Monday, October 13, 2014
“Dracula Untold” (** OUT OF ****) is a picturesque potboiler. A tapestry of gorgeous computer generated imagery, this predictable prequel about Bram Stoker’s immortal bloodsucker before he forsook his sword for fangs springs few surprises. Essentially, it looks like Universal has revamped the franchise. Luke Evans, who played in “Clash of the Titans,” “Immortals,” “The Three Musketeers,” and the last two “The Hobbit” movies, seems appropriately cast as the virile protagonist. Sadly, he brings little charisma to the role. When he wields a sword, rides a horse, and cavorts about in period apparel, Evans displays more than enough competence. Indeed, he is the ‘before’ Dracula, better known as Vlad Tepes, who impaled his adversaries on stakes for the terrible psychological effect it wrought. Unfortunately, Dominic Cooper struggles to be villainous. Aside from his ominous eye-liner and elaborate armor, the plucky little Englishman from “Need for Speed” poses little threat. The problem is that Cooper’s Turkish Sultan Mehmed II isn’t half as wicked as his sinister lieutenant, Dumitru (Diarmaid Murtagh of “The Monuments Men”), who instills greater fear. Although Dracula and Mehmed clash swords in a dramatic but drawn-out fight scene near the end, with Dracula stumbling around on a treacherous floor of silver coins, the fight is virtually anti-climactic after our hero’s encounter with Dumitru. Comparably, as supernatural horror movies go, “Dracula Untold” isn’t scary. Some spooky scenes in a cave with Charles Dance hideously made-up as the Master Vampire generate anxiety, but this PG-13 rated release relies more on spectacle rather than shivers. Imagine the brawny Gerald Butler action fantasy “300” crisscrossed with Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien trilogies, and you’ll have a clue about what to expect from this nimble, but immaculate 92 minute melodrama.
“Dracula Untold” unfolds with a prologue about Vlad’s sadistic wartime past as narrated by his son Ingeras. Suspense takes flight from the outset since we know nothing catastrophic can occur to Ingeras if he can provide fodder about his father’s infamous feats. The imperial Ottoman Turks enthrone Dracula as the Prince of Transylvania after his splendid sadistic exploits in battle. Our hero marries a sweet, lovely, but naïve bride, Mirena (Sarah Gadon of “Charlie Bartlett”), promises her peace, and they have a son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson of “Freakdog”), who has not a care in the world. Dracula continues to appease the Sultan of Turkey with tributes that consist of treasure chests piled with silver coins. One day, while Dracula and two soldiers are out scouting the countryside, they find a dented Turkish helmet in a stream and search for the army that the Sultan has sent to their homeland. Dracula and company trace the helmet back to a cave in Broken Tooth Mountain where they encounter the Master Vampire (Charles Dance of “Last Action Hero”) who makes mincemeat out of Dracula’s lieutenants. No sooner has Dracula survived this predicament than he arrives home to be greeted by a Turkish envoy who wants more than his customary monetary tribute. Not only does the envoy demand thousands of boys as conscripts for the Sultan’s army, but also he specifically wants Dracula’s son Ingeras. Naturally, Dracula refuses to hand over Ingeras. Later, after a disastrous diplomatic episode ends with bloodshed, Dracula returns to the mountain and negotiates a pact with the Master Vampire. Since he lacks an army to pit against the Sultan, Dracula resorts to sorcery. Of course, when he reveals he has sold his soul, Dracula finds himself persona non grata. As the Sultan’s armies lay siege to Dracula’s Castle, all Hell breaks loose, and Dracula prepares to retaliate with his supernatural powers.
Moviegoers who relish buckets of blood as well as an abundance of severed body parts will be sorely disappointed with “Dracula Untold.” Freshman film director Gary Shore, who has been directing television commercials, provides a high enough body count by anybody’s standards, but the MPAA’s chaste PG-13 rating has compelled him to scale back considerably on the bloodletting. Swords shriek as combatants unsheathe them and glint as the aforementioned slash with feverish abandon at their enemy. Nevertheless, contact between blade and flesh has been minimized. One of the more imaginative images of warfare used to mask the violence is the reflection of bloodshed on a sword. Only time will tell if an unrated version will accompany the home video release. Meantime, Shore keeps the action moving briskly enough, in part because rookie co-scripters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have penned such a formulaic, origins screenplay. Memorable dialogue is certainly not one of their assets. Meantime, after impaling thousands of combatants on pikes, Vlad must have lost his nerve because he behaves like a wimp when the Sultan shows up looking for juvenile recruits. Indeed, Sazama and Sharpless paint Dracula into a corner, but it is still difficult to believe Dracula would have degenerated from a warlord into a whiner. Since Shore had to diminish the violence, the only thing menacing about the Sultan’s army is its immense size. Mind you, Dumitru’s coiffure qualifies as pretty disturbing. Once Dracula acquires immortality courtesy of the Master Vampire, he is practically invincible. Evans is shown poised atop a cliff, gesticulating passionately like a wizard, as he dispatches colonies of bats against the marauding Turks, emphasizing the true meaning of the word ‘combat.’ Nevertheless, the violence is depicted in such broad strokes that you cannot see how the bats are actually slaughtering their opponents.
Little in “Dracula Untold” constitutes a revelation. Most of what happens is roughly based on sections of Stoker’s 1897 Gothic tale of terror. Francis Ford Coppola’s above-average “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” covered his chapter of Dracula’s life with greater artistry and action. Additional movies such as “Vlad” (2003), “Dracula the Impaler” (2002), Vlad Tepes” (1979) as well as the made-for-television opus “Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula” (2000) has embellished Dracula’s origins. Universal has tacked on a provocative modern-day epilogue should audiences want a sequel. Although it possesses some potential, "Dracula Untold" amounts to a second-rate sword and sorcery saga.