As a kid, I grew up reading scary books — at least that’s what I thought they were back then — that revolved around monsters. I always loved Bram Stoker’s classic rendition of Dracula, so I became somewhat fascinated with the character. During that period of fascination, I read a lot of different stories based on the character and the one that probably stuck with me the most was Dracula’s origin story — the story of Vlad the Impaler.
I was truly excited when I saw the first trailer for DRACULA UNTOLD. A proper Vlad film backed by Legendary Pictures and starring the criminally underrated Luke Evans as the Impaler seemed like a win-win to me. For the most part, I was the right.
DRACULA UNTOLD begins with the explanation of Vlad’s backstory. When he was a child, his father sent him away from his home in Transylvania to become part of the Turkish army. Vlad gladly went because he wanted his father to be proud of him. While he was in the army, he became their most feared warrior ever, impaling his enemies onto posts to warn his next victims that death was on its way. He also became a brother of sorts to Mehmed (Dominic Cooper)… who would go on to become Sultan of the Turks. Vlad was granted freedom later in life and returned to his home in Transylvania where he met his wife (Sarah Gadon) and became prince to his people.
Fast-forward several years, Vlad is now a father to his own son. He’s held the peace with the Turks for years, protecting his people while carrying the moniker of Vlad the Impaler. While on a recruit with some of his men, Vlad discovers a cave where he believes Turks are hiding, ready to attack his people. Something much more evil than the Turkish empire lies in the dark, though. Vlad barely escapes with his life from the unseen foe. He soon finds out that this creature was a vampire; a cursed being with a thirst for blood.
Vlad returns back home to his family and keeps the vampire’s existence a secret. Shortly after, the Turks arrive at the palace and demand hundreds of Transylvanian boys for their Sultan’s army — including Vlad’s own son. After a negotiation with Mehmed fails, Vlad knows a war is on the horizon — a war that his people will ultimately lose. To save his people and his family, Vlad returns to that dark cave where he makes a deal with the devil: the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) will grant Vlad the power and speed of a thousand men to defeat the army, but in order to not fully become a vampire himself, Vlad will have to fight the bloodlust for 72 hours. For obvious reasons (this is how Dracula came to be, after all), that’s one fight that Vlad will fail.
This new film is a highly stylistic take on the character. Rather than a monster film, it feels more like a Marvel or DC film starring Dracula. To me, that’s a positive because in this day and age, general audiences go crazy for the big effects and rarely have the time or patience for the slower storytelling format that the old Dracula films were told in. That’s not a knock to DRACULA UNTOLD’s story; the film was actually pretty enjoyable to me, even though some cliché dialogue popped up throughout.
Directed by newcomer Gary Shore, DRACULA UNTOLD featured some pretty neat editing and cinematography, though it would sometimes flash around too quick for my eyes to properly focus. One shot in the film featured Vlad’s sword stuck in the ground with all of the action appearing through the reflection on the blade. When the battle wrapped up, Vlad approached the sword and pulled it out of the ground. I thought this was a very interesting shot, though it did take me a little out of the film because I found myself focussing more on the sword than the battle that was happening on the blade itself.
Evans was absolutely wonderful in the film. After seeing him in FAST & FURIOUS 6 and THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, I knew that he’d be perfectly casted as Vlad. He effortlessly carried each scene that he appeared in, whether it was a love scene, fight scene or one of the horrific ones alongside Dance’s Master Vampire. Evans is definitely an actor that I’m keeping my eye on. In fact, I was originally 100% against a remake of THE CROW, but now that Evans has been casted as Eric Draven (previously played by the late Brandon Lee in the 1994 masterpiece), I’m now only 75% against it. Jokes aside, Evans is so damn good, I’ve actually accepted that I will watch THE CROW remake in theaters.
Gadon was also really great as Mirena. She’s a natural beauty and flawlessly played the role of a loving, worried wife. Her timing was spot-on when it came to portraying certain emotions during certain scenes. Her chemistry with Evans was amazing, too. DRACULA UNTOLD, at its core, is a love story. I truly believed that both Evans and Gadon were lovers and I became emotionally invested in both of their characters.
Cooper was good for what he was playing. Again following the Marvel/DC formula, Cooper’s Mehmed was a pretty one-dimensional villain. He wanted boys in his army and he wanted to rule. There was really no reasoning to why he wanted to rule besides the fact that he was just evil. I couldn’t care less about Mehmed in a Dracula film featuring Vlad the Impaler, though, so I easily overlooked the character.
Then there’s Dance. Here’s the thing: when Dance plays a villain, he doesn’t even need special effects to appear creepy. Ever since I saw him in THE GOLDEN CHILD (and later LAST ACTION HERO) when I was young, I’ve always found him to be a creepy bad guy. When he showed up on GAME OF THRONES as Tywin Lannister, I just nodded and knew that he was going to be a menacing villain while on screen. When I saw him as the Master Vampire in the trailer for DRACULA UNTOLD, my skin crawled. I’m not saying that he’s a creepy guy in real life, but when it’s on film and he’s the villain, he’s always the absolute best at being evil.
I found myself often tapping my foot to the sweeping score that played throughout the film. It wasn’t surprising to later find that it was composed by Ramin Djawadi. Between his work on PACIFIC RIM and GAME OF THRONES, Djawadi’s quickly becoming one of my favourite composers. It’ll take a while to get to a Hans Zimmer level, but he’s well on his way.
DRACULA UNTOLD was originally meant to be a standalone film, but after Universal Pictures announced that they were going to reboot their Classic Monsters franchise, I believe they’re now using this as the kick-off film. While you could easily introduce more monsters into this world, it’s strange to think of it as a kick-off when there’s zero reference to the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy or any of the other various monsters. Still, if those films carry the same quality as DRACULA UNTOLD, I’m sure they’ll be great.
It’s a shame that DRACULA UNTOLD is under-performing at the box office. I think this attempt at a Classic Monsters reboot is definitely Universal’s best attempt yet (they tried it in 2004 with the lacklustre VAN HELSING and then again in 2010 with the disappointing THE WOLFMAN). Whether this film acquires a sequel or jumpstarts the Classic Monsters reboot remains to be seen… but as a monster fan, I truly hope that it does both.
DRACULA UNTOLD is not Oscar-caliber material. It’s a love story that’s intertwined with action and monsters. Visually, it’s marvellous! I’m sure when film fanatics think of Legendary Pictures’ first film with Universal Pictures, they’ll think of this rather than the forgettable AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. Evans kicked complete ass in the film and I hope to see him as Dracula again in the future. I really can’t downplay this film. I enjoyed it. In fact, sitting here, I’m realizing that I hope to get to see it much sooner rather than later.