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Friday, October 3, 2014

Dracula Untold

This ain't your granddad's Dracula... and it's all the worse for it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The story of the honourable Vlad Tepes becomes the infamous vampire known as Dracula, after he makes a deal with the devil to protect his family and his people from invading Turks.

What we thought

“Dracula Untold” is one of those titles that are begging for critics to make stupid puns on – cute puns if it's lucky and/ or good, cruel puns, if its neither. I'm going to do my best to refrain from such cheap shots (hey, there's a first time for everything, right?) but the latest retelling of the Dracula legend kind of deserves what it has coming to it.

It's not that Dracula Untold is a terrible movie – it's not – but it suffers from the weight of the story its trying to tell. On the plus side, it isn't quite like those silly myth-busting films (Hercules, Arthur) that try to reveal the much more boring “true stories” behind the legends but, funnily enough, this is the one mythical story where its historical inspirations might actually be interesting. While Bram Stoker definitely did use the historical figure of Vlad “the Impaler” Tepes III to name his villainous monster, it's long been open to debate whether it was more than just Vlad III's name that was an inspiration.

The main problem with Dracula Untold (and it's not the only one) is that the film draws a direct and utterly un-nuanced line from Vlad to Dracula and, in the process, flattens the appeal of both. Director Gary Shore and screenwriters, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, seem uncertain as to whether they are telling the story of a man giving himself over to evil for the great good or if they're simply telling what amounts to a superhero origin story.

Dracula Untold's Vlad may have his weaknesses but he's clearly a heroic figure that lacks any of the complexity or brutality of his real life counterpart, while its version of Dracula is far closer to a super-powered Batman than Stoker's horrific creation. He doesn't exactly sparkle but the king of all vampires, he certainly ain't.

Most maddeningly, the film also offers up an internal struggle for Vlad, the result of which should determine whether he'd end up hero or villain at the end of the film, but by the final act the film not only ignores this clearly defined storytelling mechanism but outright contradicts it. Internal logic is key in this kind of story and it goes flying out of the window simply to serve the money men who clearly want Dracula Untold to be the first instalment of a major PG-13-rated franchise.

And that, right there, is why Dracula Untold is such a failure. It doesn't matter that Luke Evans does a very solid job as the title character, that the rest of the cast more then hold their own or that the film puts its post-Game-of-Thrones aesthetic to rather good use. Dracula Untold is a franchise film of the worst kind: one where any stylistic flourishes – let alone artistic vision – is sacrificed at the feet of capitalism. While Marvel Studios are doing such a bang-up job showing how it is possible to achieve that balance between commerce and art, along comes Dracula Untold to remind us that such a feat is way, way harder than it looks.

This is never more evident than when the film occasionally shifts its attention to Charles Dance's superbly evil unnamed vampire who is Dracula's sire and own personal devil. Dance just seems like he's in an entirely different and far better film – one that seems interested in properly getting into the proper horror (both creepy and campy) that this property calls for. Dance plays evil like no one else so he'll obviously be a kickass baddie in future instalments (that's not a spoiler, we know he's evil and we never think he's not going to make it) but his inclusion here is just infuriating, as it makes everything else look so much worse – not to mention neutered - by comparison.  

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