by Gabriel Valdez
The most important factor in telling a story is having a reason to tell it. It can be a small reason – this year’s Godzilla asked a modern horror filmmaker to return the monster to demigod status. It can be a big reason – The Monuments Men addresses the sacrifices made not just to save people, but to save their very culture during World War 2.
Whatever your reason is, it doesn’t need to change the world, but you do need to have one. Dracula Untold has no reason. It has a vague plot, involving Prince Dracula’s people resisting a Turkish army bent on taking 1,000 of their boys as tribute. Dracula seeks out an ancient beast in the mountains in order to borrow his vampiric powers for the coming war.
Leaving aside yet another tired “anybody east of Greece is inherently evil” plot line, everything that needs to be there in a period tale about the famous vampire’s origins is there. A great lead (Luke Evans), detailed set design, good costuming, solid music, nice visual effects. Take each of these components on its own and it holds up well. Put them all together and there’s something vital missing.
Dracula Untold feels like the first two minutes before a TV show that recap all that’s come before, except it goes on for an hour and a half. There is no, “And now for the conclusion.”
Universal wants to use its classic movie villains (Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein) to establish a Marvel’s Avengers-like team of monstrous anti-heroes. It’s a good idea on paper, but the film that gets you there feels like it’s rushing you through so you’ll be prepared for the sequel two years from now. We pay to see movies in order to be thrilled, not rushed.
Certain scenes play well, like the various ones that steal directly from Superman movies. Dracula first awakening to his newfound powers, for instance, feels like every time Clark Kent discovered a new Superman power on Smallville. Dracula flying across the landscape to catch a loved one feels like Christopher Reeve flying across a cityscape to do the same. It’s just Superman didn’t have to turn into bats to do it. Even silver gets used an awful lot like kryptonite. This Dracula bears little resemblance to the terrifying ones we’ve seen before; he’s Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) This would be fine, but only if you have a reason beyond wanting to be like Marvel.
Nowhere is this film’s dismissal of its audience better represented than by its explosions of sound and light. When characters pull a sword or strike a torch, it’s enough to make the audience cover their ears, and my theater wasn’t particularly loud. Similarly, when you’re straining your eyes to make out details in a dark, moody scene, you don’t want to suffer a quick succession of blinding white flashes. It was so painful, audience members had to shield their eyes and look away at certain points. That’s profoundly inexcusable.
By the end of the film, Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) is flying at jet speed while Turks are magically transporting from the top of a cliff to the valley a thousand feet below. And no, that’s not according to some superpower, which would be fine. They’re magically transporting according to shoddy editing that strips out any sense of geography or consequence in the action scenes. It’s laughable, which my audience regularly took advantage of.
The fight choreography is good. It might even be great, but you won’t see much of it. Shaky cameras, blur effects, and trick shots – like seeing half a battle in the reflection of a thin sword – are relentlessly abused, and there isn’t the skill behind the camera or in the editing room to incorporate them in any way that makes sense beyond “the director really likes blur effects.”
Dracula Untold has solid design elements and a lead who’s fun to watch. You may recognize Evans from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in which he plays Bard. He doesn’t act any different here, but that’s fine – he has a compelling demeanor. It’s a good thing, because few other characters are given names, let alone anything resembling characterization.
Dracula Untold just doesn’t care about your experience. It’s checking off boxes on the “start a franchise” clipboard, and that’s not enough reason to tell a story.
It’s somehow rated PG-13 despite the fact that the last five minutes are spent skewering people on stakes and watching their skin fall off as they dissolve into corpses, hinting at a movie that at least would’ve been far trashier than the one we got. But PG-13? I don’t think so.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Dracula Untold have more than one woman in it?
Technically, yes. There is Dracula’s wife, Mirena, played by Sarah Gadon. There’s a Governess who barely appears, played by Dilan Gwyn, and whose importance to the plot you can derive by the fact she has no name, and is simply listed as “Governess.”
Other women occasionally appear in the background doing oh so important background things like looking dramatically at Luke Evans, or looking dramatically at the camera, or looking dramatically at each other.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Look, Dracula Untold may technically pass the first rule of this test, but only because if all the extras were men, we might think Superdrac was running a gay kingdom, and something like that still matters to some people. Personally, I think that would’ve made a far more interesting movie. Shoot, why didn’t they try that 40 years ago with Tim Curry as Dracula – oh, wait a minute, they basically did.
But I digress.
Dracula Untold is all about super awesome European men protecting their women and children from evil Turks, who do such nefarious things as wear copious amounts of eyeliner. Pick up your swords! Trade your souls for demonic powers! Our European children must not be forced to wear copious amounts of eyeliner!
Seriously, Dracula Untold is ridiculous. That I’ve already written 1,000 words on it means I’ve put more thought into their movie than its writers did. What did I just watch, is it possible to nuke it from orbit (it’s the only way), and who thought this could function as the beginning to a multi-tiered franchise?
Not only does Dracula Untold fail the Bechdel Test, it also fails the Are You Racist Test, the Try Not to Blind Your Audience Test, the Prosopagnosia Test, and the Not Throwing Up in My Own Mouth Test (patent pending).
Honestly, when it comes out on DVD, this could be the new mainstay of bad movie nights*, but it certainly doesn’t do anything for feminism or tolerance or the English language. Only through Luke Evans being Luke Evans and its own general ineffectiveness at everything, including being hateful, does it fail to threaten 300: Rise of a Thin Gaza Metaphor as worst movie of the year.
*Seek out Dario Argento’s Phenomena, people, and your bad movie nights will never be the same again.