As far as its story structure, “Dracula Untold” is reminiscent of the last truly great movie M. Night Shyamalan directed way back in 2000, “Unbreakable.” What we have here is the first act of a superhero film spread out over feature-length. The problem with “Dracula Untold” is that you have no desire to see act two.
As we’ve seen in films like Angelina Jolie’s summer hit “Maleficent,” the closest Hollywood is able to come to a fresh idea nowadays is reimagining its legendary villains as misunderstood heroes. This time its Count Dracula, or Vlad, as he’s known until the fateful moment.
In the mid 15th Century, Vlad (Luke Evans) is the kind and competent ruler of Transylvania. In a quick prologue, though, we learn he made his bones as Vlad the Impaler, a merciless butcher for the overseers of his principality, the ruthless Turks. Vlad wants to believe that his signature play of impaling all of the citizens of one village worked as a deterrent to save ten, but deep down inside he fears a beast lurks within.
What Vlad wants now is to live in peace with his beloved wife and son, and to pay homage to Christ Jesus. The Turks, however, have other ideas and burst into Vlad’s Easter celebration with a demand for 1000 young Transylvania boys to train as warriors, including Vlad’s own son.
Outnumbered and with no standing army, the choice is surrender or die. Unless…
In a cave on a mountain lives a supernatural monster with incredible powers given to it by a conjured demon. The monster is a vampire who was once Caligula, Emperor of Rome. A Faustian bargain is struck. Vlad will enjoy 3 days of supernatural powers — his only hope to save his kingdom and family– in exchange for an unquenchable thirst for blood.
If Vlad doesn’t feast for those three days, he keeps his soul and returns to his mortal self. If he surrenders to the hunger, there is no coming back and Caligula will be set free from the confines of his cave to feast on the world.
Caligula is the super-villain, Vlad is the superhero; this fact is set up early but never pays off. It’s only teased in a prologue. Instead we get a Vampire battling hordes of CGI’d Turks in CGI’d fight sequences that are edited in a blender and almost too dark to see.
The only interesting aspect of the story is that the Turks, who are obviously Muslims, are portrayed as bloodthirsty marauders against a benign and very Christian Transylvania. In this politically correct day and age, that is at least an original and noteworthy choice.
“Dracula Untold” flirts with big ideas about faith, sacrifice, and what it means to sell your soul to save others, but it’s all surface and pretty much falls apart in the last 20 minutes when Vlad’s motivations appear to shift all over the place.
Given all the focus on CGI, kinetic and confusing action scenes, and an aesthetic geared more towards gamers than cinema-goers, “Dracula Untold” probably wouldn’t have been much better with Caligula as the primary antagonist.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC