Since that fateful day back in the late 1890s when Bram Stoker first introduced the world to Count Dracula, the vampiric vessel of villainy has grown to become one of filmdom’s most frequently filmed (or even referenced) characters. In fact, he has been around for so long, that it’s hard to imagine a world without him! And despite the fact that he has been killed off time and time again, he has always managed to return in usually unrelated films or franchises. In some instances, he re-emerged under a new name, such as Nosferatu, Alucard, Leighos, Drake, or Orlok (the latter of which hailing from a copyright infringement suit that didn’t quite succeed in its initial plight). Heck, Dracula has even re-appeared with a different ethnicity in some cases!
For the most part, however, that legendary undead prince of darkness who never drinks… wine and has a fond admiration for the music his children of the night make has remained a Transylvanian in good standing. Most of his movies, on the other hand, have blown pretty hard. And while I have most assuredly not seen every single one said films (I question the very validity – to say nothing of the possibility – of a truly complete, comprehensive list being created for one interested in partaking such a daunting task), I can say that I have seen a majority of the important (or at least “notable”) inclusions to the cinematic legacy of the world’s best-known fictional bloodsucker.
Naturally, that list includes several Christopher Lee outings such as Horror of Dracula and Count Dracula, many of the classic Universal horror films (even the 1979 remake), and – of course – both incarnations of Nosferatu. Heck, I even like the delightfully absurd Paul Naschy film Count Dracula’s Great Love, and some of the better made parodies such as the ’70s blaxploitation masterpiece Blacula and Mel Brooks’ spot-on spoof of the original Bela Lugosi classic, Dracula: Dead and Loving It! There are even a couple of movies I fear that a lot of people will stick their noses up at, one being Dracula 2000, which offered up a surprisingly unique spin on a long-dead (pun intended) subject during a memorable finale to an otherwise forgettable flick.
The second title is one I myself didn’t even think I would include on my own list: 2014’s Dracula Untold. When I first saw the trailer in the theaters, I was hit with the all too familiar feeling of “Oh, dear” that I usually experience when I witness one of today’s formulaic, paint-by-numbers previews. It was presented complete with a darker, edgier, female-voiced cover of an older (better) song, which has already been done too many times. Go ahead, compare the trailer for Dracula Untold to A Walk Among the Tombstones and Terminator: Genisys. I dare you. And when the Blu-ray of Dracula Untold showed up on my doorstep, I must confess that more than part of me was fully prepared to sit and suffer through more of the same ol’ thing.
Sure enough, the first couple of minutes sold me on the fact that Dracula Untold was a pretty routine film. Even the Amazing Criswell would be able to predict most of the twists and turns in this, a film that I’m fairly certain nobody really asked for in the first place, held in store for its audience. And some of the actors – to say nothing of dialogue and hairstyles – are clearly out of place (if not just plain bad, in some instances). But then, right before I was ready to start tallying up the intelligence quota points I was sure to lose sitting through the film, something seemed to strike a chord. It was as if the filmmakers had found their instruments after the performance had already started, but not late enough to ruin the entire show.
And I’m positive a lot of my surprise can be attributed to the European origins of the film. Though the project was initially supposed to be an American-made one to be shot in Australia (!), several years of pre-production hell resulted in the film being made in Europe by Europeans. You know, Europe: as in “Transylvania, Romania” Europe? Secondly, although the title is technically (now) a reboot of the classic Universal series, it wasn’t really one to begin with – which made it possible to not fall into the same pit of despair as the studio’s previous attempts to revive their various monsters (see: The Mummy, Van Helsing, The Wolfman, and all of their various, respectively bad spin-offs such as the god-awful Scorpion King franchise).
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Dracula Untold actually lives up to the Untold part of its title: mixing tidbits of actual history (which, as any fan of Eddie Izzard knows, comes from Europe) with Bram Stoker’s fiction. Usually, the whole part about Vlad Tepes the Impaler is reserved solely for a pre-credit sequence (Francis Ford Coppola’s horrendously pretentious film comes, sadly, to mind). Here, however, first time screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (you can’t make a name like that up, trust me) and Irish director Gary Shore (making his feature film debut) manage to keep things surprisingly fresh (and fun) as they reinvent the Dracula mythology to suit their own (and Universal’s) needs.
Here, Luke Evans (whose filmography mostly consists of movies I have never bothered watching) portrays a rather dignified Vlad (minus the ‘stache, so as to not make our hero look like a bloody hipster, no doubt), the well-respected and esteemed Transylvanian Prince whose country has enjoyed a brief period of peace following a war with the war-happy Turks. Alas, those darn Ottoman Empire miscreants (led by a suspiciously contemporary-looking Dominic Cooper, whom I have seen in more movies than I would really care to) are soon up to their old tricks again, and ask for a thousand adolescent males to train as warriors – including that of Vlad’s own heir, Ingeras (former Game of Thrones co-star Art Parkinson).
With the lives of his countrymen, his wife (Sarah Gadon), and his son on the line, and with the darkening shadow of spicy entrees and baklavas approaching on the horizon, Vlad decides to make a deal with the devil. Well, almost: he willingly sacrifices his very soul – temporarily – to an ancient vampire (Charles Dance, who delivers a fine supporting performance) dwelling in a accursed cavern high above in the mountains. So, now unable to bear the sunlight or the touch of silver, Vlad has three days to defeat the bad guys and send them back so far in time that they will be making amazingly bad, brain-melting rip-off movies like Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (aka Turkish Star Wars) while the rest of the world deals with the very first computer virus.
Providing he can resist the urge to feast on the blood of another during that time, Vlad will be returned to his mortal state (look, it’s their movie – they can re-write it any way they want!). Of course, we all know that is highly unlikely – just as unlikely as a contemporary Dracula film sucking in the end (pun not entirely intended). Dracula Untold manages to prove us wrong on the latter improbability, giving us a relatively horror-less vampire film that surely inspired Universal’s recent announcement to remake the classic monster movies in a largely non-horror manner (looks like horror is out once more, people; I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they start labeling films as “supernatural thrillers” again like they did during the ’90s!).
A brief thought on the subject of Universal’s intended revival of their various classic monster legacies. Towards the end of 2014, the studio announced that they were indeed planning to start from scratch (again) with their sorted creature creations as part of one big unhappy universe, to start in 2016 (who wants to compete with a Star Wars sequel, right?). A tentative decision to remove most of the horror element from the monster reboots left many a modern moviegoer and classic-film lover alike wondering what the hell they had been smoking. Nevermind the fact that most of the original films fans worship to this day were more of gothic romance tales in the first place. Frankly, Dracula Untold manages to capture some of that essence. More so than we saw in any of the other (fairly recent) remakes.
Having viewed Dracula Untold – a movie that wasn’t really a Universal production, more of a title helmed by other hands (Legendary Pictures and Michael De Luca Productions) that was instead distributed by Universal – I think that there could be hope if they were to continue along this path. If they recruit even half of the largely unknown talent that went into the writing and making of Dracula Untold, we could have something good on our hands. If they retain egotistical, overrated hacks like Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (the same clowns who helped bring us the highly ambitious Mummy and Van Helsing reboots, which failed – to say nothing of Star Trek Into Darkness, which ultimately resulted in Orci getting so cocky that he was thankfully removed from working on the next film), then we’re doomed.
Of course, Universal definitely had some say in the making of Dracula Untold. Some reshoots took place after principal photography had wrapped, reportedly so that new scenes could be filmed that would tie in this film to the other, forthcoming reboots. While I can’t say what is what, I’m guessing the ending could be part of the new footage. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and has “sequel” written all over it. But here’s the strange part: it works. It shows promise. In fact, if the same hands were to handle a follow-up feature picking up where this one leaves off, I would actually go to see the film on opening night. Just don’t bring back Kurtzman, Orci, or any of their pals (that means you, too, Stephen Sommers). There. I said my piece. Do with it what you will, Universal.
Unofficially official, Dracula Untold arrives on home video from Universal in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo pack that presents the feature film in a beautiful 1080p/AVC transfer. Now, either the CGI used in this movie was really good CGI, or the presentation is just that awesome, because most of the computer-generated special effects looked realistic enough to not warrant my usual Fred Sanford impersonation when I see FX that stand out like, well, like Dominic Cooper and his douchey hairstyle in a movie set in the 15th Century. Likewise, the accompanying English 5.1 DTS HD MA soundtrack delivers most efficiently. Alternate French and Spanish DTS 5.1 audio options are present, and subtitles are provided in all three aforementioned languages.
Still more audio options are present: a DVS (Descriptive Video Service) track in 2.0, as narrated by the great Adrienne Barbeau (!), and an audio commentary with director Gary Shore and production designer Francois Audouy. Several alternate/deleted scenes are also on-hand in the special features section, and it’s easy to see why most (if not all) of them were excised from the final print (a cut bit with Samantha Barks as a Baba Yaga is particularly campy, even by Dracula Untold‘s standards!). The remaining bonus materials include several behind-the-scenes bits that are mostly EPK-style ditties, and there’s also an interactive map that I’m sure only your kids will be interested in.
Ultimately, Dracula Untold will come off to most people as being fairly routine. And it is, most assuredly. But there’s a certain je ne sai quoi about it. Maybe it’s the fact that Charles Dance gets to play an ancient vampire. Perhaps the fact that there are some actual decent CGI effects used in the film that made my day. Most likely it is because it’s a European B movie that somehow made it to American theaters with some actual support from a big Hollywood studio for a change. It could also have something to do with the fact that Dracula Untold was the first direct Dracula movie to hit the silver screen since Dracula 2000, and we’ve mostly only seen Twilight and various other forms of (usually direct-to-video) trash since then.
Whatever it is that allured me, I like it. And I hope to go on liking whatever comes from this. Just don’t go ditching Charles Dance or bringing back Dominic Cooper and all will be fine. I hope.
Strangely, unexpectedly recommended.