The ancient saying goes that the road to Hell is paved with bad vampire films. So, is Dracula Untold another blood-sucking classic (Blade) or just another cock-sucking turd (Twilight)?
Unsurprisingly, Dracula Untold is the untold (get it) story of Dracula. “Yeah, but we’ve seen loads of Dracula films already”. Groan all you want, you bloated, over-fed vampire freaks. This isn’t just another retreading of old ground – this movie is giving us the backstory – the creation of the legend so-to-speak. This is Dracula – The Phantom Menace. Effectively, they’re taking the first three minutes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and turning it into a 90 minute action/horror romp.
Luke Evans (The Hobbit 2 – The One With the Dragon) plays Vlad the Impaler, the prince of Transylvania. As a kid, he was the hostage of some royal bastards in the Ottoman Empire. They are the bad dudes of this era, and they turned him into an elite killer who’d stab all of his enemies with massive spears (hence the impaler moniker).
Concerned parents of the world don’t fret – he doesn’t do too much impaling in the movie, so it’s kind of a moot point – in fact he’s totally embarrassed about it, and would sooner forget the whole thing. It’s all just a case of psychological warfare. “I’d put one village to the stake, to save ten others”. He’s actually just a pretty cool guy. Years later, he’s released from his impaling duties and is living the peaceful life as prince back home.
During a routine patrol around the borders, he comes across the helmet of an Ottoman scout in a river. He immediately jumps to the conclusion that the Turk’s are gathering for an invasion. He sends one of his band back to warn the castle, while he and his escort head upstream.
Jump to a K2 monolith-like mountain top. Somehow, they’ve got up here without any kind of climbing gear. Why he think’s there’d be an army up here, I don’t know. Unless they’re Hannibal or some other ballsy badass, I doubt the Ottoman’s would be coming this way. But there’s no telling Vlad. He’s got one of them feelings. Even his men are a bit dubious of the ominous black cave where bats and wailing and EVIL is pouring out of. They don’t want to mess with the Impaler though, so in they go after him.
If all the skulls on the floor didn’t tip them off to things being a little out of the ordinary, the super-quick kill-monster that start’s offing them one-by-one fills in the blanks. Only Vlad manages to stumble out after slashing at his unseen assailant. In the sun-light, the blood on his blade boils and disintegrates. He makes the best decision all day and fucks off back to his castle.
After a quick chat with some monk (Paul Kaye – Game of Thrones), it’s revealed that the creature was a vampire. Originally, he was a dude who made a deal with a demon for super powers. Obviously, he got tricked, and those super powers are limited to his little cave up on the mountain. He’ll only be free when someone drinks his blood followed by them drinking the blood of a human.
Vlad shrugs this off, and goes back to tending to his pretty young wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon – The Moth Diaries) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson – Game of Thrones). During their Easter feast a group of Ottoman messengers barge in. Their general “we’re better than you” attitude spoils everything. Things get worse when they demand a tribute of silver from Vlad, and declare that another holy war is being waged. They need fresh meat for their army – one thousand boys to be turned into more impaling killing machines. Vlad ain’t happy.
After a quick meeting with his old war-buddie-turned-Turkboss Mehmed II (played by a very orange Dominic Cooper – Devils Double), Vlad is given a choice – he can either give up his own son, like his Father before him years ago, or have his entire people obliterated by the Ottoman army. Between a rock (his moaning wife) and a hard place (the thoroughly unreasonable Mehmed), Vlad makes the only choice he can – kill the gobby shites who have been sent to collect his son, and prepare for the inevitable invasion.
And that is the general gist of the whole movie – Vlad lacks the manpower to protect his lands and family. Instead of doing what is best for his kingdom, he goes full rebellion mode on the Ottomans. Clearly, the emotional damage caused to him as a child is too much, and he can’t bear his own kid from having to go through it too.
So that’s his first shady managerial decision. His people are a little dubious, even after a not-so-rousing speech about freedom and stuff. Dodgy choice number two is made quickly after. Instead of sticking with his doomed denizens, he decides that his only hope is to go off alone and bargain for some of that Hell-power from the Mountain Vampire.
I’m sorry, but if I was Johnny Transylvanian, I’d be out of there. Yeah, it would have sucked to send off little Billy to fight in the East. But that’s better than having your entire family crushed into dust. That goes double when my fearless, stab-happy prince who started the whole war fucks off on the eve of battle.
Yeah, I get it Vlad, it’s a shitty, unpopular choice to send off 1000 kids to some army of evil. But if Game of Thrones has taught us anything, being in charge is nothing but shitty, unpopular choices. Instead, he goes for the crazy, 300, Screw Everything approach. Sadly, he doesn’t have a band of super warriors as back up. It’s just him.
Back in the cave, Fred the Vampire (Charles Dance – Game of Thrones…you see where this is going) is curious why Vlad is back. Obviously, he needs some cool vamp powers so that he can defeat the Ottoman army. Fred offers Vlad some of his blood. This will temporarily give him superhuman powers. Of course, this badassness will come at a cost. But, if he resists the urge to drink human blood for the next three days, he’ll turn back into a human totally scot-free!
The small print to this tantalizing deal is that if he does happen to guzzle some blood, he’ll remain a vampire forever and will one day be called upon to help Fred with his eternal quest for revenge – the usual Sell Your Soul For Material Gain shit.
Seeing no other option at this stage, Vlad accepts the offer and drinks Fred’s blood. He wakes up in the river hours later with a massive headache. Like a groom suffering from his pre-wedding hangover, he suddenly realizes he has a battle to get to. Getting up, things go weird as he realizes he can hear everything, like the beating wings of a fly. He can also see in a strange, Predator-esque infared. But instead of blobs of colour, everything is black and white save for the beating heart of all nearby lifeforms.
He doesn’t have time to dwell on this though, as he has to get home to stop the Turks. Jogging through the forest, he very suddenly transforms into a flock of bats. Yeah, it catches us off guard too. Using another one of his new-found powers, Vlad flies/runs back to his castle just in time for the siege.
Using Bat-mode, he single-handedly destroys the entire army. He simply tells his people, “Yeah, don’t ask”. To be fair, if one man wiped out an army on my doorstep, I wouldn’t want to ask either. Again, if I was Johnny Transylvanian, I’d be out of there.
Knowing that Sultan Mehmed is the vengeful sort, Vlad decides to evacuate his people to a nearby sanctuary, like in the Two Towers. Like in the Two Towers, we all know that this is probably going to be a stupid idea. Plus, he’s starting to get cravings for blood. It doesn’t help that some weird dude, who has figured out Vlad is a vampire, proclaims himself as his servant and offers his own blood. Vlad, though tempted, resists. His wife has already figured out what’s going on too (Vlad not being able to go out in the day is a dead giveaway), and after another aborted attack by the Ottoman’s, everyone starts getting suspicious of Vlad’s super-strength.
When they eventually get to the monastery, the original monk who told Vlad the story about Fred blabs to everyone. In typical, pitchforks and stake-burning fashion, they trap him in the barracks, and burn the building down. It’s pretty horrific, especially with young Ingeras watching on. Thankfully, the smoke from his burning flesh starts to blot out the sun (silver linings I guess), and gives him enough power to escape. Clearly a bit pissed off, he admits what he’s done, and tells them that it was all for them. Ungrateful sods.
The Ottoman’s are coming though! This is the third and final night he will have his powers, and he’s going to have to make them count. Summoning every bat in existence, he forms them into giant fists to pummel the blindfolded army of Turks.
Oh yeah, I forgot, after being messed up in their last two encounters, the Ottoman’s are rightly scared of Vlad. So, how best to fight something that you’re afraid of? Don’t look at it. Yeah, because what you can’t see can’t hurt you??. Maybe so, but you’d surely be afraid of 1) falling over and having all the men behind you crush you to death 2) falling down a ravine 3) walking into a branch 4) getting punched in the nuts by a stealthy ninja (or mate)…the list goes on. Come on, the benefit of “fearless” troops does not outweigh the benefits of being able to see.
It doesn’t matter anyway, as Vlad’s bat-fists smash everything. But oh no it’s all a ruse! Using his entire army to distract Vlad, the Sultan has sent in his best troops commando-style around the back to infiltrate the monastary. Considering they’re only after V-man’s son, it’s not a very cost effective strategy. Yet they do grab the little bastard, and push poor Mirena off the highest tower. Even in bat-form, Vlad can’t catch her in time. Somehow she lives long enough to tell him to drink her blood so that he can go and get their little boy. He agrees, spikes her veins and feeds, assuming his final-form – Super Vlad.
Super Vlad, no longer constrained by the thorny moral issue of should he/shouldn’t he drink blood and make vampire spawn, goes a head and starts making a vampire army of his own. Using the remnants of his people (who have all been slain while he was mourning over his dead gf), he marches on Mehmed’s army. Using his dark powers, he turns the sky black, and his vampire buddies easily slaughter the Turkish army.
In his massive tent, Mehmed has Ingeras prisoner. He’s also covered the floor of his tent in silver coins (the same coins Vlad paid to him in tribute), which Vlad is weakened by. Mehmed even wields a silver sword for further advantage, the prick. Somehow he knows about Vlad’s dark pact, and using this knowledge beats the V-man to a pulp. Preparing to stake him, Vlad turns into a flock of bats and evades the mere mortal. Declaring himself “Dracula, Son of the Devil”, he kills Mehmed with his own stake and drinks his blood.
Stumbling out of the tent with his son, all of the other vampires suddenly flock about. They want some young prince-blood! The monk returns just in time, brandishing a crucifix. The vamps don’t like this and back off. Vlad knows what to do – he bids Ingeras leave with the weird old monk. In tears, father and son part forever. Emotionally destroyed, Vlad’s control over the weather fades. The sun beams down and melts him and all of his vampire spawn.
It’s all over, we think, until that weird guy from earlier finds Vlad’s torched body. With a little blood from his palm, the beast awakens once again, and Dracula now lives.
Centuries later Dracula lingers in modern times. After coming across another girl that looks strikingly like Mirena, he leaves arm-in-arm with the poor woman. He’s closely followed by Fred, whose all about the business. “Let the games begin”, he declares and we fade to the black.
Let’s get this straight, at no stage in this film do we have any doubts what will happen. We know he’s going to drink some blood at some point. We know he’s going to go full heel. Evans, to his credit, tries his best with what he has to work with. The whole “the world doesn’t need a hero, it needs a monster” thing was done to death in Batman Begins (so were the bats, come to think of it).
Yeah, this is an origin story that details why Dracula became Dracula. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it doesn’t explain why Dracula becomes such a shit in the future. For all of the grief that they attract, the Star Wars prequel trilogy do a good job of showing a young boy with the best intentions slowly becoming twisted and manipulated into acts of evil.
Dracula Untold doesn’t have three films to tell this story. But there is still little growth or development from Vlad. He goes through a physical journey, but not a mental or spiritual one. If you’re looking for a modern film that operates in a similar way effectively, I couldn’t recommend Maleficent enough. That ably demonstrates a good character becoming bad (and then back to good again).
In terms of true Bastards, the Ottomans are shits, yes, but nothing out of the ordinary. Dominic Cooper doesn’t really get a chance to shine, and plays your pretty standard warlord. Yeah, recruiting and brain-washing children isn’t great (by today’s standards), but was par for the course in medieval times. As was demanding tribute from your subjects. His insistence on taking Ingeras is a bit insensitive, but sometimes you need to make a point. You cannot argue with his line “If you are virile, you will have more”.
Fred the Vampire is very cool, and more than capably played by Charles Dance. Yet, I’d expect nothing less from the glass-eyed gunslinger from Last Action Hero. However, now that I think about it, why didn’t Fred just feed his blood to the first poor schmuck who stumbled into his lair? The victim probably wouldn’t be as iron willed as Vlad, so would likely chew-off the first person they saw. Bingo, Fred is free. It just doesn’t make sense.
I don’t have much to say about any of the other characters, as they’re all totally throwaway. Even his wife is wooden, sadly, and Ingeras is just as much of a burden as he is in Thrones.
From a stylistic perspective, the film is very much your prototypical washed out and grim-looking movie. It’s akin to Priest (though less epic), with the only distinct colour being the badass red-armor Vlad wears at the end. Even the seldom-spilt blood is black. But the action is superior to Priest, and a lot of other fantasy films around this level. The combat is well choreographed, and doesn’t suffer from shake-o-sion. Some of the shots are pretty creative, and the CGI for the bat-effects is very cool too, if overly used. The vivid dream sequences Vlad suffers as he slowly begins to turn are interesting too, though sadly not explored. In fact I can’t fault how the film is made, just the lack of development or characters you actually care about in the story.
This film exists in the void between the Hobbit and Game of Thrones. You get some topless shots of the ripped up Evans (Peter Jackson would be aghast), but no sex or tits. There’s some blood, but not melon-popping gore. In fact the whole film sits between genres. It’s not a horror, a fantasy, an action, or a drama. It has elements of all of these things, but doesn’t master any of them. First time director Gary Shore did state he didn’t want to make an out-and-out horror, but I’m unsure if he achieved his goal of telling a good story.
In short, Dracula Untold should have been left untold. There’s been over thirty Dracula movies in these many years, and some are worth a watch, and some aren’t. Get this one watched if you happen to like Luke Evans, Game of Thrones cast offs, or any old vampire movie.