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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Dracula Untold’ lacks bite

Published: October 17, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

I find the existence of “Dracula Untold” genuinely perplexing. Did anybody ask for this movie? According to Universal Studios, “Dracula Untold” is the first in what will be a series of modern monster movies that will eventually connect, a la the Avengers franchise. Why? By the time all these movies are released it will be well after the second Avengers, as well as several new Star Wars movies. Even the Hunger Games will be over by then.

That’s hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars over almost 10 years, all just to cash in on a specific trend. This is the second time this has been attempted, after the disastrous “Van Helsing” from 2004, which made no money and nobody liked. Well, maybe the shared “Monsterverse” is just a pipe dream, because “Dracula Untold” seems to be using the same quality of filmmaking as “Van Helsing.” At least the same bad special effects.

Anyway, this movie introduces Luke Evans as a mostly-retired Vlad the Impaler, now trying to live in peace with his pretty wife and child who can’t keep his mouth closed. One afternoon, Vlad takes a break from staring mournfully into the distance with his shirt off in order to defend his home of Transylvania from the Turks, who demand a tribute of 1,000 young boys to use as soldiers. Understanding that he needs an extra boost of power since the entirety of Transylvania fits in a single castle, he goes to a scary cave to meet an ancient vampire. Vlad gets the power he needs, as well as a deep thirst for human blood, which threatens to turn him into a monster.

So the basic idea of “Dracula Untold” is to give Dracula, arguably the most famous movie monster in history, some background in order to make him a compelling protagonist for the 21st century. It makes some sense, as the character is based on one of the most famously cruel warlords in history, and giving him vampire powers could be fun with gore and action like that of “300.” Alas, the Dracula of this film is Dracula in name only, and spends most of the movie looking sad, looking angry or as a cloud of computer-generated bats.

Beyond that, the audience is left with a hero who does not amount to much more than a walking set of muscles with sharp teeth. The always charismatic and charming Luke Evans does his best with a screenplay that is essentially a consecutive series of shaky-cam action scenes, but the lackluster direction and story cannot be broken through.

Vlad’s entire backstory and motivation is told to the audience in a near five-minute monologue at the beginning, leaving the character basically nowhere to go. And the rest of the characters barely have names, much less interesting traits or stories. Also, even if the audience hasn’t read the novels or seen the old movies, they know that once he gets his powers, Dracula is unstoppable. So when the hilariously hammy Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister for you, “Game of Thrones” fans) gives Luke Evans his blood to drink 20 minutes into the movie, it lowers the, dare I say it, stakes down to nothing. Not even Dominic Cooper, an actor I also really like, provides any sense of fun or danger as the main villain, Sultan Mehmed II, a character who wears all-gold armor and has a giant sword.

Not even the action sequences help. As I said, most of them involve Vlad/Dracula flying around as a cloud of bats, I guess biting people, while we know the character also has super-strength and speed, as well as scary dragon armor and a sword. The rare time someone shows up to help, they either immediately get killed by a villain or see Dracula get hit by the sun so his skin flies off looking like dandruff. Then, just as the story gets mildly interesting, the movie has a huge, boring action scene, and ends. Then I dashed out of the theater.

Overall “Dracula Untold” is an interesting idea that breaks both legs right out of the gate before falling on its face and down a mountain. But really now, for the launching point of a new massive and expensive franchise, it does not feel like much work went into this movie. The style has been done before and better and probably will be again. But if this is the standard for the next some-odd years of monster movies, I’d rather have the idea stay in its coffin.