By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Try as Dracula Untold might, this film does not endeavour to be historically accurate in every detail about how Vlad Dracul the Prince (played by a daunting Luke Evans) saves his people from Turkish rule. There are little nods to recall how he was raised by them to become a brutal soldier and how he earned his reputation (to which he’d become known as the Impaler, hence Țepeș) but a lot of that origin is quickly marginalized than expounded upon.
The reason about to why he was fearsome is missed in favour for a PG-13 rating to show why he was much-loved. When he returns home to Wallachia, he gets warmly embraced as this country’s lost son. All he wants to do for much of the film is to protect them from a darker world at large. He’s experienced a lot of horror and he does not wish to share that. When the Ottoman’s demands are ill met, war and rebellion is inevitable. This movie shows him reverting to his old ways.
As for what’s lurking deep in this man’s soul, that’s symbolized by the secrets that Broken Tooth Mountain hides. Director Gary Shore does a great job in guiding the film in that direction. The only issue is with him recreating a familiar atmosphere that some may recognize from previous Universal Monster movies. There’s shades of The Mummy (1999) narrative here. Imhotep, before he became the monster, fiercely loved Anck-su-Namun and her death was not the only reason he became the beast. In The Wolfman (2010), Lawrence Talbot has to deal with how to placate dreaded family legacies, but not even he can save himself from the feral creature that laid in his soul.
For Vlad, there’s a dark and ancient creature known as Caligula (solemnly played by Charles Dance) he has to embrace if he’s to save his people. But this character is from another world. Details went by too quick to outline his origins, and that greater world of darkness that’s to come may well be saved for another film when Vlad finally embraces his dark legacy. Both these characters are meant to be reviled and feared, but none of that truly gets played up for this film.
“Men fear monsters,“ Vlad tells Caligula. But in how this young man was raised by the people he now despises, he tells this “master” that the world needs monsters to maintain a weird sense of balance to all the injustice that can happen. This particular story has a lot of bloody good essence for audiences to suck up, but sadly, that’s not the focus.
There is some humanity left in Vlad that needs to be explored. This film spends more time slowly showing how he deeply he cares for maintaining his people’s soverignity. But it’s his love for his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and child Ingeras (Art Parkinson) that under-shadows what he must do if he is to keep them safe.
To see how he has to deal with the sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) is not as extravagant as some may hope. This character is sadly underutilized and there’s more to him than meets the eye. Historically, even though he’s regarded as a tyrant, he brought urbanization to part of the Eastern European world. These details are unimportant to the film, but when showing how similar he is to Vlad, there’s a lot missing that could have made for interesting comparisons or juxtapositions.
That also includes one historical fact that’s sadly not even used. In the film, Mehmed considers Vlad a brother-in-arms but in the actual history, Radu (Vlad’s younger sibling) was the one who befriended the Sultan and be the favoured son to this aristocracy. Although Vlad was allowed to return to rule, Radu lived in luxury and changed sides. Had this subplot been included, this film could have been all the better in showing how Vlad gets betrayed and seeks vengeance.
Instead, all this movies does is to show what he gave up to become a dreaded vampire. There’s a bit of a Christian allegory going on, but it’s too buried in muddied plot. One troubling detail is with a sanitized version of how impaling works (instead of from the buttocks, the victims are skewered). Also, the story layers do not peel apart all that well to lead into any version of Bram Stoker’s work or what the Dracula legacy meant. Back in 1993, Topps Comics published Dracula: Vlad the Impaler that was written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Esteban Maroto. This three issue series excellently looked at the boy’s time with the Ottomons and morbidly saw how he grew up to be the dark lord. It’s a shame the producers did not look back at the decades worth of material previously written to see what can work than to craft a tale that’s more about the rise of an anti-hero.
As an action-adventure film, this movie is fine. As a piece of historical fiction, there’s not much to like since important points are marginalized if not missed.
But to wonder where this movie belongs in the reboot of the Universal Classic Monsters, this film does leave viewers yearning for more. Just how this saga can work will really depend on Universal Studios not dragging their feet in getting the needed creature features out in time so the monster mash-up will happen. The Mummy is the next film to be made. And after placing Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman in a contemporary setting, if that’s the plan, will indicate the end of phase one. Phase two will depend if the Invisible Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are needed or not.
3 Stars out of 5