A kinder, gentler and decidedly hunkier vampire is the not-so-strong selling point of Dracula Untold, the origin story of Bram Stoker‘s famous horror creation that no one was particularly clamoring for. Universal Pictures is clearly hoping to resurrect a character with whom they’ve been in business for some 83 years, but this fantasy-feeling effort delivers little in the way of scares, relying mainly on the charismatic presence of Welsh actor Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6) to anchor the lackadaisical proceedings. Genre fans will no doubt chafe at the film’s PG-13 demureness, with blood seemingly in short supply.
Set in 15th century Transylvania, the story begins with Prince Vlad (Evans) of Wallachia ruling over his kingdom in beneficent fashion, having apparently giving up impaling in favor of happy domesticity with his beautiful wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and adorable son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson, familiar with the milieu from his role in Game of Thrones).
Unfortunately, Vlad finds himself called into action when the evil Ottoman sultan Mehmed (a glowering Dominic Cooper) demands that 1,000 of Wallachia’s young boys, including Vlad’s son, be conscripted into his army. Desperate to defeat the Turks, Vlad goes to Broken Tooth Mountain — cue the inevitable attraction at Universal Studios’ theme park — where he encounters a grotesque vampire (Charles Dance, the latest in a long line of distinguished British thespians looking to offset their high tax bills) who promptly indoctrinates him. Infused with superhuman powers, Vlad at least has an escape clause: If he can manage to save his people while refraining from his newfound compulsion to drink human blood for three days, he will return to human form.
It’s not easy, since during a break in the action, when Vlad is just about to enjoy some connubial bliss, he’s stricken by the sight of blood coursing through his beloved’s veins. He quickly excuses himself, explaining in gentlemanly fashion, “I need some air. … Sorry.”
Much of the film’s running time is consumed by a surplus of CGI-enhanced, 300-style battle sequences, with Vlad employing such new allies as thousands of bats to help roust his enemies. Along the way, he finds himself impaired by the usual problems faced by vampires, like a terrible reaction to sunlight and an aversion to silver. The latter weakness is exploited by Mehmed in a climactic sword fight in which he uses thousands of silver coins to stack the odds.
Making his feature debut, director Gary Shore displays little flair for the action sequences, with such stylistic devices as using Vlad’s POV for several scenes adding to the overall cheesiness. Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless‘ muddled screenplay seems so intent on providing a Maleficent-style revisionist spin that it’s hard to believe that this heroic and sympathetic figure will ever wind up tormenting the nightmares of children for centuries to come. A coda set in the present day, with Vlad encountering his seemingly reincarnated wife in meet-cute fashion, is beyond silly, although it does provide the opportunity for Dance’s malevolent character to reappear and set up the hoped-for sequel by intoning, “Let the games begin.” But much like the recent, widely reviled I, Frankenstein, this misconceived project mainly signals a need to go back to the drawing board.
Production: Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Michael De Luca Productions
Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Sadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston
Director: Gary Shore
Screenwriters: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Producer: Michael De Luca
Executive producers: Joseph M. Caracciolo, Jon Hashni, Alissa Phillips, Thomas Tull
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Editor: Richard Pearson
Production designer: Francois Audouy
Costume designer: Ngila Dickson
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
Casting: John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard
Rated PG-13, 93 min.