Dracula Untold is the latest in Universal Pictures' enduring film series based on the iconic vampire. However, this story (directed by Gary Shore) bears zero resemblance to the Bela Lugosi films of old. The Victorian-informed narrative of Bram Stoker's original novel is bypassed in favor of a Crusades-era war between kingdoms.
In this origin film, Luke Evans is the tragic Vlad Tepis "The Impaler", a brooding Transylvanian prince who finds his lands at the mercy of the avaricious Ottoman warlord Mehmet (played by Dominic Cooper.) Adding backstory to the backstory, Vlad apparently spent most of his childhood as a conscripted child soldier in the service of Mehmet's sultan father. Now married with a son, Vlad finds himself about to repeat history, as Mehmet demands that Vlad send 1,000 boys to serve as soldiers, or forfeit his lands-- and his life.
Knowing that his own army is drastically outnumbered by the Ottoman horde, Vlad desperately turns to the shadowy creature (played by Charles Dance) that he just barely escaped some weeks before, and makes a dark pact to save his people. What the creature is shouldn't be a surprise to viewers: Vlad then becomes a literal bat-man, with super-strength and the ability to morph into a flock of bats at will. (One wonders: does he lose a finger or a toe if one bat gets lost? Never mind.) But Vlad's rebirth as a night stalker comes at a cost: if he imbibes human blood within three days, his vampire curse will be eternal. Cue the ticking clock.
Visually, the film owes much to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings/Hobbit" series of films that revived the medieval-fantasy genre. Despite the CGI in abundance it appears that dozens of real-life extras in helmets and chain mail were used in the army sequences. The cinematography takes good advantage of the Northern Ireland landscapes that stand in for Eastern Europe.
While the visuals are all fascinating, the story (by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless) leaves something to be desired. The abrupt pacing of the film-- around 90 minutes-- leaves little time to appreciate the doomed romance between Vlad and Mirena (Sarah Gadon) that viewers are expected to latch onto; the father-and-son subplot suffers similarly. Such concerns take a back seat to showcasing several CGI-abetted combat scenes, including a "bat tornado" and a "sword's-eye-view" sequence that are admittedly impressive. However, by film's end Vlad/Dracula's presumed status as a newly-minted anti-hero doesn't feel quite earned. As the title character, Evans ("Clash of the Titans", "Fast & Furious 6") embodies the romance-novel reinterpretation of Dracula, complete with a just-right mullet and permanent five O'clock shadow.
For subtext scholars, there's a nominal Christian vs. Muslim micro-story, and Dracula's initially grudging, then wholehearted embrace of literally monstrous tactics to combat an aggressive threat from a distant land has inadvertent relevance in today's political headlines. ("Men don't fear swords; (but they do) fear monsters", Vlad sneers at one point; he later berates his countrymen as weaklings after his vampire nature is exposed.) Then again, it's doubtful that the film's producers intended on making commentary on U.S. intelligence policy.
With Legendary Studios ("Godzilla") as a co-financier, the corporate plan is to reboot Universal's horror catalog as an interconnected series of tales, like many comic book-based films of recent years. With "Dracula Untold" as a slightly anemic first entry, the new "Universal Monsters" franchise needs a transfusion of character development in order to be truly biting.