Dracula Untold: Attractive, Lifeless, and Soulless … Also there are Vampires

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I was struggling to come up with a word that best described the 92 minutes of Dracula Untold, something that captured the essence of the film. Finally as the credits rolled, I came up with “pointless” and decided that was a good start.

This movie is pointless. Don’t go see it.

I’m not saying it’s bad, large sections of this film are great from a purely technical perspective. The digital effects are good and the film’s cinematography is downright excellent. The very first time we meet the vampires of Transylvania, we’re treated to a fantastic sequence of shadowy monsters who live in a cave literally filled with bones. It’s amazingly well shot and a chilling moment in an otherwise emotionless film. The writing isn’t too bad either and despite the fact that it’s full of cliches and it’s schlocky (schlocky good not schlocky bad), it holds together pretty well.

The acting is terrible but that’s never an obstacle to a fun time at the multiplex. Luke Evans is a giant block of wood with six pack abs and that’s okay because brooding in front of green screen is what he does best (it worked for him in the Hobbit). Dominic Cooper struggles to be menacing and sexy at the same time but ultimately ends up looking like a glam rock King Arthur, I genuinely expected him to start strumming Poison songs on a Stratocaster at one point. Also, I don’t know who decided he could play a Turkish sultan but I am going to assume that casting decisions like this are why ISIS and Al Qaeda hate us. I have never heard of Sarah Gadon before this movie and since her main contribution to the cast was crying, screaming, and begging her husband not to do various kinds of stuff, I doubt I’ll need to remember her very long.

The only good performance is from Charles Dance who is utterly astounding! Dance is pure darkness and menace as the demonic elder vampire who grants Dracula his powers and easily acts circles around Luke Evans. He is only in the film for about five minutes and steals the movie like it owes him money. I think Dance was hoping someone was going to one day come to their senses and make a book accurate Dracula film and if they do, this will be his audition tape. It frustrates me that this is a Dracula movie and the wrong friggin’ guy is playing Dracula. He is the only good part of the cast and, I suspect, the only good thing in the Hollywood if people keep making movies like this.

All in all, not exactly elite level acting in this movie but as I said before, bad acting isn’t the main issue. The problems of Dracula Untold are deeper and more fundamental than something as simple to fix as shoddy technique or performance talent. Only three things ruined this movie and they’re all “back office” mistakes, originating with the mindless corporate drones who operate Universal’s film division.

First, this is a prequel. There is nothing worse than a prequel. Prequels make Movie Jesus played by Jim Caviezel cry. In 1999, everybody was super excited for the Phantom Menace because we genuinely thought “more Star Wars is better”. Then fans learned a terrible truth: a prequel is a story where we already know the ending and everything other than that Ending feels like stupid filler. This same fundamental truth applies to the story of Dracula. That story was released in 1897 and it was already pretty fantastic. The “Untold” parts of Dracula are untold for a reason…because they are dumb. Bram Stoker left Dracula mysterious because telling us about his wife and kids added nothing to the original story. We didn’t need to know then, we don’t need to know now.

Second, it’s a soulless cash grab. Like, “Walking Dead Zombies at Fashion Week with Paris Hilton” level Soulless. Shortly after everyone in Hollywood saw the Avengers, executives realized that releasing a big budget movie with a good story and a great cast was the ticket to pure profit. No, sorry, that’s wrong. They saw that Marvel had a shared universe story and thought “got to get me one of those, even to the point of stupidity.”

Dracula Untold is rumored to be the first film in Universal’s latest stupid idea, and it will be stupid because this is a movie company that released two movies based on board games (Note: I will not review Ouija, you can’t make me, Tom). The next film in the series will be the Mummy, then Frankenstein, another Wolfman, etc.

When I first heard this plan, my initial reaction was positive. “More monster movies is a good thing, right? After years of inane found footage ghost stories and slasher movies, anything else HAS to be good, right?” Wrong. Universal execs are using my beloved classic monsters to make a joyless attempt at sucking more wallet fruit from a public already weary of movies without any fun, so this new series of films is gonna be excruciating.

Finally, the worst offense of all is that this is not a horror movie, it’s a super hero movie. That’s the part that truly stings.

There’s a rich tradition of cinematic vampires stretching back to the film Nosferatu and for decades we’ve been chilled to the core by a species of undead beast that sucks the blood of the living and makes us tremble on cold winter nights. I assumed that even post-Twilight and True Blood, at least Dracula himself would remain sacred. But now I’m forced to believe that Universal Pictures, the people who helped invent the horror movie, are turning their backs on the monsters of legend so they can turn everybody into a hero with a cape.

To prime this pump, they tried to mix literary Dracula with real life Dracula and once I realized that, my eyes almost rolled out of my head. Bram Stoker had a very slight interest in the historical Dracula, he only took the prince’s patronym for the title of the book and main character, surprisingly very little about the actual Dracula made it’s way into the fictional Dracula. Some people now believe that Dracula’s most direct inspiration was probably Sir Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the Victorian stage and Stoker’s former boss at the Lyceum Theater.

Don’t get me wrong, making a movie about the historical Dracula is a rich gold mine of epic drama. Vladimir Tepes Dracula was an unsung hero of European history and a folk hero to the people of Romania and Bulgaria. In June of 1462, 70,000 Turks crossed the Danube with a desire to turn Western Europe into an Ottoman fiefdom. In their desperation, the Pope and the kingdoms of Western Christendom turned to a man future generations named “The Impaler” to save their lands from invasion. Vlad answered the call and organized a small army to face down Sultan Mehmed II and his army of Janissaries. The campaign wasn’t quite as successful as Romanian folklore would have us believe but the mighty Prince of Wallachia won several key victories and the Turks never did manage to invade Western Europe.

And what thank you did Vlad receive for his service to history and his country? Was he exalted? Worshiped? Honored? Actually he was overthrown and murdered by a group of traitorous boyars, including his own brother Radu, who accepted Turkish gold in exchange for poor Vlad’s head. To dig the knife a little deeper, Vlad the Impaler’s nom-de-guerre “Dracula” has become synonymous with undead evil and his contributions to history were ignored.

Make no mistake, if Universal had made that movie, I would be a lot happier.

But they didn’t, they tried to make a historical vampire movie based on iffy facts to jump start a movie franchise and in doing so they forgot to actually include Dracula in their Dracula movie. I’m dead serious, neither the historical anti-hero Dracula nor the slavering undead beast Dracula actually show up in this film and instead we get a wimpy, Americanized superman who can fly and is super strong and broods over the loss of his dear Mirena (the historical Dracula’s wife was named Ilona, FYI). At every moment, I waited to see Dracula transform into the monster of legend or at the very least make the tough moral choices of the historical prince who waged a cruel war against the Turks. None of that ever happened and in the closing moments of the film, at the instant when we were supposed to see Dracula become the villain from the book…we get a sequence I can only assume was ghost written by Stephanie Meyer.

If you’re looking for a spooky thrill this Halloween season, I recommend Horror of Dracula starring the mighty Christopher Lee or perhaps a viewing of the original Todd Browning Dracula starring the tremendous Bela Lugosi. If you go see this film to see a Dracula movie you will leave disappointed.

Dracula Untold…should have stayed that way.

 

Daniel Monaco