Dracula Untold
"The plot developments become progressively more ludicrous and inconsistent and the dialogue offers lead where ham and cheese would be much more appetising."

Fittingly enough, he just won’t lie down. One of the great characters in horror fiction receives yet another “re-imagining”. And it’s a testament to Bram Stoker’s original creation, and the power of the vampire myth as a whole, that even a botched, hollow mishmash like this manages to generate a few memorable moments.

This is the old bloodsucker’s “origin story”, the current buzz-phrase of Hollywood bigwigs keen to resurrect an old franchise or kick-start a new one. So instead of a suave Victorian seducer in the Lugosi/Lee mould, he’s still just plain old Vlad The Impaler at this point – a tough but fair Transylvanian warrior-prince keeping his people safe from the rapacious Turks and devoted to his beautiful, ethereal wife.

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If all this seems a bit familiar, then you’ve obviously seen the first ten minutes of Francis Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula. This was a full-tilt charge at the original novel, which used a few throwaway lines Stoker gleaned from his copious research as an excuse to stick Gary Oldman in a suit of armour and have a ton of impressionistic fun before Keanu’s dodgy Brit accent and a severe case of stylistic overkill sent it all crashing off the rails.

Another reason why Coppola’s version failed was that, while being faithful to the plot of the original novel it completely missed the main point: that Stoker loathed and feared his eponymous villain. Pouring all his mistrust of predatory sexuality, aristocratic arrogance and the spectre of the invasive Eastern European “other” into one all-purpose bogeyman he created a powerful embodiment of evil that’s inspired horror writers and directors for over a century.

It may not be very nuanced (or PC) but it has captivated audiences all over the world – and had me gripped from my first sight of Christopher Lee on late-night telly. Lately, however, the vogue seems to be to recast him, and vampires in general, as sensitive, tragic souls just searching for true love and desperate to be rid of their curse. As Stoker’s Count says on several occasions when confronting his puny human adversaries and revelling in his demonic power: “Bah!”

But if you’re going to ring the changes, do it well. And, to be fair, Shore’s take starts out in reasonably promising fashion, with Vlad (Luke Evans) and his loyal cohorts finding evidence of a Turkish incursion into his territory – which seems to have stopped dead at a remote mountain, long the source of evil legends. A quick recce turns into a chilling, fast-paced encounter with a barely-glimpsed but hideous, and hideously powerful, supernatural being, from which only Vlad escapes alive, returning to his wife (Sarah Gadon) and their young son.

So far, so good – the direction and camerawork capture the sense of age-old dread of the lonely mountains and the monsters that may lurk therein which originally inspired Stoker. And when the Sultan (Dominic Cooper) demands a tribute of Transylvanian boys to be his elite servants – a true historical fact, folks – there’s at least some attempt to convey the political reality of the times, when the Balkan princes living on the frontline of the war between the Moslem and Christian empires had to be as skilled in diplomacy as battle, and running with the hare while hunting with the hounds was a way of life.

But when Vlad, brutalised and traumatised by his own time in the Sultan’s service, refuses to send his son at the head of the tribute (and turns a posse of boo-hiss stereotyped Turkish emissaries into finely-chopped kebab in the process) the Sultan decides to unleash hell on Transylvania. And the only way to stop him is for Vlad to get a few lessons on the vampire legend from the obligatory scholar/monk (Paul “Dennis Pennis” Kaye, no less) and pay a visit to Spooky Mountain again.

Here the Guignol gets very Grand indeed, as the monster turns out to be our very own Charles Dance, looking like an unhealthy version of Bergman’s Death and offering Vlad a free drink. This will give him all the vampire’s powers, enabling him to vanquish the Turk forever. And if he can refrain from drinking blood for three days while he’s going about it, he’ll return to human form without any of that curse of immortality and eternal thirst stuff. Can’t say fairer than that, can you?

Vlad accepts and returns to the battlefield faster than a speeding arrow, with the strength of an army and a legion of CGI bats to further put the willies up the Turks. All goes swimmingly until the Sultan himself takes to the field, armed with a bit of inside knowledge of the vampire’s weaknesses. Vlad’s feeling these already, turning to a crisp at a touch of sunlight while feeling decidedly queasy in the presence of silver. And the pale throat of his wife (and everyone else’s for that matter) is starting to look decidedly tempting… The computer-generated mash-ups come thick and fast, attempting to channel the best of Lord Of The Rings and Game of Thrones but ending up as pale retreads of every other derivative sword and sorcery would-be blockbuster of the last ten years. The plot developments become progressively more ludicrous and inconsistent and the dialogue offers lead where ham and cheese would be much more appetising.

Evans, soon to be taking centre-stage in the final part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, looks the part. He’s got Viggo Mortensen’s cheekbones and can stride in slow motion through an artistically-lit battlefield with the best of them, but any attempts at subtlety or deeper emotion elude him. Gadon looks the part but is equally ill-served by a clunky script and uninspired direction.

As so often it’s left to the Brit Pack to salvage a bit of fun from the wreckage. Dance is clearly having a whale of a time and Cooper, looking like a slimline version of Alan Carr and talking like an extra from Whoops Baghdad, provides a welcome injection of high camp and enough genuine menace and charisma to ensure the finale builds up a half-decent head of steam.

But a clunky coda, setting up one of the least enticing sequel prospects I’ve ever come across, cements the impression of a wasted opportunity. Perhaps one day film-makers will decide to stop re-imagining and just do a straight adaptation of Stoker. It would make a change. And they’d probably find (as FW Murnau, Todd Browning and Terence Fisher did before them) that when it comes to truly scary, powerful Draculas the original’s still the greatest.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2014
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Dracula Untold packshot
To defeat a Turkish invasion, medieval Romanian warlord Vlad Tepes must enter into a demonic bargain.
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Director: Gary Shore

Writer: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, based on characters by Bram Stoker

Starring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley, Ronan Vibert, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal

Year: 2014

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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