When you think of Dracula, you conjure up of one of the great personifications of evil in pop culture. Romantic? Sure. Tragic? I suppose. But still a villain and certainly a figure of evil. Yet Universal’s new Dracula reboot says patooey to popular myth and refashions Dracula as a misunderstood action hero with a pesky vampire condition dragging him down. The results are just as confused as you’d imagine, though thankfully not as godawful as they could have been.
When we’re introduced to Dracula (Luke Evans) at the start of the film, he’s still in Vlad the Impaler territory from the prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. However, he’s a kinder, gentler impaler who may have killed thousands of men, but is mostly a good guy who loves his wife (Sarah Gadon) and child as well as the people he rules over.
Trouble brews when a rival king (Dominic Cooper) who trained Vlad in his impaling ways wants to take hundreds of teens from Vlad’s kingdom to mold into heartless warriors. Vlad doesn’t care too much for that idea, thank you very much. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to beat Cooper’s massive army with his peaceful warriors. So, he climbs up a conveniently located nearby mountain where an evil vampire (Charles Dance) has been chilling for centuries, hoping to steal away some of that sweet vampire power. Dance gives it to him all right, and even promises that the vampirism will be temporary if Vlad can avoid suckling down human blood for three days. The next thing you know, Vlad is able to kill off an entire wave of Cooper’s warriors all by himself. The trouble is that there are more fights to come that he might not win and his kingdom isn’t exactly thrilled to learn that it’s now led by a vampire. As radical a take on the Dracula origin story as this film may be, it’s safe to say that things won’t end well. You know, tragic hero and so forth.
First off, the concept of recasting Dracula as a hero is flawed from the start. The actual Vlad the Impaler was by all accounts a big ol’ jerk who doesn’t merit the white-washing he gets here. Even the fictional Dracula deserves the bare minimum of audience sympathy and nothing more. Had there been more of a conflict between Vlad’s seemingly heroic motivations and ultimately villainous fate, he might at least have an interesting character arc. Sadly, that’s not the case. After all, the film is designed to be the start of a planned “Cinematic Universe” reboot of Universal’s classic monsters. The man’s got to be a hero so that he can fight greater evils like… god, I hope they’ve got a plan there…
Nonetheless, taking the film for what it is rather than what it should have been, the good news is that director Gary Shore’s debut feature isn’t a complete disaster (if that qualifies as good news, anyway). Luke Evans is pretty effective in the title role of good-guy Dracula, and the sequences where he levels armies with all his batty powers can be damn thrilling. It’s also nice to see that when vampirism finally makes its way into the movie, the characters are indeed treated like feral monsters and not sparkly pretty boys. When the film ditches the sub-‘Lord of the Rings’ fantasy action long enough to get a little gothic, it can be a lot of a fun and a reminder of the potential Universal has in rebooting its classic monster franchises with fancy-pants new visual effects technology that 1930s filmmakers couldn’t even dream of.
Sadly, these good notes in ‘Dracula Untold’ are the exceptions and not the rule. For the most part, it’s just another plodding would-be franchise starter that crawls through a drawn-out origin story rather than getting to the action the audience paid for. It also has a tiresome predictability for anyone with even a remote familiarity with the material. You’ll find yourself simply checking off all of the required plot points and set-ups in your head, waiting endlessly for them to all come together into something, only to find that’s all been saved for the sequel.
The movie is a bit of a mess, but at least it’s a mess with a few high points. If whoever is put in charge of a sequel decides to actually deliver a Dracula movie with a blockbuster budget and Luke Evans in the lead, it could be something worth watching. Whether or not that happens depends on how this Universal Monster Universe pans out. For now, the grand experiment is off to a pretty shaky start, but at least there’s a sliver of potential. That’s something. Well, maybe… hopefully… we’ll see.