As far as classic characters go, the Universal Monsters franchise has for the most part been madly mismanaged or outright ignored. A spooky cabal that includes the Invisible Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Universal Monsters have only intermittently been employed in recent decades. In 1999, director Stephen Sommers gave us “The Mummy,” a swashbuckling period film that seemed to start a new franchise and suggested that the monsters were on their way back… until Sommers ruined it all with “Van Helsing,” a monster mash that most certainly did not turn into a graveyard smash. Since then we’ve had a lukewarm, creatively strained “The Wolfman” remake and… not much else. But with Universal buckling down and attempting a vast, interconnected mythology along the lines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the monsters should once again flood the big screen. And the first cog in this very large and complicated machine is “Dracula Untold,” a historical epic retelling of the Dracula myth that recasts the bloodsucker as a tragic hero. It doesn’t quite work.
“Dracula Untold,” like most of the films of this ilk, starts with a voiceover (this one supposedly delivered by his grown and very British son). It runs down the historical specifics of the legend (that Dracula was a warrior known as Vlad the Impaler, who retired to quietly rule in Transylvania), before introducing the new, mightily chivalrous Prince Vlad (Luke Evans, anonymously handsome), who lives in a big castle with his comely wife Mirena (Cronenberg muse Sarah Gadon) and moppet of a son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). When Turkish brute Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) threatens to capture 1,000 of Transylvania’s youngest, most eager boys (including Vlad’s son), the prince makes a deal with the devil to protect his kingdom. Of course, this deal ultimately sees him becoming the Dracula that we know, love and hide under the sheets from.
It’s hard to think of an “origin story” for Dracula and not think about the operatic prologue to Francis Ford Coppola‘s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” It was a jaw dropping feat, but across the span of a feature length film, “Dracula Untold,” can’t match what Coppola covered in a handful of minutes. Instead, it falls back into the tired, humorless tropes of most big budget historical epics, and since it has a straight-jacket-like PG-13 rating to uphold, that means that the impressionistic violence that made something like “300: Rise of an Empire” so satisfying is nowhere to be found. Dracula might drink blood, but you see precious little of it in “Dracula Untold.”
There are moments when you can see flashes of what the filmmakers (led by first timer Gary Shore) were trying to accomplish. Consider a moment when Vlad meets with a mystic in a craggy cave. This is the story’s original vampire, played by Charles Dance, who makes the Faustian bargain that Vlad can have vampiric powers for three days. If, within those three days, he resists the urge to drink blood, he can remain a mortal. But if he feeds, he stays a vampire forever. It’s a nifty scene that flips the supposedly historical setting back into the magical land of fairy tales and the perennially underrated Dance pulls it off with aplomb. But in the press notes for the movie, it’s mentioned that Dance is actually playing Roman emperor Caligula. But this is never expressed in the movie, and could have added a layer of naughtiness to a damnably chaste exercise. Maybe this backstory was cut because Caligula doesn’t exactly scream PG-13. But some mention of what would have been an intriguing story beat would have been nice; it would have been a thematic mirror to Dracula’s plight, and would have added some spice to an otherwise largely bland experience.
And that’s the biggest problem with “Dracula Untold:” there’s nothing really there. This is a monster without a soul. It’s a supposed epic that clocks in at a swift 92 minutes. Whole subplots are alluded to in promotional materials (like the saga of a witch named Baba Yaga), but have been cut entirely from the movie, and there’s not one supporting character that makes much of an impression. Instead you have to designate characters by the length and severity of their beards (“Light Ginger,” “Dark Brown,” etc.) and try to guess their profession based on what they’re wearing. When Dracula unleashes his powers, they are visually dazzling (he commands a swarm of vampire bats that pummel the enemy troops) but are ultimately thematically and emotionally hollow. “Dracula Untold” tries to have its cake and eat it to; it’s a supposedly historically derived epic that also features clouds of psychically controlled bats. Huh.
Evans, for his part, isn’t a bad Dracula by any stretch of the imagination. For the first time in his career, he doesn’t fade into the background. He has genuine screen presence and dark features suggesting a man haunted by a past and defined by brutality. But the movie contorts itself into uneasy pretzels, trying to make Vlad the Impaler a good guy, yet even the slight amount of on-screen malevolence he commands is wasted, buried underneath layers of a half-formed script. Dracula is ultimately a character that actors love to ham up (everyone from Bela Lugosi to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman), and Evans is never given the opportunity to let it rip. He’s always subdued, contained, simmering with otherworldly anger but never allowed to fully unleash it. Dracula might be a tortured soul, damned to an eternal life defined almost exclusively by horrible levels of violence, but there’s also a gleeful component to his carnage. He’s a romantic and a psychopath and creature of the night. Sadly, “Dracula Untold,” with its humorless aura and been-there-done-that feel, doesn’t allow Evans to inhabit many of these aspects. Instead, “Dracula Untold” feels largely uninspired. [C+]