A film review by Craig J. Koban October 18, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 92 mins.


Luke Evans as Dracula (Vlad Tepes)  /  Sarah Gadon as Mirena  /  Dominic Cooper as Mehmed  /  Art Parkinson as Ingeras  /  Charles Dance as Master Vampire  /  Diarmaid Murtagh as Dimitru  /  Paul Kaye as Brother Lucian  /  William Houston as Cazan  /  Noah Huntley as Captain Petru  /  Ronan Vibert as Simion

Directed by Gary Shore  /  Written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless

At this point in my life, films about vampires have to work some serious overtime to get me invested in them.  There have been so many innumerable adaptations and interpretations of Bram Stoker’s iconic literary creation over the last century that I’ve nearly lost my – ahem! – thirst for any new film that wishes to re-imagine the most infamous undead bloodsucker in history.  

The central problem, I guess, with DRACULA: UNTOLD is that it faces the very daunting creative challenge of making the titular character seem fresh and invigorating again.  Trying to find some sort of intriguing angle to such a celebrated figure can really backfire (see I, FRANKENSTEIN from earlier this year…shivers), but DRACULA: UNTOLD deserves some modest points for originality.  However, this better-than-expected vampire-central film still has its share of issues. 

Much akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s critically acclaimed 1992 film of Stoker’s novel, DRACULA: UNTOLD tries to marry actual history and the source material’s origins into one cohesive whole.  The film chronicles Vlad the Impaler and his war against the Ottoman Empire and his almost super hero-like origin of being transformed into the nosferatu that we all know.  Even though there are sprinkles of Stoker’s iconography throughout DRACULA: UNTOLD, the resulting film has more affinity to the comic book genre than the horror one, which is not entirely a bad thing if one is aiming for innovation here.  For at least half of the picture, DRACULA: UNTOLD does a surprisingly decent job at world and mythology building in the way it establishes the particulars of its characters and how Vlad makes the eerie transformation into his eternally doomed monster.  Unfortunately, at a too-brisk-for-its-own-good 90-plus minutes, the film feels like its rushing itself to a hastily cobbled together conclusion that seems more interested in establishing a franchise and sequels than with telling a self-contained story.  Sigh. 



At least the film casts the uniformly solid Luke Evans in the lead, whom gives Dracula a gnarly intensity – and an undercurrent of self-doubt and sadness – that the role requires.  The film begins by introducing us to Vlad Tepes, who spent a majority of his childhood training and serving in the Turkish army.  Flashforward to the present and Vlad has been given the opportunity to return to his Transylvanian home after a prolonged series of horrific war campaigns.  Just as he’s re-acquaints himself with his wife (Sarah Gadon), Prince Vlad is confronted by Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), the sultan of Turkey that has decided that he wants something more from Vlad than his typical monetary tribute to keep the peace…he wants 1000 boys (including Vlad’s son) to train for his army.  

Well, Vlad will not have any of this and opts to go to war head-on with Mehmed, but his troop numbers are small and mostly ill prepared for the battles to come.  As a result of his desperation, Vlad decides to seek out a supernatural creature that he has come in contact with before (Charles Dance, positively radiating sinister creepiness here) and asks him for help.  The vampire makes Vlad a deal: he will impart on him all of his powers to help him with defeating the Turks…but at, yes, the cost of his soul and humanity.  Seeing no other way out, Vlad agrees and does indeed become a creature of the night with all of the obligatory vampire powers in tow (as well as a host of new ones).  After a series of swift and stunning victories that Vlad single-handledly wins all on his own versus the Turkish army, his people back home learn of his new abilities and systematically turn on him, making Vlad’s desire for “peace” all the more difficult to attain. 

On a pure visual level, DRACULA: UNTOLD looks stellar, especially with some of its old school aesthetic flourishes of utilizing matte paintings and other techniques to add visual dynamism to the location shooting.  The film is suitably dark, dreary, and ominous throughout, and director Gary Shore (making his feature film debut) seems to have a knack for crafting the world of DRACULA: UNTOLD with just the right balance of historical detail and supernatural wonderment (he also shows remarkable restraint and tact for not making or upconverting the film for 3D, which would have made the film’s already murky palette all but indecipherable otherwise).  DRACULA: UNTOLD suffers a bit from its limp PG-13 rating (vampire films need to be hard R), but Shore gets considerable mileage out of his tamer rating in terms of pushing the boundaries of blood and mayhem that's usually acceptable under a PG-13 moniker.  DRACULA: UNTOLD may be one of the more violent PG-13 films I’ve seen. 

Shore has fun as well with envisioning the epically staged battle sequences, especially when the full lethality of Vlad’s newly acquired powers come to the forefront (for example, he can turn himself into a flying bat battalion or, when compelled to, mentally control thousands of other bats and then morph them into impossibly large missiles on the battlefield, destroying thousands of soldiers in the process…coooool).  The CGI used here is seamlessly integrated into the action, and never feels obtrusively showboaty.  There are times, though, when Shore does make the mistake of over-editing sequences to the point of inducing headaches, a mournful trait that has befallen far too many new action-oriented directors these days.  Keep…the…camera…still! 

Most of the cast is game here, especially the aforementioned Evans and Dance, the former of which does a good job of carrying the mantle of a character that carries with it over a hundred years of literary and cinematic baggage; Evans does what he can to make it his own and doesn’t look back.  Every scene involving Dance’s mountain cave dwelling creature gives DRACULA: UNTOLD a much-needed jolt of frightening intensity.  Too many of the other characters, though, are kind of marginalized by the film’s scant running time, like Vlad’s wife and, in particular, the character of Mehmed, who is never developed as a satisfactory adversary throughout the film.  Cooper also seems laughably miscast as a Turk in the film; he appears ill at ease in most scenes, which only robs the film of the menace that his character is supposed to be building. 

There are other things that DRACULA: UNTOLD glosses over, like the whole past mass murdering exploits of Vlad, which are more of an afterthought in the film that’s lazily discarded when the script requires it.  Still, there’s much to admire in this myth-busting, but somewhat Stoker-faithful vampire mishmash.  I guess that I would aptly define DRACULA: UNTOLD as an admirable misfire.  The film takes great relish in attempting to re-imagine a 19th Century character for 21st Century consumption.  In the end, I just wanted to see this new Dracula film universe fleshed out a bit more.  There are strong concepts here for the making of a grand vampire action thriller, which makes it all the more disappointing that DRACULA: UNTOLD rushes out of the gate and doesn’t patiently let them simmer more. 

  H O M E