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Dracula Untold | Review

Dracula Untold PosterPlay It Again, Vlad: Shiner’s Debut Attempts to Reboot Legendary Monster

It’s a bit hard on the undead when you shackle their malevolent natures into the censorship of the PG-13 vehicle, one of many reasons that Gary Shiner’s directorial debut, Dracula Untold, doesn’t quite fly right. Another attempt to reboot its slim grab bag of classic movie monsters, Universal at least manages to buoy this bastardization with a decent budget, though its nonsensical narrative isn’t much better than the stench of I, Frankenstein. Cinema’s greatest villains are being replaced by hunky, B-grade actors (sorry to lump you in there Aaron Eckhart) that now have to compete with the action extravaganzas of the Marvel glut at the box office, and until that ever ends, all these reboots can do is reflect what they are—pale, lifeless, inferior copies of the original material they keep recycling.

In 15th century Transylvania, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) has settled his once chaotic kingdom of Wallachia into one of peace, aided by his marriage to a lovely young wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon). Focusing all his energy into being a good father to their son, they’re disrupted by the Ottoman Turk leader, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), who demands that Wallachia give up one thousand of its male children to fight his latest war. While Vlad has a sterling reputation as a soldier, his kingdom does not have the military presence to defeat the sultan. When Mehmed comes to claim Vlad’s son, he defies the Turks and flees to Broken Toothed Mountain, where he knows an undead creature (Charles Dance) lives stuck in a cave. Vlad strikes a deal with the creature, who is also in need of quid pro quo situation. The vampire will make Vlad undead, but the effects will last only three days, granting him the power he will need to defeat the Turks. However, if Vlad gives into the thirst and drinks human blood within those three days he will remain undead and the creature will now have cause to leave the cave, as his curse will have been lifted.

The days of original and effectively menacing mainstream American horror films are long gone, replaced with the gloss of CGI and neutered violence. To be fair, the initial set-up of Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama (making their screenwriting debut) isn’t all that bad considering the fact that we’re still pillaging Bram Stoker’s original text. In effect, a prequel to what transpires with Jonathan Harker’s visit to Transylvania, we get the origins of Vlad the Impaler, a Transylvanian that had been raised by the Turks, but is now faced against. As these American films often go, everyone speaks great English and has great teeth, the Transylvanians perhaps a bit more white than many of the Turkish counterparts.

This is all serviceable, including an effectively creepy Charles Dance as the Master Vampire stuck in his remote cave (a spin off the same one Neil Jordan utilizes in Babylon), but, not surprisingly, things start to fall apart real soon, mostly thanks to the painstakingly serious Luke Evans, who gets to spout all kinds of noble statements, even shouting them from staircases to motivate his people.

An over-the-top Dominic Cooper doesn’t help the unintentional comedy, sporting eye-liner and vague accent to highlight his Turkishness. Despite some well shot battle sequences, we eventually have to return to these characters speaking to one another, which becomes harder to bear as the inevitable narrative moves forward. Canadian actress Sarah Gadon can’t quite convey what has the Cronenbergs so fascinated with her, victim to an equal amount of leaden passages that could easily have been administered by a blithesome doll.

One can’t deny that there’s an immortal allure to Bram Stoker’s original novel, adapted too many times to count, reconstituted at will for decades now. While Tod Browning’s original rendition may have its faults, it also had an iconic Bela Lugosi. Likewise, Coppola’s version had some major liabilities (Ryder, Reeves), but it also had an unforgettable Gary Oldman.

Neither Luke Evans nor his action star physique has the prowess to make Dracula Untold anything more than a series of pretty but empty headed action sequences. There’s no danger or menace to Shiner’s film, who attempts to rile us up with the tale of man who’s going to sell his soul but is never presented as having one in the first place. While its title will open it up to a countless number of snarky comments, perhaps now that we’ve reached the Untold region we don’t have to march on into the Retold territory.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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