By Greg Popil
In the world of cinema, there are characters whose stories have been told, and there are well-mined characters, and then there is Count Dracula. As the Guinness Book of World Records-holder for the most-portrayed character in film and television history (approaching a staggering 300 portrayals, or roughly three per year since the invention of motion pictures), it takes a lot of courage to flat-out state in the title of your film that this version of the vampire prince’s tale is the one that will finally fill in the blanks left by the many (many, many) other, lesser movies.
As stories about Dracula go, “Dracula Untold” is certainly one of them. After a brief prologue narrated by Dracula’s son (which handily deflates all suspense regarding that character’s well-being later in the film), detailing the history of Prince Vlad Dracul and his childhood imprisonment at the hands of the Turks which turned him into the fearsome Vlad the Impaler, we join the story of Vlad and his merry band of sidekicks in Transylvania. Ten years have passed peacefully since the return of the Prince (Luke Evans), and he is determined to keep that peace, by both paying off the Turks and keeping quiet his recent discovery of a horrible, man-eating creature living in a nearby cave.
The creature turns out to be an unnamed ancient king, played by the always awesome Charles Dance, and when the Turks (led by the decidedly not-Turkish Dominic Cooper, whose accent would be offensive if it wasn’t so hilariously awful) threaten to conscript 1,000 Transylvanian boys (including Vlad’s son) into their army, he enters a Faustian bargain with the vampire: if he can consume the vampire’s blood and take his power for three days without tasting human blood, he will return to his normal self. If not, the vampire will be freed from the cave and Dracula must remain a creature of the night forever.
This plot point is convoluted, but it is also the only interesting aspect of the movie. Dance, who has spent the past four years making himself into a villainous legend on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” brings the same vaguely bored, yawning-lion assurance to his performance here as he does as Tywin Lannister. Hundreds of years of uncontested power have left this vampire feeling nothing more than mild amusement that Vlad might actually offer a challenge, and Dance plays their all-too-brief scenes together perfectly.
If only the rest of the movie shared his light touch. A good Dracula movie needs to bring three things to the table: blood, sex and fear, and “Dracula Untold” fails on all three counts. The encroachment of PG-13 ratings into horror movies has been overrated as a negative aspect (the American remake of “The Ring,” for example, was terrifying while staying within those boundaries), but it completely neuters the main character here. Vlad is promised epic powers by drinking the vampire’s blood, and while the strength and speed he is given are certainly an asset, there’s very little else we see, other than roughly 200 scenes of him dissolving into a pack of bats and a few “Predator”-esque heat vision POV shots. Vlad dispatches thousands of Turkish soldiers (even resorting to his old impaling tricks at one point) seemingly without spilling a drop of blood. And other than one chaste scene with his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) where he restrains himself from going too far and giving into temptation (which is exactly what you’d want to see from Count freaking Dracula, naturally), there’s nary a hint of lust or heat to be found.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the actor playing Dracula is such a bore. Evans was reasonably fun playing a bad guy in “Fast and Furious 6” but seems to have only been hired here to stare off into the middle distance with a mildly worried look on his face, not unlike his character in “The Hobbit” series. Director Gary Shore, making his feature debut, never gives Dracula a chance to cut loose. Even toward the end, when (spoiler, unless you’ve ever seen a movie in your life) Dracula succumbs to vampirism and raises an army of the undead to defeat the Turks, he himself remains dully noble to the end. Said battle scenes do look nice, as Shore does a reasonable job approximating the “Lord of the Rings” style of swords and sorcery, and the Northern Ireland sets are beautiful. But it is all decorations on an empty vessel.
“Dracula Untold” is far from the worst movie ever made about The Count (that title still belongs to 2004’s painfully awful “Van Helsing”), but its sin is almost as grievous: it is one of the least memorable.