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“DRACULA UNTOLD” (Movie Review)

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Perhaps I’m just grading on a curve here, but after being Frankly Underwhelmed by certain revisionist monster movies of the last several years, DRACULA UNTOLD struck me as a reasonably good time—as long as you expect a fantasy/actioner and not a horror movie.

That change in emphasis is tied to the film’s reimagining of the legendary vampire in a more positive light, as a man who comes by his blood thirst as part of a Faustian bargain with noble motivations. The stylish prologue (of the sort seen in every flick of this type, but well-wrought nonetheless) does acknowledge Transylvanian prince Vlad as the Impaler of countless enemies, but lets us know that he felt bad about it, and renounced his violent ways to bring 10 years of peace to his subjects. As seen on the verge of celebrating that decade, Vlad (Luke Evans) is a brave warrior, a just ruler and a hunka man with a beautiful blonde wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and a spirited young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson).

Unfortunately, clouds (and not just the computer-generated stormy kind) are gathering on his horizon. The banquet in Vlad’s Great Hall is invaded by emissaries of Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), who demand that 1,000 Transylvanian boys, plus Ingeras, be turned over to be trained as fighters in the sultan’s army. Having gone through this grueling experience himself and renounced the vicious tendencies it instilled in him, Vlad defies the order in the most blunt and brutal way possible and, knowing the Transylvanians are no match for the Turkish forces, decides to make a deal with a particular devil he has discovered, and barely escaped, in a nearby mountain cave.

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It is here that DRACULA UNTOLD makes one of its occasional stabs into horror territory, as Vlad seals his pact with a Master Vampire played with gloating relish by Charles Dance, under wicked-looking prosthetics by Mark Coulier. In Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ screenplay, however, our hero’s descent into the dark side isn’t necessarily absolute; there are terms and conditions and provisos, with Vlad’s humanity hanging in the balance. Of course, we all know how he’s going to wind up, so there’s not much suspense as to whether he’ll succumb; the drama lies in what’s at stake, so to speak. Here, DRACULA UNTOLD is a little more successful at injecting a bit of humanity than many similar FX spectacles, as Vlad’s devotion to his family and people feels genuine, and there’s a certain amount of chemistry and heat between Evans and Gadon.

Evans also makes for a convincing warrior and tormented soul, and serves as a solid center for a movie that’s a little soft around the edges. It’s not as if director Gary Shore and co. have noticeably pulled punches to win the film its PG-13—there’s more bloodshed and mayhem on view here than in the R-rated ANNABELLE—but the movie resolutely avoids making its titular figure a monster, even though a century and change of literature and cinema have established him as one. Thus, he expends his newfound powers (including the ability to transform into a swarm of bats, which must have meshed better on paper with the otherwise realistic, gritty approach than it does on film) in the service of dispatching hordes of enemies instead of preying on innocent victims, and DRACULA UNTOLD becomes the latest example of screen revisionism that attempts to transform a classic villain into a good guy (or gal).

As such, it’s more tolerable than this past summer’s MALEFICENT, as it varies from its forebears instead of directly contradicting them, and it’s swifter too, at just 92 minutes. With that pace, though, comes the loss of a narrative complexity that apparently once encompassed other figures of historical fact and fiction; Samantha Barks was reported as incarnating the witch Baba Yaga and Dance’s character was supposed to be the emperor Caligula himself, but there are no traces of either in the final release version. Perhaps Shore and his producers wanted to streamline DRACULA UNTOLD down to the core story of Vlad protecting his family at all costs, even that of his soul, and as such, it has a decent emotional bite that somewhat makes up for the lack of physical ones. Yet they might also have done well to eliminate the epilogue, which makes too explicit the movie’s status as an intended franchise-starter.

2.5_skull

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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