The only legitimately scary thing about the budding Universal Monsters franchise so far is that its launching platform, Dracula Untold, has about as much bite as the Twilight saga. If that sounds harsh, well, that’s because it’s meant to – as franchise starters go, this lazy actioner is as lifeless and absent-minded as they come, never supplying even the tiny amount of intelligence that would have been necessary to buy Dracula, that most reliable of movie monsters, as a sword-wielding action hero of the armor-clad variety.
Universal had an unenviable task in bringing its classic movie monsters, from the Prince of Darkness himself to the Bride of Frankenstein, to the big screen, but one imagines that they could have done better than Dracula Untold, which so cloaks its titular bloodsucker’s origin story in generic special effects and clunky dialogue that one begins to forget the badass appeal of the character himself.
That may be the biggest problem with this toothless blockbuster fare – no matter how well Luke Evans channels Shakespeare to provide a theatrically tragic take on a man who literally sells his soul to defend his family against invading Turks, the script is so thoroughly banal, simply progressing plot without deepening its protagonist or imparting the emotional stakes (hehe), that none of it leaves even the shadow of an impression.
We watch as Vlad, notorious as ‘The Impaler,’ who once skewered his enemies in order to send a message that messing with such a monster will only lead to more carnage, faces the dilemma of selling his child (Art Parkinson) to the power-hungry Turks or defying them in order to retain his wife’s (Sarah Gadon) affections but doom the rest of his people. We also watch as he enters into a Faustian bargain with an ancient vampire (Charles Dance), gaining incredible strength to beat the Turks but agreeing that, should he taste human blood within three days, he will be damned for eternity.
Still, even as he tears through opponents on the battlefield or agonizes in private while coming to terms with his new powers, Dracula Untold lacks the narrative suspense to make anything really matter. If Dracula possesses demonic abilities that make him capable of wiping out enemy armies, or if he’s tortured over how such remarkable powers might alienate him from his loved ones and subjects, where’s the dramatic tension? Where’s the emotional tumult? Where’s the sense that there’s a good reason to invest in anything that’s happening on screen?
Director Gary Shore handles battle sequences admirably, but he never turns the camera inward to capture the plight of a man giving up his own life in order to save his people, and that feels like a damnable waste. Likewise, Evans handles himself with aplomb on the battlefield, but he never strikes up much chemistry with any of his co-stars, most critically his “beloved” wife (though Gadon’s wooden performance does him no favors), or gets any genuinely affecting dramatic moments.
Dracula is a legendary figure, which explains one’s disappointment to discover that his backstory is so pedestrian in Universal’s latest take on the character. Going into Dracula Untold, the film’s ending is already assured, and that kind of predictability isn’t at all in line with the spirit of Dracula, a character so terrifying and unnervingly seductive that he’s managed to captivate readers and audiences for decades. Though the Universal Monsters franchise isn’t DOA quite yet, Dracula Untold is such a colorless, callow way to introduce audiences to it that one can only pray studio execs have more up their sleeves than this. Pointless CGI, silly dialogue and one-dimensional characters do not an exciting cinematic universe make. Dracula Untold sucks – there are no two ways about it. Let’s just hope Evans’ next outing as the Prince of Darkness can breathe some actual life into the vamp.
Quality of the film aside, Dracula Untold‘s 1080p transfer is a smashing success, intermixing shadow play and FX-heavy battle sequences with dexterity. The detail on everything from sweeping battle sequences to the sweat on Evans’ brow is stunning, and the release’s skin tones and black levels are exactly as they should be. Though this is a film that lurks in the shadows for a considerable amount of time, Dracula Untold‘s Blu-Ray presentation excels both in lighter and darker scenes.
Universal’s mighty DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is also top-of-the-shelf, nailing the violent cacophony of the many battle sequences while prioritizing crisp dialogue and Ramin Djawadi’s hulking score. From swords clashing to warriors roaring and fires engulfing buildings, this is a track that fully explores the battle epic spectrum. That it fully immerses viewers as much as it does means that Universal has another winner on its hands.
Special features, in addition to a DVD and UV/iTunes-compatible digital copy, include:
- Audio Commentary
- Alternate Opening
- Deleted Scenes
- Luke Evans: Creating a Legend
- The Land of Dracula (Interactive Map)
- Day in the Life – Luke Evans
- Dracula Retold
- Slaying 1000
Director Gary Shore and production designer Francois Audouy tackle the commentary track, turning in an entertaining and insightful track that looks into the minute details of production on the film without getting bogged down, as some of these tracks do, in simply marvelling at how each scene came together. Neither dominates the commentary, and there are times when neither have anything interesting to say, but that they save their voices for some smart comments is refreshing.
The alternate opening is duller than what they went with, and the thirteen-so minutes of deleted scenes add little to the film, though they do feature more of the terrific Samantha Barks as local witch Babayaga. Too often the problem with these featurettes is that they feel pared down – “Luke Evans: Creating the Legend” basically finds the actor narrating scenes, while “Day in the Life – Luke Evans” bounces around but doesn’t house a ton of content, only clocking in at ten minutes. “Dracula Retold” is maybe the most solid featurette, going through some of the real history surrounding Vlad the Impaler. “Slaying 1000,” which looks into one of the film’s coolest battle sequences, is also well-worth a watch.
Dracula Untold is a lackluster kick-off to the Universal Monsters franchise, spending too much time on meaningless battle sequences and not enough on its protagonist, who could have been much more complex than he is. Though the film isn’t a death knell for all future films in the budding series, it’s a huge disappointment, lacking the bite to reintroduce Dracula to new audiences in a meaningful way while inhabiting the middle ground of cinematic quality so thoroughly that it’s not monstrously bad either. As a result, Dracula Untold elicits a mere shrug. The Prince of Darkness will have to sharpen his fangs a little more effectively for the next go ’round.
Toothless, poorly scripted and drowning in an overload of pointless CGI, Dracula Untold just plain sucks, both as a medieval epic and as the supposed launching pad for a new generation of movie monsters.