fact that I really could almost hear the vampire turning in his grave even he’s actually dead now. This film’s last line is: “Let the games begin”. I really hope they don’t.