The makers of Dracula Untold were asking for trouble with that title. More than a century has passed since the publication of Bram Stoker’s oft-adapted novel, and both vampire mythology and folk tales surrounding the Romanian prince Vlad the Impaler (on whom the fanged count is said to be based) are even older. Is Universal merely grinding out another cheapie franchise, or is there genuinely something left to be tapped in this shriveled vein that audiences could genuinely find new?
The answer is no. Untold seeks to marry the historical record of the real Vlad’s war against the Ottoman Empire with his fictional transformation into the world’s most famous undead bloodsucker, but it works neither as a sweeping historical epic nor as an action-horror hybrid. Fast & Furious 6 baddie Luke Evans plays Vlad with teeth-clenched intensity, and his square-jawed fearlessness works far better when he’s battling his childhood friend turned power-hungry war monger Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) than when he’s pledging devotion to his blandly whimpering wife (Sarah Gadon) and children.
When Mehmet demands that Vlad turn over the bulk of his kingdom’s children for involuntary military service, Vlad decides the only way to combat his enemy is to strike a bargain with the unholy beast who lives on the spookily-named Broken Tooth Mountain. (Simply mounting a counter-attack with a human army was out of the question?) There’s a trade-off: He can heal his wounds and transform into a swarm of bats, but he’ll forever thirst for blood (and won’t ever be able to tan). Even if all this weren’t explicitly addressed in Stoker’s classic, a lifetime of vampire lore makes the machinations feel drably familiar: Vlad finds himself pulled between the family that keeps him human and the monster he is destined to become.
Though it has some impressive stylistic flourishes, including a series of blood-soaked tableaus that help enliven a lengthy run of sluggish opening narration, Untold outs itself as merely the latest entry in a vexing series of effects-crusted Old World epics starring blandly buff European gentlemen (see Clash of the Titans or Immortals, both of which featured Evans). The action beats are appropriately intense, if a little rote, though the film grinds to a halt whenever Vlad talks about familial responsibility. Even the semi-affecting finale is undercut by a franchise-teasing coda. Evans does a fine enough job carrying the character’s mantle, though what little fun he has exploiting his powers of the night he tempers with all those dull speeches about honor. If Evans is going to wear the fangs for a cinematic eternity, he better hope future scripts give his Dracula a badly-needed personality transfusion. C