Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #804

Number of Views: One
Release Date: October 10, 2014
Sub-Genre: Vampire/Dark Fantasy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $70,000,000
Box Office: $217,100,000
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Gary Shore
Producer: Michael De Luca
Screenplay: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Based on Dracula by Bram Stoker
Special Effects: Alex Falkner
Visual Effects: Sara Bennett, Scott M. Davids, Matt Kasmir, Christian Manz, Ivan Moran, Glen Pratt
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Score: Ramin Djawadi
Editing: Richard Pearson
Studios: Legendary Pictures, Michael De Luca Productions
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, William Houston, Diarmaid Murtagh, Noah Huntley, Paul Kaye, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Rob Zombie “Dragula”

[2] Lorde “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

[3] Ramin Djawadi “Vlad vs. 1000”

I wonder if Irish literary genius, Bram Stoker, had any idea that his 1897 novel, Dracula, would prove such an inspiration to so many. Well over a hundred years on, the story is still being retold, and while few have been able to do the folklore justice, that hasn’t stopped filmmakers the world over from taking a stab at telling his tale. Perhaps most notable of the recent crop came courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola in 1992 and it has been slim pickings ever since.

Dario Argento’s kooky 2012 translation was torn asunder by critics, (although I actually found it to be ludicrously entertaining from start to finish), and things looked set to fall deathly silent as a result. However, you can’t keep a good Count down, and two years later, first time director Gary Shore weighed in with his own take on this classic fable.

Originally planned to be released in 2007 under the working title Dracula: Year Zero, with Alex Proyas set to direct, it took a full five years before the project eventually came to fruition with Shore at the helm. However instead of regurgitating the age-old tale, he opted to take a completely different approach, focusing on the origins of Vlad The Impaler and providing its own take on how the fallen hero of the Transylvanians acquired his curse in the first place. Despite receiving a luke-warm reception from critics, Dracula Untold did rather splendid business theatrical, claiming over three times its original $70 million budget in box-office revenue so this bold move appears o have paid off, at least financially. But how does it stack up against the leagues of other pretenders to Stoker’s throne?

None too shabby it has to be said, although there are a number of key factors holding Shore’s film back from the praise he may feel that it deserves. Given that this is his feature film debut, what he achieves is nothing short of spectacular, albeit with the financial clout behind it to fund all manner of bells and whistles. That said, while money can buy a great deal of technological wizardry, it’s a little harder to place a price on soul and it is here that Dracula Untold finds itself sorely lacking. At a remarkably brief 92 minutes long, it skims over too much without taking the time to slow the pace some and afford its audience access. As a result, Shore’s film washes over you effortlessly enough, but imparts little in the way of emotional resonance when all is said and done.

Taking place entirely pre-Renaissance in the late 15th century, fearsome warrior Vlad Țepeș (Luke Evans) is the Prince of Wallachia and undisputed champion of the Transylvanian people. His wife Mirena (Sarah Gabon) adores him, his ten-year-old heir Îngeraș (Art Parkinson) suspects that the sun shines brightly from his rectum, and all appears hunky dory in Vlad’s tranquil kingdom.

Alas, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) has other ideas and they include ordering that Vlad donate 1,000 boys to be trained as Janissary corps for an upcoming battle in Hungary. Vlad politely refuses his terms and offers himself as a bargaining tool to appease the Sultan but this only serves to rile his opposite number and he requests that his only son is added to the tally.

Caught between a rock and a hard place and with Mehmed’s troops preparing to complete this transaction through way of force, Vlad unwittingly heads off to Broken Tooth Mountain to seek otherworldly assistance. Here he runs into the master vampire (Charles Dance), who agrees to lend a hand but only under some decidedly ominous conditions.

In exchange for freeing up some of his own blood for the cause and granting Vlad temporary use of his powers, he will be required to resist the overwhelming urge to drink human blood for three days straight, or else remain a vampire forever. 36 hours of abstinence from bloodsucking doesn’t sound like too much of a stretch right? Especially given that he’ll be able to transform into a flock of bats at will and take out entire armies in one fell swoop. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

This is where Dracula Untold begins to falter somewhat. You see, considering he is damn near indestructible and averse only to silver and natural daylight (whenever Shore feels like making it a stumbling block), the epic skirmishes that play out are almost entirely bereft of tension and any sense of impending peril is therefore rendered null and void. In addition, secondary characters aren’t fleshed out sufficiently to greatly care about their fates, and we are simply left to marvel at the admittedly tidy visual effects and some sumptuous sweeping photography of the Middle Earth ilk. Had it raised its indisputable style with some substance of its own, then this would have been a far less solemn appraisal.

To be fair, Evans (No One Lives) gives it his absolute all in the kind of high-profile leading role he’s had coming to him for years now and the rest of the players give a similarly creditable account of themselves. Meanwhile, the casting of veteran Dance as the bald-headed Nosferatu-like cave dweller is simply inspired and he chews the scenery quite brilliantly for his all too limited screen time.

Gadon too convinces as does Cooper as the villain of the piece although neither are ever given quite enough to do, while the remainder of the cast have to be content with squabbling over screen time. In addition, there are a handful of exquisite touches, such as skirmishes playing out through the reflection of shiny blades, seasoned with the spray of freshly spilled blood. But with a little more time in the kiln, it could have been so much more.

The chief issue with Dracula Untold is that the epic tale it tells is so ripe with possibility. It certainly nails the look and feel of a timeless classic updated confidently for a modern-day audience, but falls some way short of the marker with regards to heart and soul. Thus it winds up somewhat forgettable and it is here that I believe Stoker would raise objection if he were here now.

No character in the annals of horror is more iconic than Dracula and a prince as distinguished as he deserves the kind of royal treatment that Shore’s film can never quite provide. Whether or not its theatrical success prompts Universal Studios to press on and reveal a wider universe is unknown at this point, but should this happen, then they may wish to forego some of the visual flash and take the prince of darkness back to the storyboard.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: There is a dash of limb removal and some jugular action to sink those incisors into, but it is clearly aimed at an R-rated clientele and any violence is far too fleetingly observed to truly revel in. That said, the sight of felled warriors skewered to terra firma on impossibly lengthy spikes beneath the glow of the red moon is one for those scrapbooks.

Read Bram Stoker’s Dracula Appraisal
Read Argento’s Dracula Appraisal
Read Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Appraisal
Read No One Lives Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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