9 October 2014

Review: DRACULA UNTOLD

When the title of a film already sounds like the name of its DVD extended edition, you know you're in for something of a treat. Sure enough, Universal (now) has designs on Dracula Untold being the Iron Man to a Marvel-esque cinematic universe based on the roster of monsters in the studio's classic 1940s horror flicks.

Following Disney's character rehabilitation Maleficent earlier this year, they've taken a similar tack with the prince of darkness, with a fictionalised version of the historical basis for Bram Stoker's novel, Vlad the Impaler. Having impaled his way to peace-time ever since he was abducted by Turks and trained up a child warrior, Vlad decides to settle down in his kingdom of Transylvania with his wife and son. But when Turkish invaders threaten a similar fate for his boy, Vlad turns to a Faustian pact with a powerful evil in order to protect his people, and soon falls under the shadow of the vampire himself.

Like recent Hollywood takes on other played-out stories, such as Snow White or Sherlock Holmes, the big innovation here is to introduce more action into the story. Though the traditional horror elements are present and correct, there's also an enjoyable propensity for battles which match The Lord of the Rings in scale, if not in emotional investment. Director Gary Shore's first feature is most distinctive for the look of its battle scenes- we've mostly seen the slow motion pans through CGI battle environments in adverts, but it's a testament to how good it looks as an action film that I wasn't only thinking of this.

But what of the character in the centre? On the declining scale that starts with absolute evil, you can chart the character from Max Schreck to Adam Sandler, with Christopher Lee and Gerard Butler dotted around in between. Luke Evans' portrayal isn't the worst of them, neither in villainy or quality, but as an origin story/prequel, this wasn't going to be in the same territory as most Dracula adaptations anyway. His big red cape here has allusions ranging from Superman to Thor, via 300 with its allusions to child soldiers. As the plot is established, the film fixes itself as a tale of how a good man becomes corrupted by evil, even if you can see the machinery beneath this, as a franchise launchpad.

Inevitably, that means the film has its cake and eats it too, keeping Evans' hunky prince onside as a good man for the duration, while failing to really establish its villains. Charles Dance vamps it up spectacularly as the cave-dwelling sire who puts the plot in motion, promising that if Vlad succumbs to temptation and makes the change permanent, he will unleash his own vengeance upon those who imprisoned him. The way this pays off (or rather, doesn't pay off) must be a violation of some Chekov's crusty vengeful vampire rule of storytelling and there's no clearer indication of intent for this to continue in another film. It feels like a whole third act is chopped off.

The nominal villain is Dominic Cooper's swarthy, tyrannical Sultan, whose lack of screen-time dulls the impact of an admittedly well-choreographed final showdown with the prince. Plus, with all seriousness, his character enacts a military strategy of blindfolding his men as they march, which seems more like a cutaway from a spoof war movie. Evans proves to be a strong centre alongside Sarah Gadon, who makes a compassionate turn out of what could easily have been a thankless role as Vlad's wife Mirena, even if the surrounding stakes don't bear up to their emotional heft.

Dracula Untold is a promising new take on a character that has been played out many times before on screen, but the result is ultimately somewhat dreary. By unfolding as a more or less literal Bat Man Begins, there's little room for the kind of tongue-in-cheek quality that would allow the more ridiculous aspects to sit comfortably. With Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman at the head of Universal's future plans for monster movie crossovers, I can't be entirely optimistic, (next up: Kurtzman's reboot of The Mummy) but even if that all falls apart, this is satisfying as a mainstream calling card for Evans and Gadon as stars and Shore as a director.

Dracula Untold is now showing at cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide.
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If you've seen Dracula Untold, why not share your comments below? Who's got a good idea about how to make the Creature from the Black Lagoon all cuddly and Welsh?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

I was impressed with the movie as a whole.