Irish director Gary Shore's feature debut "Dracula Untold", about how Transylvanian prince Vlad became the most famous vampire in history, is a serviceable Medieval war movie on its own terms but, in its misguided efforts to nobilise such an iconic figure of evil, also a hopelessly self-defeating cause.
The screenplay follows a very conventional trajectory, seeing the protagonist first confronted with the dilemma of keeping peace or offering his people up as soldiers, then tempted by the dark powers of the undead, and finally swiping out his enemies in full force, but not without making some sacrifices of his own. It's a straightforward stroll with a couple of icky if still passable turns that might be better enjoyed at half cerebral capacity. The biggest selling point of the movie is its often fetching visual design. Beginning with a nifty opening sequence where the camera dashes between warriors frozen in action, the production shows scale and aesthetic appeal. While the look of the movie is definitely not as bleakly gothic as one would hope given the subject matter, it also smartly avoids the garishness characteristic of many mainstream studio pictures in this genre, even if a lot of the exterior or aerial shots still seem overly CG'ed.
The biggest problem of the movie lies in this inexplicable need to sanitise a known and widely adored villain, which could also be observed in Disney's "Maleficent" released earlier this year. The enduring popularity of these characters is largely attributable to their being ruthless and scary. Making them a jilted lover or a doting father only compromises that seductive charm. When Dracula the brave leader and pained family man finally takes that bite near the end and all heroic music breaks loose, Bram Stoker might well be turning in his grave.
Lead actor Luke Evans channels a more mature and likewise expressively challenged Orlando Bloom, looking deadly serious throughout. Sarah Gadon is solid, even if her natural creepiness is wastefully concealed. Veteran actor Charles Dance has it worst appearing as the ancient being from the caves, not only poorly made up and hardly menacing but having to deliver the senseless, embarrassingly derivative film-ending line.
Dracula Untold | Directed by Gary Shore (USA, 2014) with Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon. Starts Oct2.