MOVIE REVIEW: DRACULA UNTOLD / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GARY SHORE / SCREENPLAY: MATT SAZAMA, BURK SHARPLESS / STARRING: LUKE EVANS, DOMINIC COOPER, SARAH GADON, CHARLES DANCE / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 3RD
With the seemingly infinite variations of the Dracula mythos available in movies, TV, books, and comics what mysteries could possibly lurk in this latest retelling to warrant the label "Untold"?
Not many, as it turns out, however this self-assured remix of the original neck-biter combines elements of back story from the classic Bram Stoker's Dracula, with those of his supposed inspiration; Vlad Tepes (aka "The Impaler"), with the added wrinkle that this Vlad had a much nobler purpose in mind when it comes to becoming a creature of the night.
In this version of the legend, Vlad, Prince of Transylvania, is a former child soldier, one of a thousand Transylvanian children stolen from their homes and pressed into the service of the all-conquering Turkish army. Having reluctantly earned his "Impaler" moniker fighting for the Turks, the Prince has since retired to tend to his family and people in peace, at least until the Turks come once again for the sons of Transylvania, including his own.
With no chance of defeating the Turkish hordes with his meagre army, Vlad is forced to turn to an unnatural presence in "Broken Tooth mountain" to strike up a Faustian bargain to protect his people.
The initial ludicrousness of casting Dracula as a hero and reluctant monster quickly wears off and ends up working beautifully, thanks to the handling of the story and Luke Evans (and Charles Dance's) performances. As with so many other vampire stories before it, Dracula Untold appears to cherry pick the elements of the legend it wishes to use, leaving out many of the story's more familiar components and seeming wholly revisionist, until a well known aspect suddenly crops up unexpectedly, usually accompanied by a grin of recognition on the audience's faces. A non-spoiler example would be that Vlad's wife is definitely not called Mina, and yet that name still manages to finagle its way into the story later on.
The other main twist in the tale is that Dracula's vampirism has an older, darker origin; and while he has been blessed with all the strengths of a vampire to save his people, he has not yet doomed his soul and still has a chance to regain his humanity if he can resist a terrible temptation.
Evans sells this anguish well, dancing between moments of strength, darkness, hunger and fear of the very people he wishes to protect, lest they discover what he a has become. In a relatively minor role, Charles Dance funnels all the menace of Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones into a much more sinister form, and Sarah Gadon, while initially weak as Vlad's wife, is given much more to do in the later stages of the film.
Opposing Dracula as head of the Turkish army Dominic Cooper's Mehmed II provides a worthy adversary, with enough care having gone into the script to give him the intelligence to come up a few effective ways to counteract the Prince's new powers, rather than just be a one-note villain.
The rest of the supporting cast do not fare so well. Vlad's compatriots are mostly made up of interchangeable beards (wise-beard, overly-protective-beard, dies-in-first-act-beard), and while the Turks are more distinguishable from each other visually, there is little character behind them. A blond, sneering, plaited henchman that recurs throughout the film is given little character past his name in the credits: "Bright Eyes".
These are but minor quibbles, as adding more moments for these characters would have added to the films brisk 92 minutes, the perfect amount of time to dabble in the vampire playground, throw up a few surprises here and there and keep the audience from becoming bored.
A confident first feature from commercials director Gary Shore, he handles his story, actors and effects well although some fight scenes are a bit blurry in IMAX, but that is difficult to avoid. The inventiveness of the reveal of Dracula's new powers also bodes well for future projects.
Dracula Untold does a far better job reinventing a classic villain as a hero than both the recent Maleficent and the plodding I, Frankenstein. The sequel hinted to at the end of the film, along with references to a "game" with another, as yet unrevealed, immortal will be most welcome if Shore and team can continue to reinvigorate legends in such an enjoyable way.
Expected Rating: 4 out of 10