As one of the few studios in town without a viable comic-book franchise, Universal Pictures must really be feeling left out these days. Their sole property, Namor the Submariner, isn’t exactly on the fast track, and ain’t nobody else gonna throw them a bone on that front. Their trump card apparently comes in revving up the horror cycle of classic monsters that more or less perfected franchise filmmaking back in the 30s and 40s. They can give old standbys like Frankenstein’s monster a 21st century update, repackage them as romantic adventures, and watch the money roll in. Dracula Untold represents the opening salvo in this campaign: a silly and ultimately rather pointless genre exercise that survives on drive-in charm alone.
You can’t fault the film for ambition at least: presenting an origins story for the world’s most famous vampire that will presumably segue into countless sequels to come. In the process, it pillages an unseemly amount from the Francis Coppola version of Dracula, delivering a feature-length variation of what Coppola presented in the first five minutes of his film. Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) grows up as a tribute/soldier in the Ottoman Empire, slaughtering thousands and sticking them on pikes before tiring of his pike-sticking ways and returning to Transylvania to rule in peace. The Ottomans have other ideas, however, though they’ll hold off full invasion if Vlad turns his son over for the same treatment he got. Apparently, borderline genocide doesn’t preclude you from being a good dad, and Vlad refuses their admonition. But he can’t hope to stand up against the Ottoman armies, so he goes looking for a little extra help… from an ancient Thing-That-Should-Not-Be lying in a cave beneath something called Broke Tooth Mountain.
The sheer goofiness of the scenario actually becomes a selling point, since it carries enough visual interest and energy levels to at least hold our attention. You can’t take it seriously for a single instant, compounded by the fact that everyone onscreen treats it with the solemnity of Talmudic Scrolls. That’s part of the appeal, of course, and accepting the film as high-end drive-in fodder brings a certain earthy fun for those who like their entertainment undemanding. The special effects are obvious, but carry certain visceral pleasure (Drac sends every bat in Eastern Europe against the bad guys at one point), and I confess that the movie’s halting attempts at Gothic romance find something resembling a pulse here and there.
That doesn’t make it good of course. The notion of a PG-13 vampire flick goes against the laws of God and man (thanks Twilight!), and this one compounds the error by trying to present as much blood and guts as it can without crossing that nebulous line. The harsh edges are absent, lest tweeners suffer permanent damage to their delicate sensibilities. Hence, we get a field full of spear-mounted corpses, but no blood… since blood would somehow make it all worse in indefinable ways. The rest of the film carries the same wet-blanket approach: seeking passions it’s too timid to explore and violence that sends it scuttling back under its bedclothes. Serious horror fans are apt to scoff, and if you’re looking for something on the properly bloody side, you’d best keep moving to the grown-up section.
Having said that, I confess that Dracula Untold fulfills a certain niche in vampire movies, and actually makes a good way for the Twi-hards to start taking off their training wheels. It lacks the dangers and taboos of more serious efforts, but it at least gets into the neighborhood of what these kinds of stories are supposed to be, and can help wean Stephenie Meyer’s fans off of their sparkly wish-fulfillment fantasy. Faint praise perhaps, but Dracula Untold shouldn’t expect much more. At the end of the day, it just plays it too safe… and “safe” is never a word you want associated with this character.
The Blu-ray has strong audio and visual quality, along with a decent (though far from outstanding) series of extra features. The most prominent is a 20-minute doc featuring Evans going through various scenes in the film. It was likely intended for a picture-in-picture feature, but ended up tossed out in a lump. (It doesn’t offer much insight either.) A trio of shorter features do much better, covering a day on the set with Evans, a look at one of the key battle sequences and a historical primer of the Dracula legend. Six deleted scenes and a shaky alternate opening are included as well. The best bits are an interactive map with a bunch of short features included, and a nice audio commentary featuring director Gary Shore and production designer Francois Audouy.