By Richard Corliss
October 12, 2014

In a cave teeming with bats and littered with crushed skulls, a skeletal demon appraises the young stalwart who stands before him. “Most men reek of fear,” says the Master Vampire (Charles Dance). “In you I smell hope.” Vlad (Luke Evans), the King, top fighter and undisputed hunk of Transylvania, does have a desperate hope: that he can defeat the invading Turks of the Ottoman Empire. So the Master Vampire (Charles Dance) offers to bestow all the infernal powers of his species on Vlad. And, in a kind of infomercial twist on Faust, he’ll get a free three-day trial. The small print: If, in that time, Vlad surrenders to the insatiable lust for human blood—the vampire’s most delicious addiction—he is doomed to become a monarch of the eternal undead. No refunds.

Dracula Untold means not only to upend the charnel image of Bram Stoker’s vampire but also to give a sweet sheen to the legend of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula, the Wallachian king whose name Stoker borrowed for his novel. Known as a sadistic warrior who left his victims piked on spikes, like scarecrows in a cemetery, Vlad gets a bio-makeover comparable to turning England’s Richard III, another 15th-century king of fearsome rep, into Henry V. This origins story, directed by Gary Shore and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (all first-timers in feature films), casts Vlad as a loving husband, a protective father and a national hero—Vladímir the Redeemer.

That’s right: Dracula is a little bit Jesus. Like the Christian Messiah, Vlad spends part of his childhood in a foreign land (not Egypt but Turkey) before maturing into an idealist and a freedom fighter. Choosing to die—to be undead—for the salvation of his people, Vlad endures a Calvary of sacrifice and spends the requisite three days between Crucifixion and Resurrection. The difference is that for him the resurrection, as a vampire in training, comes first. He’ll pay later.

Intended as the launching of a film franchise—the movie’s last line is “Let the games begin!”—Dracula Untold grossed a tidy $23.5 million on its opening weekend in North American theaters. It has also earned about $63 million in its release abroad. Most reviewers slammed the movie, but it’s not nearly as awful, or offal, as its critical odor. If Untold isn’t exactly must-see big-screen fare, it would be a welcome companion on a long flight or as a rainy-day Netflix rental.

The big shock, if you were expecting a typical Dracula story, is that this not a horror film. You show up for the predatory pestilence of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or the toxic love bites of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst—to cite the two vampire films on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list—and instead find a stately epic in the Sword and (Satanic) sorcery genre.

Hewing with fair fidelity to the Vlad’s story as recounted by historians (or at least Wikipedians), the script recounts his adolescent years in the Ottoman court, where his father had sent him as a prince-captive, and his long battle as a leader of the Christian crusade that Pope Pius II had ordered against against the Muslim invaders. When the Turkish king Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands that Vlad hand over a thousand boys as soldiers for the Empire, including his young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson), he refuses.

That’s when Vlad makes his deal with the demon. It gives him the strength to singlehandedly defeat an army of thousands—whose soldiers courteously wait until he’s slaughtered one bunch before attacking him—and it creates an aura that will scare other troops. As he cogently observes, “Men do not fear swords. They fear monsters.” Very well: for God and country, he’ll be one.

The Transylvanian monks first mount the world’s fastest insurrection, then try to contain Vlad when they note those telltale vampire signs: fear of sunlight and the avoidance of gleaming silver. As the third of his free-trial nights nears its end, Vlad’s wife Malena (Sarah Gadon) learns of his deal just before she is to die at Ottoman hands. Like any good spouse, she insists he drink her blood for the strength he needs to defeat his foe. So Vlad’s transformation into vampire isn’t an act of infernal craving. It’s what he did for love.

The battles are robust but mostly bloodless; in a PG-13 action film, you see a weapon’s thrust, not its impact. This is no Game of Thrones (also shot in Ireland, also costarring Dance (as Tywin Lannister). To extend the Jesus metaphor, it’s more a Crown of Thorns. But cinematographer John Schwartzman finds strong, subtle tones in all the nighttime battles and photographs everyone to look great — even when they’re supposed to look bat-split ugly, like Dance. The actor, under his CGI makeup, has creepy majesty as the demon who’s grown long of tooth (and claw). And Gadon, the Canadian actress who played a teen victim of vampirism in The Moth Diaries, is both pure and sexy in the sort of role — faithful wife with heaving bosom — that Hazel Court so often took in old Hammer horror films.

Evans, the Welshman who made solid early screen impressions as Apollo in Clash of the Titans and as the rustic stud in Tamara Drewe, carries Untold by admirably fulfilling the two essential functions of a period-movie hero: to enunciate comic-book dialogue with Shakespearean authority and to look great with his shirt off. Any viewer, male or female, would be happy to meet him in a dark cave and give him a free three-day trial.

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