Dracula Untold (2014) had one of the worst trailers in recent memory, so I was not exactly clamouring to see it. After hearing some positive murmurings and that the film would function as the kick-off to a Marvel style shared Universal Monsters universe, I thought I might as well give it a go.
Even the biggest horror fan is probably a little jaded by Dracula films. It is refreshing then that Dracula Untold is not meant to be an adaptation of Stoker’s classic in any way. Rather it is an origin story, based exceedingly loosely on the real life Vlad the Impaler, who also inspired Stoker to some degree. So at least we are not getting the exact same story beats that we always do. The first two thirds of the film definitely supported my initial fears though. It’s all not very good, by the numbers character building with an unengaging and totally lightweight narrative. Garbage dialogue delivered in a strange mish-mash of accents adds to the unprofessional and unenjoyable feel of it all.
The one element of the first part of the film that is at all effective is the character of Master Vampire played with glee by Charles Dance. With the practical make-up a nice change to the CGI flowing everywhere else, there is a real monstrous look to him. The bargain made between the Master Vampire and Dracula satisfyingly sets up the reasons for Dracula choosing to be a vampire. Whilst this scene at the time does not carry the dramatic heft it really should, this choice does resonate reasonably well throughout the film. The Master Vampire’s menace and construction provide the film with some instant mythology, which it is otherwise sorely lacking. Then out of nowhere, the final third of the film becomes a crackling origin story. A lot of this is achieved by a big payoff moment, where Dracula discovers he is not as all-powerful as perhaps he thought, which sets him on the path shown in various other interpretations of the novel.
This is a distinctly ugly, and at times cheap looking, film. The CGI is woeful and will remind you of just how bad CGI looked back in the late 90s. There is an over-reliance on it during action sequences as well. Which is frustrating because the best feeling sequences are the more grounded sword-fighting battles. Though having said all that, there is one rather cool moment toward the end of the film where Drac summons and controls a huge pack of CGI bats and sends them toward his enemy’s army. That brings us to one of the other great weaknesses of the film – the villain. Given Dracula is the hero (of sorts), the film needed to create a new villain. In Mehmed played by Dominic Cooper, the film fails spectacularly. He is such a nothing character, bringing no threat whatsoever, no level of physicality and no real story as to why he is so hell-bent on taking on Dracula. The character is a miss, not helped by the strange, pretty poor, performance from Cooper. Supposedly a king, he is one with zero charisma and gravitas, as seen in his ‘rousing’ speeches toward his troops. So flatly are they delivered, that the extras on the film seem to forget they are meant to be reacting with a level of fervour.
Verdict: The majority of this film is simply so terrible, that it is difficult to recommend it. But if you have any interest in classic horror characters, then the final section is so good and creative it might actually be worthwhile for you. Schooner of Carlton Draught