In his newest incarnation, “Dracula Untold,” Dracula returns to haunt mankind with the worst plague of all: mediocrity.
But this time, our dear vampire isn’t evil. He’s just misunderstood. The movie focuses more on the “untold” story of historical figure Vlad the Impaler rather than that of Bram Stoker’s original novel. It tries to give a more accurate historical perspective and to align the audience with a figure who killed thousands and was known for enjoying torture. But here, he did it for peace, so that’s okay.
This movie clearly comes from a set of filmmakers who absolutely love “Game of Thrones” and Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. This is apparent in the script, the casting, the set design, and the music. But it is just as clear that these filmmakers do not understand what made the previous franchises successful. “Dracula Untold” is a soulless recreation rather than an acceptable addition to the gritty fantasy canon. It cannot tell an epic in 90 minutes, and so, in the first act, it hurls scene after scene of exposition to the audience. We are given a lackluster mythology and a couple doses of promising political diplomacy (soon cast aside in favor of battle sequences) and no character to actually care about. We are told everything, never shown, and so we have no reason to be invested in any of these characters. We have no motivation to align with poor Vlad or to care when any of his indistinguishable friends die.
Not that the script helps. The dialogue is atrocious and filled with one-liners and jokes that movies like “Lord of the Rings” could only sparingly earn after hours with their characters. Here, the lines are undeserved and overused. Dracula, even as he becomes the inhuman monster, is the only character to act even remotely like a real person.
This is Gary Shore’s directorial debut, and it shows. His pacing is uneven, the performances he draws from a stellar cast are deeply disappointing, and many of the more important dialogue sequences are strangely constructed But he clearly cares, and he certainly has fun with the epic scale of the special effects. Who wouldn’t enjoy an army of bats forming a fist and collectively punching the ground?
But he’s caught by the limitations of the story. Shore relies on typical fantasy clichés (but refreshingly, few vampire ones), and there’s hardly an original element in the film. The major exceptions are the action sequences, which aren’t consistent, but at least they offer something different. There’s one shot where we can only see Vlad’s wrath through a sword’s reflection, and there may be more inspiration in that one moment than anything else in the film. It’s one of the rare instances in which the film successfully balances camp and cool.
Luke Evans, who is fresh off the set of the “Hobbit” trilogy, offers a unique take on Dracula. He isn’t Christopher Lee, or Gary Oldman, or any other Dracula, really. He plays a monster overcome by pain, a tragic figure who will do whatever it takes to save his family. He’s another Walter White clone. And, somehow, that’s astoundingly boring. “Dracula Untold” is the spiritual sibling to “Maleficent” (another soulless reexamination of a villain from this year), except Evans isn’t deliciously sinister like Angelina Jolie was. That isn’t entirely his fault. Evans surely tries, but there is little his role allows him to do.
The same is true of the ensemble. Sarah Gadon does her best in the “I’m the important love interest” role, but she has even less to work with than Evans. Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister of “Game of Thrones”) plays Caligula (yes, that Caligula) in a role that should be perfect for him to play the ham but winds up mostly disappointing.
Dominic Cooper has more fun as Mehmed II, the film’s true antagonist. The script tries to foster a Moses/Ramses angle between him and Dracula, but then the script over exerts itself and gives up. The talented Samantha Barks (from “Les Mis,” of all places) plays a character with no lines. She summarizes everything about this film: everything with potential is wasted.
Ramin Djawadi, famous for his “Game of Thrones” score, was somehow roped in to compose the score of “Dracula Untold.” I’m usually a big fan of Djawadi, but this sounded more like a weak imitation of the composer than the man himself. I blame the lack of inspiration. Djwadi does little more than go into “brooding mode” here, and he is at his best when he can play with several motifs and emotions at once.
This is a “Dracula” that doesn’t get the appeal of Dracula. No one is ever scary in this movie. It’s so stuck on getting us to sympathize with its protagonist that it’s afraid to make Dracula evil. We’re promised a monster and instead we get a man who consistently exacts rightful vengeance. And that isn’t as engaging as watching a “good” man consumed by darkness.
“Dracula Untold” takes itself too seriously to be much fun. It’s too decent and cares too much to be entertainingly awful as “Maleficent” was. It tries to balance camp and gritty and ultimately fails at both. It’s not great, it’s not terrible, it’s just there. That’s the true tragedy of “Dracula Untold.”