Director: Gary Shore
Stars: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon
2 (out of 5) Globes
Every age gets the Dracula they deserve, so of course “Dracula Untold” goes the reboot/origin story route. Antiheroes are also popular, and so the Count, played by Luke Evans, is no longer a dashing charmer a la Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. He’s a moody brooder who, before he dove into necks aplenty, was a totally decent, peace-loving, reformed genocidal maniac, with a loving wife (Sarah Gadon) and an adorable son, who only became a vampire to save his kingdom from the evil, invading Turks.
But does this deal work for villains? “Maleficent” didn’t just humanize a baddie; it made her good. “Dracula Untold” is supposed to set the stage for the Marvel Universe-ization of the old Universal horror stable. And yet the tale is sloppy and inelegant and Evans’ Vlad the Impaler — sort of, not really, based on the real deal — never gets a moment where he’s finally turned into the icon. He’s just another vampire who happens to have a few things in common with the real deal. Even “Dracula 2000” didn’t screw up the iconography.
This doesn’t mean “Dracula Untold” is worthless, per se. It’s a muddled, tortured tale that has enough on its mind — and, occasionally, strong enough visuals — to keep it out of the gutter. Evan’s Vlad/Dracula is more conflicted hero than hero-turned-villain. He’s trying to rectify a period of happiness with the past that earned it, when he slaughtered untold thousands, impaling them on giant spikes as a way to scare others into peace. As he puts it, he became a monster to save lives.
Then the Turks, led by a psycho old friend (Dominic Cooper, lightly tanned and basically recreating his “The Devil’s Double” creep), whimsically decides to invade Transylvania. It’s only natural Vlad decides to turn monster again. This time he’ll become an actual monster. As luck would have it, there’s a local vampire (Charles Dance, with Gene Simmons tongue) willing to turn him, but only briefly, giving him all the superpowers he needs to take on an army singlehandedly. (Thousands perish throughout the film; naturally, it’s rated PG-13.) It’s more “Limitless” than Bram Stoker. But there’s a bizarre catch: Due to rules so convoluted they’d have been better off never having been explained at all, Vlad will become a bloodsucker for three days — but will stay that way forever if he actually sucks blood.
It’s a tortured way to create a character — as if there were so many script meetings with meddling producers that no one noticed how knotty the setup had become. But once that’s out of the way, the film isn’t without its pleasures. Scenes of the Extreme Vlad plowing through entire armies by himself look like video games, but the effects look decent, or at least expensive (because they are). Vlad can turns himself not into one bat but into a lot of bats, and he proceeds to bat-punch soldiers, which is un-hate-able. Other times he stands atop cliffs, conducting swarms of bats like Stokowski would an orchestra. The crimson-ochre colors are good on the eyes, especially as the filmmakers shot on 35mm and also didn’t make things darker with dumb 3-D.
Evans is a fine lead too. With “Clash of the Titans,” “Immortals” and “The Hobbit” films, he’s perfected the art of strutting around sword-and-sandal locales, burning with super-intense stares. He’s a perfect throwback badass, albeit hammy in a different way than Dance, who is in a master class all his own. He might even make a good Dracula one day.
One last thing: This is as humorless as one would expect (or even hope) from a Dracula film, and sometimes in productive ways. It takes seriously the moral complexities of its lead character, who’s the type who would have OKed the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is therefore not exactly to be trusted. (It still doesn’t know how evil to make him by the end, and ultimately proves generally incoherent.) But it could use more jokes. A bit where a Turkish emissary actually does a Columbo — complete with a finger point as he says, “Just one more thing” — seems to have been included by accident. It’s an accidental Columbo.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge