Confused and monotonous 'Dracula Untold' is a poor start to Universal's long-term plans
Dracula Untold Universal Pictures
Director: Gary Shore
Screenplay: Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, based on characters created by Bram Stoker
Starring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Paul Kaye and Charles Dance
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 32 minutes
October 10, 2014
(out of four)
Dracula Untold is a movie that exists just because. There was no groundswell of fans clamoring for a new Dracula movie, like there might be for James Bond or Batman. There is nothing in the market to suggest that classical horror monsters are suddenly back in fashion. (Just ask Aaron Eckhart.) And there was certainly no singular vision that simply demanded that this version of the story be brought to the screen.
But a new Dracula movie was made nonetheless, because Dracula is a character people know and a brand people recognize, and that means studios will continue to make Dracula movies simply because they can. And hey, who doesn't love a good Dracula movie? Count me in. But then again, we're not talking about a good Dracula movie here. We're talking about Dracula Untold, a film completely devoid of personality and purpose.
The most noteworthy thing about it - the only thing that suggests any sense of direction - is the denouement, which was tacked on after the fact so that the film, and Luke Evans' incarnation of the character, could fit in with a recently announced shared universe of Universal (wink) movie monsters. Yes, that final scene feels every bit as tacked-on as it sounds, but I'll leave it at that.
The problem is, now that Untold is the first piece of something it never intended to be a part of, the studio may well regret having this be the kickstarter for this expanded world. (In much the same way Marvel tries to avoid acknowledging the Edward Norton-starring The Incredible Hulk, which was the second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, yes, is still MCU canon.) This is so clearly a movie that has no idea what it's trying to do - seemingly cobbled together with little heed for coherence - that it couldn't possibly be of a piece with a whole series of other movies and characters. It's not even of a piece with itself.
Its actual scale dwarfed by its apparent ambition, Dracula Untold tries to look and sound like an epic period piece but haphazardly stampedes through all of its plot points without ever going back to make sure they fit together.
The film pits the Transylvanians against the Turks in a pending war, with the noble warrior-prince Vlad Tepes (Evans) caught in the middle and fighting for his people using his newfound (but temporary) vampiric indestructibility. For large chunks of the story, it's unclear who knows what about Vlad's plight, or how they know it, or what implications that knowledge may or may not have. Now blessed with superhuman strength, speed and hearing - and the ability to dissipate into a colony of bats whenever he feels like it - he should be able to take out the Turkish army pretty much by himself, shouldn't he? We see him in action - he's unstoppable on his own. And yet the Turks seemingly keep gaining ground and confidence.
In fact, director Gary Shore - working from a script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless based on the (now largely discredited) theory that the iconic vampire was based on Vlad the Impaler - doesn't really know what to do with the character's newfound abilities. They provide the film with action, but the action never means much, or has much impact, until the big finale. And by that point, Vlad, Dracula, or whatever he wants to call himself, has been sapped of all interest.
The film's screenplay seems to consist of a hodgepodge of competing ideas, some of which pay off down the line and some of which are ostensibly forgotten or ignored. One example: In the middle of this three-day war, Vlad's people begin to realize what has happened to their leader. So they abruptly decide to burn him to death. He emerges nearly unscathed a few moments later - stepping outside when the sun is obscured by clouds - and admonishes his once-loyal followers with all the authority of a self-serious man of royalty who has just been the victim of a prank. "Alright, you guys, knock it off. Now let's go fight some Turks." And so they do, and the incident is ... well, if not forgotten, certainly tabled for a later date.
For his debut feature, Shore has gone out of his way to make it look as cheap and monotonous as possible. It feels like practically the entire film is made up of ugly day-for-night shots. The effect is not the romantic moonlight-blue of dusk or dawn; rather it just looks like inept lighting, creating a visual experience that's difficult to see and aggravating to watch. I actually wonder if it's a rating issue. Despite its frequent blood, Dracula Untold is PG-13 (the better to create a multi-brand shared movie universe with, my dear); with its monochrome aesthetic, the film's blood appears ambiguously black. If it appeared red, I'd have to imagine the movie would have garnered an R, because the MPAA ratings board is useless and has no understanding of tone.
The color issue is one of those tricks you see now and then. It's common in horror movie trailers, which are "approved for all audiences" because its shots of blood are all modified to a murky brown color - as if no one can tell what liquid is squirting on the walls right as someone is screaming in terror - so they can get away with showing what would otherwise be unapproved.
Ratings-wise, I claim no preference. But I do wonder how much of an impact that made on Shore's visual choices. Ultimately, the rating wouldn't matter much. Whether the gore appeared in bright crimson ribbons or muddy black pools, neither color could do much to fix such clunky storytelling and ineffectual world-building.