The Hunt For Vlad the Impaler (2018)
Directed by: Osman Kaya
Written by: Esra Vesu Ozcelik, Ibrahim Ethem Arslan, Mustafa Burak Dogu
Starring: Erkan Petekkaya, Hakan Yufkacigil, Ismail Filiz, Nur Fettahoglu
AVAILABLE ON DVD: 23rd March, from 4DIGITAL MEDIA
RUNNING TIME: 121 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the 15th century, the Turks conquer most of what is now Romania, and the region of Wallachia’s two princes, Vlad and Radu, are brought up alongside the Ottoman Prince Mehmed and given the same education. However, Vlad turns his back on the Turks and returns to Wallachia where he becomes a cruel and bloodthirsty ruler happy to kill off many of his own people. Eight fearless warriors called the Valiants are sent to find and kill this demonic person who’s preparing a deadly virus weapon to assist him in world domination….
The Romanian ruler Vlad Tepes is probably best known for inspiring Dracula, even though it’s possible that Bram Stoker was as much influenced by an actor named Henry Irving when he was creating the character who became one of the most portrayed in screen history. Vlad has been in quite a few movies, though too many of them link him with the fictional figure of the Count, and we have yet to see a definitive one. This Turkish effort certainly isn’t, though in its defence [and defending this film is sadly not something I’m going to do often in this review] Vlad isn’t the main focus of attention despite its English title which was no doubt considered necessary by the distributors for commercial reasons. He has a fair bit of screen time, but the Turkish title Deliler may signal to you, if you’re really up on your history, that it centres more around the Valiants, who were elite soldiers in the Ottoman army. Unfortunately, also if you’re really up on your history, you’ll quickly realise that there’s little attempt at accuracy by the writers of this movie, with the Valiant here portrayed as an eight-man group instead of a whole military unit. I find myself being less and less kind to movies that change history these days, but am willing to concede some points if the result is a good piece of entertainment. However, I really do have a problem with history being distorted in the service of putting forward a political point of view, meaning that there were times where I really had issues with what is basically two hours of pro-Turkish propaganda.
This probably sound like I’m going over the top and should be concentrating more on things like how is the plot, how are the characters and how is the action? – and I shall certainly attempt to go into these things in due course. But think about this – this is a film that presents the invaders of a country as good guys and its defenders as bad guys. That has a Turkish character call the folk of Wallachia “our people”. That has the conflict between the Ottoman empire and Vlad the Impaler being started by Vlad killing loads of his own people rather than Vlad refusing to pay tribute and declaring Walachia a free country. That has Vlad, still a national hero of Romania, portrayed as a thoroughly reprehensible monstrosity who’s so vile that it’s a wonder anybody works for him, a butcher of his own people, even though he actually got his name from impaling only the subjects of his enemies. That can’t stop telling us how incredibly amazing and flawless the Valiants are in scene after scene, shot after shot – there’s a difference between showing heroism and this sickening kind of exaltation. It probably didn’t help that, having had a lifelong fascination with Dracula, I know a bit [though I certainly don’t consider myself to be any kind of expert] about the subject, and could therefore tell that virtually every ‘tweaking’ of the known facts had been done to put the Turks [remember, these were the invaders] in a really good light – and that’s not just wrong but dangerous. Then again, one wonders if any research was done at all by screenwriters Esra Vesu Ozcelik, Mustafa Burak Dogu and Ibrahim Ethem Arslan. I really don’t think that you have to be well up on all this to realise the ludicrousness of, for example, the pope offering Vlad the position of a cardinal despite the pope being catholic and Romania being an orthodox country.
So ignoring all this stuff, does The Hunt For Vlad The Impaler still work as a historical actioner. In short, my answer is: no. The action is minimal and there’s not nearly enough suspense or characterisation to maker up for this. And it sure fails to get off to a good start. As we swoop down on a peculiar map of the area where some but not very much attempt has been made for it to look like photographs of the actual lands, a narrator goes on and on about the background events – and just when you think he’s finished as we approach a church with a dragon coiling around the tower, he starts up again, saying stuff like “in memory of these lands where endless mercy was everlasting”, and going about “earth, air, water, fire”. We see Vlad before his army sneering amusingly at the camera before he hammers a stake into the head of a Turk messenger demanding that Vlad behave himself. Cut to a pretty garden and a brief conversation between the Turk head of the area Baba Sultan and a man wearing a cloak that looks like it’s made of rocks before that bloody narration begins yet again, telling us how incredible the Valiant are over a very awkward montage of hard-to-make-out battle footage and the members of the Valiant doing other stuff like fishing and standing in a circle atop a high hill. These guys seem to be part Muslim but also part Tengi. Tengi was a single-god religion which existed before Islam, so our heroes engage in a bit of Shamanism and even magic. This probably isn’t historically accurate at all, but then the portrayal of what were actually the crack troops in a Muslim army is already far from what we know, so I guess that it doesn’t matter too much and actually adds an interesting dimension.
Vlad is trying to create a deadly plague from rats, blood and some vague dust which will make him unstoppable. He sends out his men to ask villagers to find loads of rats in return for gold – though the last part is a lie, and the bodies soon start piling up. Thank goodness that the Valiant, those god-like saviours spoken with awe by children – some of whom wonder if they even exist at all – are around so they can defend the poor people of the country that the Ottoman army which they’re a part of has taken over. By this time one realises that it’s best just to try and laugh at the idiocy of it all rather than get angry, otherwise one might be inclined to throw things at the screen by the time a Christian priest teams up with these Muslims [or Tengi/Muslims]. Much time is taken up with often slow motion footage of the Valiant riding along, and to be fair Osman Kaya and director of photography Sami Saydan do nicely show off the Turkish locations here, with lots of glorious, Peter Jackson-like aerial shots. But the skirmishes are few and brief, and the final battle is a major disappointment, with little sense of geography and the quick cutting and blurry motion resulting in a mess. Obviously the low budget meant that lots of extras could not be present, but it’s almost as if Kaya realised that he was faced with an almost impossible task in making convincing a conflict where just a few people are facing off against many, and all but gave up. At least he does give us a fair amount of brutality, with arrows through heads, faces bashed in tables and a quite nasty scene where Vlad’s alchemist cuts somebody open far more than he really needed to if he was just after some blood, even if the grizzliest stuff, like a finger snipping, takes place off screen. And at least the blood look like it’s practical – in fact CGI doesn’t appear to be present much at all.
We get to see the Valiant spend some quality time with the natives. One picks up a baby, another befriends a woman whose family have all been killed and who wants to tag along, and another enters a ring brawl which is another promising scene that ends up being a big let down. But any dialogue scene that threatens to allow us to get to know these people a bit is cut short. We learn that one of the Valiant saw his brother killed in a battle, and flashbacks show us that another saw his mother killed in front of him and became mute as a result. But these men remain thinly drawn, and the actors chosen can’t quit compensate for this even if technically they certainly do okay, with Hakan Yufkacigil being genuinely charismatic as Karali the leader. The film only really comes to life whenever we switch to Vlad, who’s horrible even to his aides. In fact, he seems to have no redeeming features at all. Erkan Petekkaya’s pantomimish performance might be hammy but it seems to be entirely appropriate and is certainly great fun to watch even when one begins to chuckle at Vlad rather than be frightened of him. At one point he starts to absurdly think that he’s the son of God. Gulsah Sahin also makes an impact as Vlad’s wife Elisabeth, who is shown here to be very much like her husband, though after a while she disappears. Unintended laughs are certainly present, like when one of the Valiant is captured with absurd ease despite us being continually told how extraordinary they are, though of course one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cringe at lines like, “Whenever I lose someone an Ottoman comes to my aid”. Urgh!!
The English subtitles that occasionally don’t quite read right, as if they translated this Turkish-language film in a hurry. At least the thing does usually look good, with even some of the indoor lighting, realistically limited to candle light, making for quite a few nice, well composited shots. The music score, credited to three people – Levent Gunes, Tamer Suerdem and Ilker Yurtcan – is adequate and makes an attempt to speed the pace along, though there’s lots of wailing women [remember when these were prevalent on movie soundtracks a couple of decades or so ago?] and at times it seems to be showing ludicrous reverence for its heroes – as if we didn’t have enough already. The Hunt For Vlad The Impaler could still have been an okay romp, but in the end it just doesn’t make enough of an effort to compensate for the borderline disgusting nationalistic ideology it tries to ram down our throats, meaning that one is left with a very foul taste in the mouth indeed.