5_thumbUntil its last 20 minutes, Dracula Untold is as much a vampire movie as World War Z was a zombie movie. That is to say, not very much at all. The majority of the film plays out as a PG-13 Game of Thrones episode with a nod toward the Lord of the Rings movies. While entertaining enough despite some slow patches and predictable plot points, the horror lite flick, as constructed, calls into question recent press reports that Dracula Untold is one part of a classic Universal monsters reboot with Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and perhaps even the Creature from the Black Lagoon to follow. The inchoate title – (couldn’t go with Dracula: The Untold Story or maybe even just Dracula?) – does not ring of a franchise launch pad, although it does lead to mirthful speculation about what the sequel will be called: perhaps Dracula Told, with the final chapter of the trilogy coming in as Dracula Told Off. The eccentricities of this production bolsters the notion that Universal was simply being opportunistic in tying this to a potential renaissance of the beloved black-and-white horror icons. However fans and critics view this film as standalone entertainment, Dracula Untold is simply not good enough on its own merits to justify expectations that the studio has a supernatural Avengers on its hands.

The Marvel movies work, first and foremost, because of the superior casting of the superheroes. That is one point in Dracula Untold‘s favor. Luke Evans as Vlad the Impaler is rock solid. Despite a resume that shows mainly supporting roles, Evans establishes a lead character distinct from previous screen incarnations. There is no hint of Lugosi or Lee in the performance, although a sly wink or two in the script would have been charming. The screenplay provided by Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless is generally without humor or nuance, however. The duo as well as director Gary Shore are all in virgin territory here, with no prior feature film experience – another reason to doubt this film’s status as a franchise tent pole. Fortunately, the husband and wife casting team of John and Ros Hubbard has over 300 credits between the two of them, and they surround Evans with considerable talent. Sarah Gadon, coming off her transfixing performance as the ghostly Clarice Taggart in Maps to the Stars, is radiant as Vlad’s wife, Mirena. Charles Dance as the cave dwelling Master Vampire is also excellent.

Vampirism is a military weapon in Dracula Untold. Vlad rules over Castle Dracula and the kingdom of Transylvania, but he returned to the throne only after being sent by his father along with 999 other children to fight for the Turks in their wars of conquest. Through these battles, Vlad picked up the moniker of “The Impaler” from his endearing habit of shish-ka-bobbing the opposition and leaving the landscape littered with his handiwork. But, he’s better now, thank you, and has promised his wife and loyal subjects that this will never, ever happen again – both the taking of children and the subsequent impaling of foes, but then the Turks show up uninvited at Easter dinner, asking for another 1000 kids to go plus one, and do you think that plus one could possibly be the cute little boy that Vlad tucks in every night?

Side note: Who believes this by-the-numbers approach to putting children – and particularly, the main character’s child – at risk adds any greater suspense or horror to a situation? Audiences are so inured to this pathetic attempt at manipulation that you will hear more gasps in a movie theater when something happens to a dog than when it happens to a toddler. Time to think of something else, Hollywood. End side note.

Vlad makes a deal with a devil – he’ll be given the strength and power of a vampire to battle the Turks, and he will return to normalcy if he does not feed on human blood for three days. So we have Dracula as hero, battling his foes and his urges in order to protect his people. When he runs really, really fast, he turns into a colony of bats, a neat effect that is relied upon entirely too much. He and we learn of the three S’s: sunlight, silver, and stakes. The script unwisely focuses on silver which makes for an overly long and tedious showdown between Vlad and his nemesis, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper). That one-on-fight unfortunately derails the fang frenzy that finally is unleashed in the last part of the movie, when Dracula and an entire vampire army opens a can of undead whoop-ass on the Turks. It’s good stuff of the Blade movies variety, and you are left wondering why did a vampire movie have so much sword fighting in the first place, just before they go right back to the swords.

The jump-ahead ending is sharp and shows promise, but the jury will remain out, for some time, on the viability of the Universal monsters staging a mass return. Overall, Dracula Untold is comfortable, familiar, yet forgettable work. You come, you see, you go for a pizza afterward on just another Saturday night.

Three stars.

 

 

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