Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Dracula Untold

"Sometimes the world doesn't need another hero.  Sometimes what it needs is a monster."

As the title suggests, Dracula Untold, is essentially an origin story of the world's most famous vampire tale.  The movie begins with the narration of Dracula's son, telling the audience that his father, Vlad Tepes, despite all accounts is a hero.  This is quite the opposite of Dracula's treatment in Stoker's version but is however far more accurate to how he is perceived by his own people.  The real Vlad Tepes, fought off Turkish invaders and was inducted into The Order of the Dragons, to protect Christendom from the Ottoman threat.  Being a movie, there is much creative license taken with what we know of Vlad's life; however, it is a somewhat interesting, if not wholly accurate story.

After having been given to the Turks as part of a tribute and inscription order, Dracula is taught to fight, and indeed seek blood.  It is while a Turk captive that Dracula gains the famous moniker, Vlad the Impaler (a title btw given to the real Vlad Tepes posthumously)  Vlad is tortured by memories of his time under Turkish rule but under the reassurances of his cloyingly sweet wife Mirena and his son Ingeras, Vlad settles into peace but is ever watchful for a day when this fragile peace will end.

Believing that he has stumbled upon an invading force of Turks, Vlad and his men make their way to Broken Tooth Mountain, only to meet a vampire.  Vlad alone escapes this encounter, leaving him with one more horrific memory to add to his painful trauma.  When Ottoman sultan Mehmed, demands a tribute of 1000 of  Wallachia's young boys, including Vlad's son Inegras, be conscripted into his army, Vlad is unwilling to sacrifice his child, as his father before him did, even if it means dooming his country to a war they are ill equipped to fight.  Our Anti-hero returns to Broken Tooth Mountain, and there he strikes a deal that will change his world. Vlad drinks the blood of the vampire and is told that he will have a fraction of the power of his powerful sire for three days, but retain his mortality, if he can manage to resist the temptation to drink human blood.  And thus, the game is afoot.

From this moment, the story becomes a little anti-climactic, as we know that no matter how hard Dracula tries to resist the temptation for blood, he will eventually fail and become the monster of legend that Stoker created him to be.  There is never any doubt that Mirena, (Sarah Geddon) will become the first victim of Dracula's thirst - the only twist being that it is at her request, in order to save their son Ingeras.  This is the only moment of agency Mirena is given for the entire movie and it is telling that her agency is about self sacrifice.  Contrary to Stoker's attack on the new woman, in his version of events hundreds of years later, Mirena very much aligns with the gender roles of her time, as a devoted mother and wife, unto her own detriment.  As it is, though Evans and Geddon had good chemistry, their relationship was underdeveloped making unfailing faith in Vlad, questionable at best.

Dracula Untold screams homoerotic subtext, with its interactions between Vlad and the vampire played by Charles Dance (yep, Tywin Lannister) and of course Vlad's interactions with Ottoman sultan Mehmed, played by Dominic Cooper, in way too much eyeliner. Dracula Untold dances around the interactions between Vlad and Mehmed, hinting that the relationship is far more complicated than Vlad's resistance to his captors and Mehem's jealousy of a revival.  It very clearly reminded me of the relationship between Charleton Heston's Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd's  Messala in Ben Hur.  The time spent with Vlad's sire reeks of the promise of what is to become between the two monsters, as Dance smacks his lips, bringing his body close to the anti hero of legend.

Luke Evans (Dracula) spends much of his time smoldering at the screen, doing his best to appear conflicted, sexy, and complex.  I didn't always buy into Evans' performance but I do however believe that Evans performed a passable interpretation.  Part of the problem is that the film is highly dependent upon CGI, the best of which is revealed in the trailer, rather than classic story telling. The film would have been improved had Dance been given more screen time and less to Cooper, who allowed his eyeliner to do his acting for him. 

For a film that is meant to be a horror, it was rather bloodless.  Director Gary Shore did however treat viewers to a great impalement scene, reminding us all of Vlad's favourite method of execution.  Even the battle scenes became lost in the CGI, removing much of the blood and gore, which would have been more than acceptable in a film of this genre.  For example, FX's Spartacus Blood and Sand was far more gory than Dracula Untold could hope to be.  Shore made far too many compromises for the PG13 rating, giving us a Vlad playing with his powers, more than being a unworldly monster to be feared.  Because this is an origin story, rather than a retelling of the Stoker's Dracula, perhaps Shore thought that this was a good compromise; however, with genre fans sick of toothless sparkling vampires, a true horror -- violence and all -- would better have differentiated this iconic monster, from the vapid cousins, who have nearly broken the very definition of what it is to be vampire. 

Shore was given the most epic of monsters to work with and managed to virtually limp from scene to scene, in an often disjointed manner.  Dracula Untold will never be confused with Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula but if you enjoy big CGI flicks like the Transformers, or Avatar, this might be the movie for you.  Coming in at 93 minuets, Dracula Untold is not particularly memorable but you won't choke on your popcorn making your way through it.