Among the many movie studios that are eager to ape Marvel Studios’ highly successful Avengers formula, by introducing several separate movies, and then uniting them in a shared universe, Universal has put a similar plan into action with their iconic Universal Monsters. Eager to recapture their blockbuster glory days during the gothic horror/monster movie boom of the 1930’s and 1940’s, which put Universal on the path to massive studio expansion and success, Universal wants to re-tool their monsters for a modern audience, starting with Dracula Untold, which was known as Dracula: Year Zero throughout much of its development.
Unfortunately, the final product of Dracula Untold may sink this shared Universal Monsters movie universe idea before it even gets off the ground. Despite a good lead performance by Luke Evans, along with some solid visual effects, Dracula Untold is riddled with plot holes and juvenile cliches, and feels like a shallow, uninteresting origin story for the King of Vampires.
It’s too bad, because Dracula hasn’t had very much luck on the big screen since the Francis Ford Coppola-directed Dracula remake from 1992, starring Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman, whether in his own newer starring vehicles like Dracula 2000, or in his supporting roles within other ill-fated blockbusters like Van Helsing and Blade: Trinity. 2004 really was an especially bad year for Dracula, wasn’t it? Even his recent television series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers was ultimately pretty short-lived, despite at least having solid promise.
Sadly, Dracula Untold is yet another stake to the heart of The Count, and one that only sinks the Universal Monsters deeper into their disappointing irrelevance in the modern blockbuster climate.
It’s already quite the task to take such an infamous historical figure as Vlad the Impaler, and try to make him likeable and/or heroic. Vlad Tepes really doesn’t seem to earn his reputation in this movie either, as he’s never really shown actually doing any impaling of his enemies (got to mind that PG-13 rating, after all), and his outwardly charming persona doesn’t exactly scream being one of history’s most notoriously violent rulers.
At the very least though, like I said, Luke Evans is a good fit for the lead role. He’s a charismatic and nicely tragic version of proto-Dracula, only let down by the compromised and sloppy script that barely gives him anything of note to work with. It’s awesome to see Evans’ Dracula lay waste to entire armies single-handedly with his incredible vampire powers, but as good as the intentions were in showing a tragic past for Dracula, the filmmakers don’t seem to have gotten the memo that they were making any such movie. Instead, Dracula is re-positioned as a sort of dark superhero in this movie, with most of his more monstrous elements left on the cutting room floor.
This exacerbates an issue that a Dracula prequel would already present from the get-go; It eliminates the mystery behind Dracula’s origin that would have made him more scary. When we see Dracula as a sort of misunderstood, tragic hero, it sort of sucks the horror out of his character, and this makes the entire portrayal of Dracula here work against an otherwise great lead performance. It makes you wish that Evans was cast as the lead in a straight Dracula movie, not a franchise-founding origin.
As much as Dracula has problems though, the supporting cast has things even worse. Sarah Gadon is playing an incredibly uninteresting role as Dracula’s wife, Mirena, who simply exists to be the loving, saintly wife that will inevitably contribute to Dracula’s tragic backstory here. Likewise, Dominic Cooper somehow gets an even worse antagonist than the one he portrayed in Need for Speed, with his Turkish Sultan character, Mehmed being a scene-chewing cartoon villain that might as well be twirling his moustache as he imposes demands of a thousand boys for his army from Transylvania. At the very least, Mehmed and Dracula have an interesting and cool final showdown that I can’t spoil the details of, but again, you’ll wish that this solid idea was saved for a better movie.
The one supporting character that’s done well in terms of both the writing and performance is the mysterious and nameless Master Vampire, played by Charles Dance. Dance’s incredibly menacing brooding finally gives the heavily studio-friendly Dracula Untold some much-needed horror personality, with Dance himself being the one character that ever manages to actually be scary. It’s too bad that he’s not in the movie more, as Dance takes a part that’s otherwise meant to simply be an exposition dumper, and turns it into a highlight portrayal.
For a movie called Dracula Untold, this origin story doesn’t seem to explore anything that Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel didn’t already explore better, again leading to one inevitably wondering why a movie about Dracula’s backstory was necessary in the first place.
The story of Dracula Untold is arguably its weakest offering, which definitely isn’t good for a movie meant to lay the foundation for a shared Universal Monsters reboot universe.
The movie details how Vlad Tepes as a young boy was taken in to be moulded into a warrior free of moral or ethical constraints by the Sultan of Turkey. Vlad ultimately escaped his obligations to Turkey and (somehow) ended up becoming the prince of Transylvania, where he was re-christened, ‘Dracula’, referencing his nation’s symbol of the dragon. From there, the son of the former Sultan, Mehmed revives the tradition of Dracula’s violent upbringing in battle, demanding 1,000 Transylvanian boys, including Dracula’s son, Ingeras.
Turning down the request and risking a war that would obliterate his nation, Dracula is forced to seek the secret of a dark cave on top of the nearby mountain, which he previously escaped from on his own, after the Master Vampire that lives within ended up devouring his other men. Intrigued by Dracula’s return, when no others would dare venture into the Master Vampire’s domain a second time, the Master Vampire grants Dracula his familiar abilities, including incredible strength and durability, and the ability to shapeshift into a flock of bats. The condition however is that Dracula can no longer venture out in sunlight, and will be horribly burned by handling silver, a sacred metal. Not only that, but Dracula will also be overcome with an insatiable appetite for blood, which he must resist for three days, lest he become a vampire permanently.
Immediately, there are three major problems with the storyline here. First, the constrained three-day timeframe feels arbitrary, and simply makes the movie’s pacing feel rushed and clumsy, with critical plot developments feeling slapdash, and occurring far too quickly. The second issue that stems from this is the fact that the mythology behind the movie is pretty shaky and poorly-outlined. The shallow, muddled mythology is another major issue that really sinks Dracula Untold as a foundation for a shared Universal Monsters canon, since its alterations to the Dracula myth often don’t add up, and the movie does a pretty poor job of keeping Dracula’s powers and vulnerabilities consistent on top of that.
The third and largest major issue with the storyline however is that it’s just agonizingly predictable, as mis-conceived prequel stories often are. We already know that Dracula is doomed to fail in some way. We already know that he won’t ultimately escape being a vampire. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or are perhaps young enough to be in preschool, chances are, you know exactly who Dracula is. You know that his quest is in vain, which is why the filmmakers inexplicably trying to keep you guessing with the story just feels downright incompetent.
Matters aren’t helped by the original script treatment clearly being hacked to bits in re-writes, Universal is very clumsily trying to crowbar in the groundwork for a shared universe for the Universal Monsters, even when the movie was clearly meant to stand alone. This culminates in a very hastily-written epilogue that places Dracula back in the modern era, no doubt providing a setup for whatever next Universal Monsters movie that the studio had in mind, assuming that they haven’t tossed out those plans at this point.
You’d think that starting this shared Universal Monsters universe with a movie about Dracula would be a shoo-in for success, given that Dracula is often considered the greatest and most dangerous of the Universal Monsters. It seems once again however that even Dracula isn’t protected from bad scripts and mis-conceived filmmaking.
Universal has seen fit to trust first-time feature film director, Gary Shore with the helm of Dracula Untold. Yes, that’s right. Universal hired someone with zero experience at feature filmmaking, and trusted them with their huge tentpole foundation for the shared Universal Monsters canon. Oh dear.
Naturally, Shore is completely in over his head here. While some decent moments of spectacle are managed, some of the scene framing just seems bizarre, with a particularly infamous offender being a shot of Dracula massacring soldiers from the reflection of a nearby sword. Shore isn’t helped by the PG-13 rating neutering almost any element of appeal surrounding the title character either, leading to hastily-cut and sloppy battle sequences that often mask the finer points of Dracula’s maneuvers. It’s still cool to see Dracula taking out an entire army with his bare hands and by his lonesome, but it would have been nice if we could see more of how he actually did that.
Sure, hiring unlikely and less experienced writers and directors has worked out well for Marvel Studios, with this year’s mega-success, Captain America: The Winter Soldier being helmed by a sibling duo of TV comedy directors, and Marvel Studios’ other massive hit this year, Guardians of the Galaxy being co-written by a complete newcomer. Clearly though, Universal is missing a key ingredient in Marvel’s recipe, as Marvel Studios movies have defied studio expectations to feel consistently fresh and creative, while Dracula Untold reeks more than ever of feeling like a studio-mandated blockbuster, with no real heart of its own.
At the very least, Dracula Untold manages some level of visual panache, even if it’s still a little uneven. The movie is sadly lacking in atmosphere, especially in being inhibited by its PG-13 rating, but at the very least, Gary Shore’s directing manages a handful of inspired visual moments. Sadly, many of these visual highlights were given away in the trailers, but at least a bit of style remains to be discovered in the final product.
The biggest and best shots are featured in the climax, which sees the most grand and ambitious displays of Dracula’s powers, as he deals serious hurt to the enemy army with various bat constructs. He almost feels like a vengeful, gothic Green Lantern at that point, which is undeniably cool to see. Likewise, as I said, the final showdown with Mehmed is reasonably visually appealing as well, even if some of the fight choreography leaves a bit to be desired.
I saw Dracula Untold in IMAX, and I can easily say that the IMAX cut sadly isn’t worth it. The lack of real atmosphere or presence in this very studio-friendly PG-13 movie really fails to justify an IMAX cut, and as you can imagine, it makes no real use of the IMAX screen or sound system. You won’t lose a thing with a standard digital showing of Dracula Untold, particularly since the movie fails to achieve a real sense of scale in just about every fashion.
Some of its visual moments may have been realized decently, but Dracula Untold still feels like it’s falling considerably short of its potential here, especially for a big franchise origin blockbuster.
Dracula Untold is a heavily fumbled Halloween blockbuster that may very well completely squash Universal’s plans to reboot their Universal Monsters in a shared universe. Despite a well-chosen lead actor and a few solid visual effects, the movie is dead-on-arrival, thanks to a gutted and poorly-written origin story for the King of Vampires, and a neutering PG-13 rating that completely sucks out any atmosphere or punch that Dracula Untold could have mustered. Fans of the character will likely be very let down by this movie, which fails to satisfy both as a horror movie, and as an action-packed blockbuster.
Dracula Untold turned a decent profit at the box office, despite its issues, so perhaps Universal may continue trying to establish a shared Universal Monsters universe with another monster next time, though personally, I’d cut my losses and try again after this mess. Some evidence appears to indicate that Universal may have been slightly unhappy with the final product of Dracula Untold though, since a new batch of evidence would appear to suggest that the shared universe between the Universal Monsters will actually be kick-started with 2016’s present-day-set reboot of The Mummy now. It’s possible that Dracula Untold may be quietly swept under the rug, and if it is, I wouldn’t mind Luke Evans continuing to portray Dracula in the shared Universal Monsters canon personally.
I just hope that we forget about this mis-conceived and very disappointing origin tale in the process though. The King of Vampires deserves far better than this.
Dracula Untold is a very disappointing origin tale for the King of Vampires, suffering from the constraints of a PG-13 rating, and face-planting as a shared Universal Monsters foundation due to its muddled mythology and incompetent plotline.