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
I have caught a couple of films in cinemas over the past week and on both occasions I have been subjected to horror that is the trailer for Dracula Untold (2014). Not horror as in an exceptionally crafted trailer for a film that looks terrifying. Rather a trailer that appears to be promoting the most utterly terrible film of the year. It looks like it could even be the worst Dracula film ever which is no mean feat. The concept is moderately interesting. Dracula actually seeks out his transformation into a vampire to help protect his family. But it looks to be rendered in the most bland and cliche and unimpressive manner imaginable. You can check out the horror for yourself below. Does anyone out there hold any hope for this?
Bram Stoker’s brilliant classic of English literature Dracula, first published in 1897, has produced numerous film adaptations – from the sublime, like Nosferatu in both its 1922 and 1979 iterations; to the garbage, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for example. Though I acknowledge my views on the latter are not universal.
Arguably no film adaptation of the novel has produced a more iconic interpretation of the novel’s central character though than Tod Browning’s Bela Lugosi starring Dracula (1931). Browning’s is a Dracula tale full of towering castles crawling with terrifying life forms (including somewhat absurdly an armadillo), an incredible orchestral score, those iconic Universal Horror sets (which intriguingly hosted the shooting of a Spanish Language version of Dracula at night at the same time this film was being shot) and plenty more that brings the atmosphere. The film is just so wonderfully staged. Apparently it is based heavily on a play based on the book and that sort of shows in the construction of the film as a whole, especially the way in which characters are introduced and plotlines set up. In comparison to most adaptations of Stoker’s novel, Dracula spends very little time in Transylvania, rather getting rather more quickly into the London set part of the story. The Transylvania set part still contains some of the most fun parts of the film. The scene where Dracula first sees his houseguest’s blood is pretty fantastic, with a dynamic camera zooming in to emphasise Dracula’s bloodlust. Before Lugosi comes out with the zinger “I never drink… wine”. It is undeniable that this 80 odd year old film does clunk at times. There seems to be a particular obsession with close-ups of Lugosi’s face shrouded in darkness, with only a strip of light over his eyes.
It is impossible to talk about this film without discussing in depth Lugosi’s turn as Dracula. Indeed when most people think of Dracula, the image they have is not Stoker’s Dracula, it is Lugosi as Dracula. Look no further than last year’s fun animation Hotel Transylvania (2012), a film where Dracula as voiced by Adam Sandler looked a whole lot like Lugosi. Initially when watching the film this time around (I had seen it about 10 years ago), I was wondering if Lugosi’s performance was so iconic because of the actual performance itself, or just because of how his character looks. But it is immediately clear that Lugosi’s actual performance is really ace too. He has this shtick which he works throughout the film that just makes him seem to truly inhabit the role of Count Dracula. His Dracula is the bogeyman, both literally and figuratively, the dark force lurking in the shadows outside of a woman’s house in the darkness of night. It is easy to see why when so many people think Dracula, they think Lugosi. There is somewhat of a paradox at work here though. Because whilst Lugosi’s performance is stellar, he is not given the chance to show off his chops too much. Indeed Browning seems content to predominately focus on his (admittedly awesome) iconic look. Lugosi has some excellent support from other actors in the film too. In particular Dwight Frye as Renfield is really something else. Initially he hams it up wonderfully as the stranger in Transylvania who finds himself the houseguest of Dracula. Once he is sent mad by whatever occurs in that castle though, Frye’s performance becomes even better, as he is transformed into a Peter Lorre-esque force of nature. His performance is probably the most horrifying aspect of the film, at least it was for me.
Dracula is a very clever version of this ubiquitous tale that has stood the test of time and definitely deserves to be watched. It has to be seen to witness what is the most famous interpretation of the character of Dracula. But rest assured there is plenty else here to hold your interest as well.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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