Movies are a dime a dozen these days. Some we see, some we don’t. Some are for the ages, most are good, and then there are the stinkers. For the ones that stand the test of time, it will have imitators for years to come. But what about the ones that come close to greatness? The ones that have all the likings of being an all-time favorite, but just fall short for whatever reason? In this series On The Precipice, we examine the movies that we feel come close to that greatness but are just shy of earning the title. For this installment, Max takes a look at Universal’s first attempt at a cinematic universe, the 2014 dark fantasy action horror hybrid Dracula Untold.
I love monsters. Always have, always will. From newbies like the Xenomorph and the Predator, to the classics like Gill-Man and the Headless Horseman. I admit my fascination comes more from a sheer spectacle standpoint (Seriously, the first part of a cool monster is making sure it looks cool), than say Guillermo Del Toro’s romanticized ideas about them. The best of these monsters in my own humble opinion is the Vampire. Admittedly they have been somewhat downplayed in the last ten years or so due to overexposure in todays era with pop culture juggernauts such as Twilight and True Blood. The zombie genre like the vampire is now well on its way to being put to bed for a time due to it being everywhere.
We are not here to mourn the “death” of a sub-genre, but to look at an entry that could have been a shot in the arm (or a bite to the neck) that was sorely needed, yet still missed. That entry is Dracula Untold, a solid action horror film that attempts to do something somewhat unique in the vampire genre in that they make Dracula the (super)hero of his own story. And for a significant part of Untold, it succeeds in its goal. But where there is success in one area, there is failure in many others, and that’s where I come in.
For the most part of Untold’s reimagining of Vlad Tepes, it keeps the beginning portion of Vlad’s rule somewhat factual. Vlad’s beef with Mehmed II was an actual historical event, but it’s purpose in the movie is changed around to give Vlad some empathy. Mehmed demands that Prince Vlad give him 1,000 boys including his son, so that he may win the war. But when Vlad refuses and begins to fight back with his newfound vampiric powers things begin to kick into high gear. For starters, it’s a strong premise, one that gives us Vlad The Impaler in the opening prologue, but tells us that he is a man who renounced his ways. It serves its purpose two-fold in showing that while he was a savage monster, he was trying to do better despite his past actions. We know how this story ends, but it doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a solid setup in allowing Dracula to be a tragic hero. And whilst many have problems with the idea of Dracula being a hero, I do not. By default, he essentially becomes a supernatural Batman, which isn’t a bad idea at all.
There can be romance to evil, even in the most tragic of circumstances. This was something Francis Ford Coppola knew when making (my favorite vampire film) Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In that film, Dracula loses his wife to suicide after she believes he died. Upon finding out she will be damned to Hell for her act, he renounces God and becomes the villain we know and love today. In Untold he follows a similar trajectory, one where he must fight to defend his family and people, but ultimately fails in keeping with that goal, where both his wife and many of his people are killed, thus becoming the hellish creature we fear to this day.
That being said, there should be limits to how much empathy we give one such as Dracula. Coppola’s film gives us a Dracula that has lost the love of his life. And while Untold gives us the same, it also gives him a son. This is where the problems begin. Why does Dracula have a son? Ingeras solely exists to show that Vlad was just like him, but his father never fought to keep him. Vlad does. But that’s it. Ingeras has no bearing on the immediate plot, and really only comes into play at the end. Which is where the majority of my problems with his character come into play. You see Vlad sacrifices his life so that the other people he turned to vampires don’t kill his son. Vlad dies temporarily, only to be revived by a human servant. My problem is since he is revived, why not go back Ingeras? Though Dracula doesn’t shapeshift at all in the movie, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, there was zero reason to leave his son without a father. Understand I’m not advocating the death of a child, but Ingeras served zero point in the whole film, other than being the sole representation for the “1,000 boys” and if that was the case, then he needn’t be in it at all. It should also be said, that at the very end of the film we cut to modern day, where Dracula sees a woman who looks suspiciously like his former wife. They strike up conversation, and go off together. Now I’m not one to take implication from the barest of strands, but with his son being alive at the end of the film and growing up to be eventually father kids of his owns, it stands to reason that the woman Dracula sees at the end could very well be of his own blood, and that my friends while convoluted, is nasty.
A big problem that Universal has recently run into again with remaking these monster movies, is the fact that these are in fact, monsters. And with that they lack any type of real “horror”. Now I understand that there is difficulty in creating the right mix of action and horror in a hybrid of the two, but Untold features maybe one whole scene that is “horror” and even that is a stretch. The extension of that however, is a bigger problem, in that this film is not rated R. Now a rating change would not make this movie suddenly amazing, but it would work better overall. You see The Mummy reboot could get away with a PG-13 feature, as it at least had the Brendan Fraser trilogy to see that it could be done, but why in the world would a PG-13 Dracula movie work? Yes, I recognize the inherent value in having the largest audience possible for these films, but the problem is that these are monster films, they were doing shared universes before Nick Fury was a thought. They are meant to scare and delight. To take a peek behind the curtain at some of man’s less desirable traits. The problem we see today is that too many studios want their own “Shared Universe”, but aren’t putting the work in to make it feel any different from Marvel’s (that and the fact that they are so preoccupied with getting there, they forget to make a good movie first). Would a R rating save Untold from just being a “solid” film? No, but it would have made it more enjoyable. Vampires are by their very nature sexy, vicious creatures. None if not most of that is ever really shown on screen beyond a brief scene between Luke Evan’s Vlad and his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) where they almost have sex, yet stop short due to Vlad’s insatiable lust for blood. Most of this could have been shown in the action sequences, where Vlad tears through entire armies like paper. Instead we get (admittedly cool looking) CGI sequences where Vlad uses bats to stomp on his foes like nothing. Men fly up in the air yelling in despair, while others are stabbed and impaled, but there is no real sense of violence going on. If I’m being completely honest, there are more than a few moments in the film that shocked me as being PG-13 when it so clearly should be R. In other movies they would have clearly been more violent, and the fact that it wasn’t brings it down somewhat.
Despite the failings of the film, it does get props for being carried by its star Luke Evans. While it won’t win him any awards he does give Vlad a bit restraint in his struggle to not return to his old ways. Beyond Charles Dance, who does intimidating work as the Master Vampire (As Charles Dance usually does), everyone else is playing by the numbers here. No one really stands out, but then maybe no one really needs to. Still, in a sea of ‘meh’ performances, Dominic Cooper as Mehmed II stands out as the worst. Let it be said that this film is not forgiven for casting a white English man to be spray tanned and play a villainous Turk. I understand the desire to have a Turkish villain seeing as how there was a real feud between Vlad and Mehmed, but then they should have gone with a man of either Turkish descent or at least a non-white guy. To have him spray tanned and speak in a weird accent, does not do this film any favors. However, my bigger problem lies in Dominic Cooper’s Mehmed II being the villain when they already hired Charles friggin Dance. I understand that the point in Dance’s Master Vampire being set up as the “connective tissue” to tie in all of their movies together, but he still would have been a more effective villain than whatever the hell Cooper was trying to do. Besides his few lines of dialogue, and no real character interactions, Mehmed II does nothing to elevate his character. The problem with having a super powered protagonist is that they need an equal (Or at least an interesting) force to oppose them. Mehmed is none of these, and despite the interesting final fight with the silver coins, nothing about him really makes him a worthy foe to Evan’s Dracula. I guarantee that’s there’s an infinitely better version of this film where Charles Dance becomes the main antagonist after Mehmed is dispatched mid-way through, while still being the link between Universal’s Shared Universe. Alas this is not that film, and it is lesser for it.
Dracula Untold has a lot of things going for it. From a mini Game of Thrones reunion (seriously there’s like three to four cast members from this that are from the show, and that’s not including the composer Ramin Djawadi), a very likable and relatable Dracula, and some pretty fun action sequences, Untold has the makings of a pretty great film. Sadly, it falls apart due to some very weird story decisions, with a cast that more or less sleeps through the film. Universal has lucked out three times now in trying to reboot their Monster Movies. Their latest dud with The Mummy, starring the always reliable Tom Cruise, tried too hard to be the film that sets up the universe. In truth they already had that with Dracula Untold, a film that was good in its own merits, while also hinting at a larger conflict brewing beneath the surface. While not particularly scary, it has good moments that come close to being great but like it’s eventual successor it fails at being a good movie first. Instead we are left with a solid action horror flick, that doesn’t fill any kind of niche, but it’s a good time. And sometimes that’s all you need. It’s too bad Universal didn’t realize this, and failed a third time at rebooting the original Shared Universe, when they already had their gem sitting in the vault. With a little spit and shine, Dracula Untold could’ve been a great time, but sadly it’ll remain On The Precipice.