Movies

TR Review: Dracula Untold Should Have Remained so

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Not Thor. Though it so badly wishes it were.

If you’re going to do a Dracula movie that follows the Marvel superhero template, which is the clear idea behind Dracula Untold, the only version of that I want to see is Marvel Studios’ Tomb of Dracula, with or without Blade involved. I already know you’re not going to be faithful to Bram Stoker – nobody ever is – or the Bela Lugosi version, but faithful to Marvel Comics? That’s doable. It’s been done with their other comics, and Marvel is a template you’re trying to copy, Universal; don’t even pretend otherwise.

When it comes to modern CG-heavy Universal Monster reboots, even with the low-hanging fruit of the Brendan Fraser Mummy at the top of the list, Dracula Untold falls somewhere between The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Which puts it below The Wolfman and Van Helsing. I realize it’s probably futile to say, but Universal, please just stop now. 3D convert the old ones if you must. But nobody wants the Justice League of CG-Heavy Semi-Monsters (as with all King Kong remakes, the urge to make the creatures more explicitly sympathetic is a damaging one). I hope.

Realistically, most of the “Universal Monsters” aren’t entirely Universal’s anyway. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, the Invisible Man, the Hunchback of Notre Dame – anyone can make movies about their source material; all that Universal really owns are their distinctive looks (squared-head Frankenstein, widow’s peak Dracula, etc.) from older films, and ignoring those seems to be part and parcel of the reboots so far. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is the best one Universal actually does own outright; mummies and wolfmen can be done other ways, but the classic Gill Man is still the best male mer-creature in horror.

And if you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time talking about the monsters in general and not this specific movie, it’s because I’m mirroring the thought process at work. This rushed, abbreviated Dracula movie doesn’t care about being a great new Dracula movie; it cares about being a springboard to a “shared universe,” the way all franchise movies nowadays do. Dracula’s path from Vlad the Impaler to Count Dracula the vampire is a series of obligatory steps to put a larger game in motion, and fails to include any other interesting characters along the way.

This may be a good thing, because if you stop to think about the thematic undertones of Dracula Untold, they’re pretty awful. In brief: if you think Muslims are trying to take over the world, you must become even more horrific than they are, turning yourself evil to scare and slaughter the shit out of them so their future generations won’t try anything ever again. Armenians may enjoy seeing the Turks get their asses kicked, but anyone to the left of Dick Cheney may find the plot at least mildly uncomfortable.

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Luke Evans, whom I wish Hollywood would stop trying to make happen as a leading man, is Vlad, a curiously Welsh-accented Transylvanian Count who was a slave of the Turkish empire as a boy. Now tentatively ruling his own lands, he gets PTSD flashbacks when the new Turkish ruler, his old comrade-in-arms Mehmet (Dominic Cooper) demands a new tribute of young boys to bolster his ranks (and possibly other stuff, but the movie never explicitly goes there). Not having the armies to feasibly fight back, and wanting to protect his own son, Vlad goes to a cave in the mountains where he had previously encountered a demonic presence.

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Said presence is Charles Dance done up like a sloppy-tongued extra from The Strain (oh, for a del Toro take on this material!), who makes a Faustian deal with Vlad: drink the demon’s blood, and become a vampire for three days, with all the powers and weaknesses therein. Survive three days without drinking human blood, and you’ll turn back to normal. Fail, and you’ll not only be a vampire forever, but Sardo Numspa himself will now be able to leave the cave and participate in an unspecified grand game of good and evil that presumably ropes in all the classic monsters at some point. Funnily enough, even though Vlad has to have the concept of a vampire explained to him at length, everyone else in his castle somehow instantly knows the full significance once he becomes one.

Every vampire movie sets its own rules, and here they be these: sunlight and silver are deadly, but the former’s no big deal because you can generate cloud cover whenever you like, except when it’s randomly convenient for the plot that you can’t. Super-hearing and sonar senses detect enemies and animals in the distance, and you can turn into a flock of bats, or just conjure one up if that’s easier. Oh, and super-speed, too. Unless, of course, the enemy army is approaching, dawn is coming, your power is about to be taken away, but…mehh. Why attack them NOW? They’re not here yet. Moron.

Not that the Turks are much better. When they express fear at facing a demonic enemy, Mehmet blindfolds them, and says they can’t fear what they can’t see.

Wait, WHAT?

The fundamental principle of almost every good monster movie is that what you can’t see is SCARIER, and you’re giving a Dracula flick to someone who misunderstands this absolute basic point?

That’s really all you need to know about Dracula Untold. There are sometimes moments laden with potential – like one near the end that involves the vicissitudes of who you do and don’t turn into a vampire, once you can – but it’s best not to invest too heavily in such bits, as the rest will only disappoint.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist