This weekend I was under the weather but still managed to catch Dracula: Untold with the Mrs. We’re both fans of vampire flicks like The Lost Boys and Underworld – the good, action-packed ones. I went into this film knowing that it puts more of a “super-hero” spin on the legend, and – even though I enjoy both the vampire AND superhero genres – wasn’t expecting much. I liked what I got, though. It was a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn flick, as well as a nice spin on the well-known story of Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. It also kicks off a new attempt by Universal to reboot their popular “Universal Monsters” franchise made popular during the 40s and 50s. You all know these guys – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
This review will contain spoilers, so proceed at your own risk. The film just came out, so I’m sure there’s a lot of you haven’t seen it yet. If you’re one of the brave & the bold, however, keep reading…
– The Story –
A voiceover at the beginning explains that The Ottoman Empire controls much of Europe, including Transylvania (placing this all in the 1500AD – 1650AD era), and that the Sultan makes each country offer up young boys as soldiers for his armies. Vlad was such a boy – his father offered him to the Sultan in order to keep the peace, and Vlad grew to be the most feared warrior in all of the Sultan’s army. Using barbaric tactics and psychological warfare, Vlad learned that he could save lives by viciously ending a few. As he states later in the film, for every person he tortured and/or impaled on a pole, 100 more were spared because of it. Thus his statement (seen in the trailer) that “Sometimes what the world needs isn’t a hero… but a monster.” After years of service, Vlad was rewarded with his freedom, after which he returned to Transylvania and took his rightful place as ruler.
Now over ten years later, Vlad is a beloved ruler who leads his people with a firm yet benevolent hand. The land is at peace, and everything is good. The Sultan long ago ended the practice of taking boys from each country, and Vlad enjoys life with his wife and their own son, now around 11 years old. Of course, that’s all about to change. Vlad and his men find a Turkish scouting party within the borders of their land and soon discover that the party took refuge in a cave only to be slaughtered by a creature that quickly dispatches Vlad’s own men. A local priest explains to Vlad the legend of the vampire – an ancient noble who summoned a demon and was cursed to live in the cave and thirst for human blood. With the creature confined to the cave by its curse, and enough on his plate with the Turks, Vlad tries to forget the creature. His plate gets even fuller when the Turkish delegate arrives to get the Sultan’s annual tribute and announces that the draft has been reinstated and the Sultan will require a thousand boys from Transylvania.
Knowing the current Sultan from their childhood, Vlad meets him in person and attempts to talk him out of the offering. Instead, the Sultan declares that not only must Transylvania offer up a thousand boys, but for his impertinence Vlad must now give up his own son to the Sultan as well. Attempting to save his people from war, Vlad reluctantly agrees. Later at the handoff, his hysterical wife is trying to stop the exchange, and as he proudly watches his son walk towards the Turkish envoys, Vlad decides no peace is worth his family and cleanly dispatches the envoy and his party. Knowing the wrath of the Sultan isn’t far behind, he rushes to the cave from earlier and asks the vampire for the power to save his family & his people from the Turks.
It turns out this is a great deal for the vampire, since his confinement to the cave can only be lifted by a righteous man volunteering to take the curse from him. Vlad will have his powers – AND his thirst – for three days. If Vlad can resist the urge to drink human blood, he’ll return to human on the third sunrise. If not, he’ll be a vampire forever. Of course, we know how THAT’s gonna work out, don’t we? Using his newfound abilities, Vlad decimates every force the Sultan sends against him, essentially a one-man army against the Turks. At the same time, he must try to keep the source of his abilities – his curse, his thirst – a secret from his people, as they would surely hate him as a monster. As you can imagine, THAT goes over well, too. Needless to say, he’s eventually outed – ironically, by the same priest who told him the vampire legend earlier in the film.
Even Vlad the Awesome can’t be everywhere at once, though. After a disastrous battle in which many people are slaughtered by the Turks, Vlad’s wife lay dying and their son has been kidnapped by the Sultan. As the sun rises above them and his powers fade, Vlad’s wife begs him to drink her blood so that he can still save their son. He reluctantly complies, damning himself to be a vampire forever and freeing the ancient vampire from his cursed confinement. Vlad then raises several Transylvanian victims back to life (unlife?) as vampires and proceeds to rip the Sultan’s encampment apart to great effect. Inside the Sultan’s tent, our hero (monster?) must overcome his weakness to silver and battle the Sultan for his son’s life amidst a hundred thousand silver coins everywhere. He wins, obviously, declaring that Vlad is died that morning and now he is only Dracula.
Even in victory, there is tragedy, though. His new people – the vampires he created – want to kill the son and wage war on the human residents of Transylvania. Vlad is forced to kill his former advisor, and dejectedly parts the clouds he created to cover the sun before the battle. Now exposed to the sunlight, Dracula and the other vampires begin disintegrating into dust while the priest from before rushes his son to safety. Dying slower than the other vampires, Dracula is saved and revived by a beggar who had approached him earlier in the film (and apparently has a thing for vampires). Fade to black, and we find that the voiceover from the beginning and now again is actually the son – now ruling Transylvania and wanting to set the record straight on who his dad was and what really happened to him.
Centuries later in what appears to modern times, we see a still youthful-looking Dracula bump into a woman who looks just like his wife. They are instantly attracted to each other, and the woman introduces herself as “Mina”. As the two walk off together, the ancient vampire is seen watching and begins to follow them, stating “Let the games begin.”, which is what he said earlier when Vlad agreed to the deal.
– Casting / Acting –
It’s rare, but I had absolutely no qualms about the casting for this one. Everyone seemed to fit their characters well, and the acting was pretty good. I’ve only seen Luke Evans (Vlad/Dracula) as Bard the Bowman in the current Hobbit films, but he fits the role well. The Sultan came across as regal but still slimy, Vlad’s men came across as noble and had good “friendship” chemistry with Vlad. There was good husband/wife chemistry between Vlad and his wife, which was important to the story, and there seemed to be a good family dynamic between them and the son, unlike a lot of the cardboard family units we get in films.
Charles Dance, who plays the ancient vampire, is always a delight to watch. He only has a few minutes of screen time altogether, but he absolutely steals it when he does. I’ve been watching Dance for years, but younger viewers probably know him best as Tywin Lannister from “Game of Thrones”.
– Visual Effects –
With any modern fantasy movie, the visual effects are an extremely important component. Dracula: Untold leaves almost nothing to be desired in this category – it’s a very pretty, visually-striking film. In fact, I was reminded of 300 on several occasions. I’m sure the bad-guys being middle century Turks didn’t help. Seriously, though, the vampire powers – especially Vlad’s ability to split into a swarm of bats – was just amazingly beautiful. It was exactly like the ability you get as a Vampire Lord in Skyrim: Dawnguard, only so much better to watch.
I’m not sure where the Transylvania bits were actually filmed, but the landscape and environment was just as gorgeous as the CGI scenes.
My ONE qualm about the visual effects was when the vampires are exposed to sunlight. It’s a look similar to embers burning through paper, which is probably what they were going for, but I’ve seen it done much better on-screen. The Blade films come to mind, as does even the old TV show “Forever Knight” (which used practical effects, I believe, not CGI).
– Overall Opinion –
I liked it. The film presents Dracula in a more positive, “anti-hero” light, which seems to be a popular trend these days – presenting tried-and-true villains as tragic victims. In this case, though, it works well in my opinion. I have four categories of movie based on how often I would re-watch it:
- Won’t watch again
- Might rent and/or watch again at some point. Meh.
- Will definitely rent to watch again
- I want it in my collection. Will buy.
Like most of the movies I review on this blog, this one definitely fits in the last category.