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Dracula Untold (2014)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DRACULA UNTOLD (2014)

Starring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gordon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Art Parkinson, Diarmid Murtagh

Written By: Matt Shazama, Burk Sharpless Directed By: Gary Shore

The Short Version

After a long absence from big budget Hollywood, the most venerable name in horror returns.

It should come as no surprise that the story of the historical Dracula remains untold.

The story that is told has wonderful potential, and it’s fundamentally good, but…

The primary curse on display here is the curse of the watered down PG-13 rating.

Dracula Untold isn’t bad, but it could and should have been a lot better. Still worth it for fans, though.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

COLBY.

It’s all right. It’s inoffensive. You may have been expecting it to be something else on first glance.


Pairs Well With...

THE HOUSE RED.

The menu and the sommelier build it up to be something wonderful; the reality isn’t salad dressing, but it’s not winning any awards, either.

“Negotiations failed.”


After a fourteen year absence from the biggest Hollywood screens (though certainly not from others), my old friend Dracula has finally returned, with a story promising to merge his gothic vampire legend with the historical personage of Vlad Tepes, known to his Turkish rivals (and others) as Lord Impaler.

As both a fan of the literary/cinematic vampire and a student of the exploits of the real Vlad (one could reasonably suggest that he played a fair part in getting me through my undergraduate years), the prospect of this filled me with anticipatory happiness.  I knew better than to anticipate anything great, mind – I may be a fan, but I’m also a realist – but just the fact that my old friend would be coming back to a theatre near me was enough.

Tempered expectations: they’re a wonderful thing.

In the world of Dracula Untold (which is a far way from the real one, of course, but you expected that, didn’t you?), Prince Vlad of Transylvania (Luke Evans, The Three Musketeers) is preparing to celebrate ten years of peace with the Turks, who are themselves led by Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper, Captain America: The First Avenger).  But when Mehmed’s soldiers come to collect the annual tribute payment that assures the continuation of that peace, they make an additional demand: one thousand Transylvanian boys to be pressed into the service of the Sultan’s army… including Vlad’s own son.  Having once been so used by the Turks himself, Vlad rankles at the prospect, and even though it means certain war with the mightiest army on Earth, he defies the Sultan’s order.

Having no real army of his own, Vlad must find a way to stand up to the coming Turkish onslaught, and he thinks he knows where to look, though the cost may be very great indeed.  For there is a monster (Charles Dance, Alien 3) that dwells in a cave in a nearby mountain, and that monster has the strength of a thousand men and powers beyond imagination.  If he can somehow take this creature’s power for himself, he could use it to save his people, and his son…

…but will he be able to save himself?

I’ll begin with what you already knew: if you’re looking for the real historical Dracula in Dracula Untold, you won’t find him; alas, the true Dracula remains untold.  The movie correctly deciphers the meaning of the name “Dracula,” correctly assigns him the nickname of “Lord Impaler” (though oddly does not correctly translate it into its Turkish form, “Kaziglu Bey,” when dialogue is read in Turkish), correctly indicates that Vlad was a royal hostage of the Turks as a young boy, and correctly identifies the Turkish Sultan as Mehmed II.  Beyond that, poor lip service is paid to the true story of the Forest of the Impaled, and a riff is played on the legend of the Princess and the Tower, but otherwise… yeah.  Forget it.  This is fiction, plain and simple.  Very plain and very simple, as it turns out, but hold that thought.  For now, let’s just stick with the reminder mantra that we never get our history from dramatic movies, and move on to looking at Dracula Untold for what it really is: a piece of vampire fiction.

Taken in that vein (I’d say I’m sorry for the pun, but I’m not), the real curse on display in Dracula Untold is the curse of the PG-13 rating.

The story presented by Dracula Untold is serviceable enough, and its moral conundrums have lots interest generating potential, especially since the savvy viewer knows that the hero is not going to emerge as a paragon of sweetness and light like one would normally expect from Western storytelling.  In those moral conundrums, the story succeeds; indeed, the ultimate point on which things turn (still not apologizing for any puns) is as well-reasoned as it is surprising given the way in which the characters are developed.   (And the important ones are indeed developed to a decent degree without having to resort to heavy exposition.)  At no point is there ever a question of who Vlad is or what his motivations are.  For fans of the most venerable name in gothic horror, experiencing this interpretation of the character is more than enough reason to see this movie.

Needless to say, Luke Evans is not Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman, and to his credit, he doesn’t try to be, any more than he tries to pile on any sort of fake Eastern European accent.  (Indeed, listening to Vlad and his people, the film sounds more like an Anglo-Saxon adventure than a Slavic one; but with that said, this also means that the actors are free to play their characters more naturally instead of distracting viewers with accents that the law of averages suggests would have been doomed to fail.)  He is quite believable as a strong but weary Prince, and as a man willing to become a monster for the sake of his family.  He also brings the proper chemistry to his character’s relationships: to Vlad’s people, to Vlad’s enemies, to Vlad’s son (especially that), and to Vlad’s wife.

Though speaking of Vlad’s wife (Sarah Gordon, Cosmopolis)… that’s one of the areas where the curse of PG-13 gets Dracula Untold into trouble.

The story as presented requires a strong, passionate relationship to exist between Vlad and his wife, and within the limits they’re given, Evans and Gordon do their very best to portray that, but the wall of censorship is there just as surely as if the Princess had been outfitted with a cast iron chastity belt.  There’s always a very visible barrier that can’t be approached, and that barrier is distracting.  For those who question the point of sex on film, this is a case where a greater expression of it – and some greater intimacy otherwise – would have gone a long way toward shoring up what is the very anchor of the story.  Instead, there’s obvious bad blocking, awkwardness, and finally, interruption.  Even directors working under the Hays Code tried harder than this.

But, considering how watered down the elements that are supposed to be the bread and butter of Dracula Untold – the action, the blood, and the violence – are handled, I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise.

It should be impossible to make something like the image of scores (the realty was many thousands) of people impaled on sticks dull and uncaptivating, but Dracula Untold manages to do it.  Close up impalement of a single victim?  Yawn.  Pitched battles with swords, spears, axes, and the like being swung around in close combat?  A dumbed-down, CGI-spoiled blur.  Fang-tastic horror?  Not especially horrific.  Every time something happens in Dracula Untold that demands to be exciting or thrilling or shocking, the bucket of cold water is tossed and the film very noticeably – and again, very distractingly – stops short.  The spectre of that forced PG-13 rating (and really, there’s nothing in this flick that deserves anything higher than a simple PG) is omnipresent, and it all but ruins every scene it touches.

Okay, the ones involving the insufferably prissy and not exceptionally believable Sultan would have been shot anyway, but… yeah.

And yet… for all of the film’s rating-driven half-measures and failures, there’s still something essentially interesting about Dracula Untold that makes it worth the watch, especially if you, like me, are a long time fan of the character.  The story is interesting, the production looks good, and (most of) the performances are decent.  And then there’s that little connection to the Dracula story we all know (and hopefully love) that shows up at the end.  There really is a lot of good to be found here, despite the studio’s best efforts to ruin the movie.  One can only imagine the great film that might have resulted if the Powers That Be had taken the self censorship gloves off.

Bottom line, despite an unfortunate PG-13 rating that waters things down at every turn, Dracula Untold is still worth a look.  The results may not be great, but there’s enough good here to place it at the higher – and watchable – end of overall mediocrity.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering… in the real world, Dracula – who ruled Wallachia, not neighboring Transylvania – did sufficient damage to the Sultan to keep him from marching into the rest of Europe, but Mehmed none the less ultimately defeated Dracula through treachery.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2014


More From The Bar! | Dracula (1931) | Dario Argento's Dracula | 47 Ronin |



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