Halloween Horror: Dracula Untold (2014)

Dracula Untold tells its story so economically, it seems like an aberration of a modern blockbuster. That’s not to say the film is particularly smart or complex. It’s still another gritty origin story, this time full of vampire bats and turkish soldiers being impaled on spikes instead of air battles over crowded metropolises. It’s as stupid as most blockbusters are, but in that fun time at the movies kind of way. What makes Dracula Untold a modest success is its confidence and its brevity. The film never outstays its welcome.

Dracula Untold blends vampire mythology with real historical facts of Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), a Transylvanian prince from the 15th century who battled the Turks and whose patronym was the famous “Dracula” used by Bram Stoker in his novel. The Vlad in Dracula Untold has nothing to do with the character popularized by Bram Stoker, aside from his vampirism. I’ve been to Transylvania and visited historical sites of the real Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, and I can say that the character also has little to do the historical Vlad aside from some basic facts. But that’s no matter since combining the historical Vlad Dracula with the mythological Dracula to create a dark fantasy action hero is a no-brainer. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula made this connection, but not to this extent. I’m frankly surprised no one has made an entire movie like this before.

In Dracula Untold, Vlad (Luke Evans) is a good husband to Mirena (Sarah Gadon), good father to Ingeras (Art Parkinson), and good ruler of his people. When we first meet him he isn’t a vampire, although he does have a propensity to brood in the dark. He did some terrible things as a young man, when he was serving the Turks as a political hostage, but he’s put that part of himself to rest and is devoted to his people. Of course, his old friend Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), newly crowned sultan of the Ottoman Empire, inevitably stirs up Vlad’s violent past when he demands 1001 Transylvanian boys as hostages, including Vlad’s own son. Vlad refuses, kills the men sent to collect his son, and sets off to a mountain cave to gain the power of a vampire living there (Charles Dance, doing his best Christopher Lee impersonation) so he can defeat the Turks.

Vlad becomes a vampire, does battle with the Turks, and inevitably succumbs to his thirst for human blood, making the vampiric transformation irreversible. Instead of merely turning into a bat, drinking human blood, and being scared of sunlight, vampires in Dracula Untold are a fair bit stronger, a bit more similar to a Marvel superhero than an undead monster. As a vampire Vlad is able to fly, overpower hundreds of men, and command legions of bats to use as weapons against his enemies. The VFX artists have a lot of fun depicting swarms of bats attacking the Ottoman legions. In one instance they have the bats gather into a giant hand that punches the ground, smashing the Turkish soldiers into paste. If that mental image seems both silly and awesome to you, then Dracula Untold is right up your alley.

Much of the film’s second and third acts are taken up with these CGI battles between Vlad and hordes of Turks, but because the film is so short (it only runs 92 minutes) you never get tired of the action. The camera stays pretty stable throughout, and there’s a playfulness to Vlad’s powers that certain superhero movies would do well to emulate. First-time director Gary Shore may not have enough dramatic chops as of yet, but like Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders, he knows how to shoot an action scene in a comprehensible manner, which is something these days.

For that matter, the film never gets bogged down in the action or in its conventional story. It moves forward at a brisk pace, developing in the way you know it ought to, getting to an ending that has a predictable, but nevertheless satisfying, dramatic irony to it. Star Luke Evans broods just right, giving the film enough dramatic heft without trying to convince you he’s giving an Oscar-worthy performance as a man who turns into bats.

In this day any audience member with half a brain knows how a typical blockbuster story’s gonna turn out. There’s a twist here, an emotional reunion there, the protagonist’s inevitable dark night of the soul, and the triumphant ending that can shift between varying degrees of bitter and sweet. Too many films in the modern era treat this formula with such a pompous seriousness, you’d think they’re trying to convince the viewer they are the first film to employ it. Dracula Untold does no such thing. It’s not pretentious. It embraces what it is, which is a B-movie action fest. There’s undeniable pleasure in witnessing such remarkable confidence in such a silly product.

6 out of 10

Dracula Untold (2014, USA/U.K./Japan)

Directed by Gary Shore; written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless; starring Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, and Charles Dance.