Dracula Untold (2014)
92 min., rated PG-13.
Everyone needs an old-fashioned origin story, right? Anyone? Bueller? Billed as a "Phase I" in Universal Pictures' reboot of their classic monsters, "Dracula Untold" is yet another reiteration of Vlad the Impaler, the bloodsucker that started it all, and leaves plenty of room for improvement. The biggest surprise of all is that it isn't a bloody disaster: it doesn't bite the big one, but it won't have you shielding your neck in fear. Merely damning with faint praise, this minimally cheesy, maximally dopey fantasy-horror actioner is more watchable than "I, Frankenstein," and any other take on Dracula—the 1931 Bela Legosi-starrer, 1992's lush, gloriously gothic Francis Ford Coppola-directed "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and even 2000's goofy "Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000"—is of higher quality. "Dracula Untold" isn't a tale that had to be left untold, but couldn't someone have told it in a less stiff way?
In 1462, Vlad III Tepes (Luke Evans) is a soldier-turned-Prince-of-Wallachia in Transylvania, where the Turks demand 1,000 boys, including Vlad and his wife Mirena's (Sarah Gadon) young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). In a search for the Turks who have entered their territory, Vlad and his men enter a dark, bat-infested cave in Broken Tooth Mountain, inhabited by a demon (Charles Dance) who ends up killing Vlad's soldiers. As Vlad celebrates an initially peaceful Easter with his people, the animosity between the Transylvanians and the Turks grows, and when Vlad refuses to turn his son over to the Turks, he kills them and returns to the cave. There, he actually meets the vampiric demon who offers Vlad his own blood to sample his power. In two days, Vlad will be restored if he can resist the insatiable thirst for blood, but if he can't resist, he will turn and remain a vampire for an eternity. What the world really needs is a monster, of course, so you get the picture.
Director Gary Shore (making his feature debut) and first-time screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless impress by creating a full origin tale that wasn't adapted from some graphic novel or video game, and they are game to try taking it all grimly seriously. Appropriately cloaked in doom and professional design, the film is also handsomely designed, with an opening montage of still tableaus narrated by Vlad's son and a menacing gothic creepiness in the cave of Broken Tooth Mountain. For a while, "Dracula Untold" seems like it might be an interesting or at least fun twisting of the Bram Stoker legend and history of the warrior who earned the "Impaler" moniker for using long stakes on his enemy. Alas, it simply doesn't engage, taking forever to set itself up and then becoming difficult to get terribly invested, but there are a few token effects that work as cool eye-candy. Even when the action sequences are sometimes too jumbled to enjoy, with more too-quickly-cut sword fights than neck bitings, the visual effects team wins out with the sight of Vlad disappearing into a swooshing storm of bats or the disintegration of an impaled body once sunlight hits. There's also the short-lived amusement in seeing Vlad take out an impressive thousand men shortly after he discovers his immortal abilities.
The square-jawed Luke Evans smolders and stoically tries his damndest, and he might be the hunkiest Vlad the Impaler this world has ever seen. Vlad is written and played as an antihero, however, nothing like extra shadings or interest of that sort are offered up in the script for Evans to play. He will risk his own life for his wife and son, but will they be in danger once Hubby and Daddy's fangs come out? That's the extent of the dramatic tension here. The only female to utter more than one line, Sarah Gadon is radiant and affecting as Vlad's wife Mirena, but she has been far more challenged (and actually rendered useful) in non-genre projects like this year's "Enemy." Charles Dance is far creepier than the headliner as "Master Vampire," both in his monstrous make-up and performance.
Perfunctory and empty from the writing stage, the film always seems like it's on the cusp of getting somewhere beyond its skeletal plot points. The friendship-turned-rivalry between Vlad and Turkish prince Sultan Mehmed II (a mustache-twirling Dominic Cooper) feels like such an afterthought. A sort-of Renfield (Zach McGowan), who looks more like a Captain Sparrow impersonator, is amusingly introduced, but then dropped. It seems like Universal is more interested in whatever follow-up comes next instead, and it's not before we get to the modern-day epilogue scene where a familiar character is revealed and the film might begin to get somewhere. Then the end credits begin and we are left with one more franchise-starter that will only start if it brings in the box-office numbers. A one-note blur with the impact of background noise, "Dracula Untold" just didn't have to see the light of day.