Sunday, October 12, 2014

Another 300 Redux: Dracula Untold Is More Revenge Than Dark Horror!

The Good: Surprisingly descent acting, Good special effects
The Bad: Very predictable and banal plot, Bland character arcs
The Basics: Dracula Untold is more disappointing in that it undermines the power and mystery of the “original” vampire by recasting him as a vengeful tool of an older, more powerful, vampire.

Despite recent years having films that are clearly part of Oscar Pandering Season being released early – in late August and throughout September, as opposed to the traditional Pandering season of Thanksgiving through New Year’s – October is not know known for having great cinematic releases. In fact, October is one of the two biggest lulls in quality filmmaking and having an October release is pretty much like having a February release; it usually means that the studio lacks faith in the film and is trying desperately to make their money back on the movie. The exception to the October release rule is horror films. October is the month to release schlocky horror movies and hope for a runaway hit. Make your movie cheap, release it during October and there’s the crap shoot that it’ll get viral fan support and make back your investment. So, the fact that Gone Girl and now The Judge are in direct competition with films like Dracula Untold represents something of a paradigm shift in how the major studios are approaching October. This all works to the detriment of Dracula Untold because Legendary Pictures was clearly hoping to capitalize on a traditionally weak season as opposed to compete with moviegoers who actually care about how their money is being spent.

The truth, though, is that Dracula Untold is not as bad as it is familiar. More than like a typical vampire origin story, though, Dracula Untold is familiar because it has a similar look and feel to 300 (reviewed here!). In a year that already saw a 300 sequel, it seems somewhat ridiculous that Legendary Pictures would release another movie that is directed in such a similar fashion. More than a supernatural horror movie, Dracula Untold is a war story and its protagonist is a general working desperately to save his people.

In the mid-1400s, Vlad the Impaler is captured by the Turks and raised in their army where he becomes a particularly brutal soldier until he is able to escape and return to Transylvania. In Castle Dracula, Vlad and his people celebrate Easter and hope for a decade of peace. Unfortunately, during the celebration, the Sultan’s men come for their tribute and while Vlad willingly pays them a bribe for peace, the emissaries of the Sultan demand more. The Sultan now wants 1,000 boys, arguably because Turkish scouts were slaughtered while investigating a cave on the outskirts of Transylvania. When the Sultan’s men demand Vlad’s son in addition to the thousand boys, Vlad steps up to try to save his people.

Vlad journeys to the cave of the vampire master where he has a conversation with the ancient evil about saving his people. Unable to leave the cave, the vampire master gives Vlad a taste of his blood with the promise of a sample of his power. The vampire master tells Vlad he will have an insatiable blood lust if he feeds again within three days after drinking his blood and he will finally be free. Vlad weighs the option of freeing his people from Turkish oppression against what he believes is his own strength of will. Resurrected as a vampire (the silver from his own ring burning him), Vlad explores his power and tries to protect his people. While he has a few key military victories, his own people soon turn against him and his wife is killed. Even as he is cast out, he tries to protect the Transylvanians and he becomes a more powerful and vengeful vampire.

The whole purpose of Dracula Untold is to give an origin story to the mythic vampire Dracula. While some of it is worthwhile in that it illustrates pretty graphically how Vlad the Impaler, historically thought to be the first, most important vampire upon whom the story of Dracula was based, became the vampire Dracula, Dracula Untold is psychically unsatisfying when it betrays its purpose. Dracula is hardly the original, quintessential vampire in Dracula Untold; he is simply a patsy for the vampire king who wants out of his cave and sees Vlad as a tool to that end. The result is an action/war movie that is much less impressive than it could have been.

Luke Evans plays Vlad the Impaler in Dracula Untold and he seems to be trying to become the next Viggo Mortensen or Orlando Bloom by taking the project. Evans might be best known for playing Bard in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (reviewed here!) and Vlad the Impaler offers him the chance to emote more and present a very different type of character. Bard is a somewhat generic hero in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies and in Dracula Untold, he is given a broader emotional spectrum to play. Evans does a decent job of playing the character’s internal conflict with good confused facial expressions and clenched-jaw moments. He plays angry well and that makes the character relatable for the moments the story calls for him to be more human than monstrous.

Sadly, though, the performance from Evans does not extend to Vlad’s pre-vampire relationships. Luke Evans’s Vlad is deeply in love with Mirena, but Evans and Sarah Gadon are not given much time to develop or emote love in a credible way before the movie turns into a generic action/war movie. Predictably, Charles Dance’s appearance as the vampire master resonates. The problem with an intense vampire master that usurps the position of Vlad’s wife is that viewers have to believe in the emotional bond between Vlad and his wife without seeing the evidence of it.

Dracula Untold is, in the end, a very generic action-adventure film. Is it cool to see Vlad slaughter his way through (essentially) knights on his quest to protect his people and discover the range of his newfound powers? For a few minutes, yes. Is it great cinema? By no means.

For similar fantasy/horror films, please check out my reviews of:
Victor Frankenstein
Underworld: Blood Wars
Pan's Labyrinth


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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