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Artificially Glorified ‘Dracula Untold’ Lacks Reason for Being Retold

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CHICAGO – For moviegoers, each new film is a chance to escape, feel, fear, cry, be thrilled or laugh. Filmmakers and actors want you to experience this range of emotions, but producers and investors care most about the film making money. That’s why Hollywood is scared of truly original stories. Originality is an unknown without a built-in fan base.

To minimize their risk and inspire confidence in a return on investment, most new films these days are based on a best-selling book (or a series), a beloved comic book or a remake of an already famous character from the past. Original films like “Juno” and “Once” happen once in a blue moon. They take a huge viral following to break free and impress at the box office.

Luke Evans in Dracula Untold
Luke Evans stars as Vlad/Dracula in “Dracula Untold”.
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Going into a short feature-length film like “Dracula Untold,” which is only 92 minutes, you already know it’s following a safety formula. After the dozens of Dracula films preceding it, this new story takes no risks. It feels like it was made because someone at Universal Pictures thought: “Hey, it’s been quite a while since we’ve done our 1979 ‘Dracula’ with Frank Langella. We’d might as well return to our well and do it again. Nothing better to do.”

Before this one, Universal has had seven previous Dracula films. Since 1979, we’ve seen from other studios 1992’s “Dracula” from Bram Stoker with Gary Oldman, 2000’s “Dracula 2000” from Wes Craven with Gerard Butler and 2012’s “Dracula 3D” from Dario Argento with Thomas Kretschmann.

To bring this film back from the grave now, it can’t look like you’re out of new stories and you’re trying to harness the buying power of a beloved villain. But that’s exactly the trap “Dracula Untold” falls victim to. It’s artificially glorifying Dracula without having a reason for the retelling.

Sarah Gadon in Dracula Untold
Sarah Gadon as Mirena in “Dracula Untold”.
Photo credit: Jasin Boland, Universal Pictures

If you’ve seen Dracula films before, you’ll feel like Luke Evans’ transformation from Vlad the Impaler to Dracula oversimplifies the story and skimps on his backstory. Director Gary Shore and writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless canonize Bram Stoker’s infamous character. They boil him down to easily digestible layman’s terms. (Dracula, by the way, first originated all the way back in an 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker.)

But if Dracula is somehow a new character to you and you don’t have a past history with him, the one thing “Dracula Untold” will succeed at is telling you one version of the story that easily and quickly makes sense. As we often learn in popular culture, many of our most feared villains started out as nice guys who were just pushed to the extreme, desperate or had no choice.

Luke Evans’ Vlad was simply a loving husband, protective father and prince to his people. Facing insurmountable odds and the imminent attack from a Turkish army much larger than his Transylvanian kingdom, Vlad saw no choice but to make a deal with the devil. Drinking his blood meant power beyond his wildest dreams, but for three days, he had to resist the insatiable desire to drink someone else’s. Giving in meant he’d forever remain undead and a lurker of the night.

Luke Evans in Dracula Untold
Luke Evans stars as Vlad/Dracula in “Dracula Untold”.
Photo credit: Jasin Boland, Universal Pictures

One of many problems with this film, his wife – played by the beautiful puppy dog Sarah Gadon – outshines Dracula himself. (Abbie Cornish turned down the role.) She’s not powerful, but her acting is memorable and her ability to emote is real. While Luke Evans asserts his masculinity and spends the film’s CGI budget – an understandable mission since he’s the one who needs to wow your eyes with special effects candy – Gadon is the only one who ever tears at your heart and begins to make you care.

Dominic Cooper plays a necessary role in a mediocre manner as the villain – a sultan threatening attack on Vlad’s people – and he’s a required plot point to propel Vlad into his Dracula transformation.

The film also uses just enough Dracula folklore – his distaste for silver, a religious cross and a stake through the heart – to remind experienced and rookie audiences alike of his weaknesses. “Dracula Untold” also uses the excessive special effect of Luke Evans bursting into a swarm of bats both as a mode of fast transportation and to effectively attack mobs of enemies.

Dominic Cooper in Dracula Untold
Dominic Cooper as Mehmed in “Dracula Untold”.
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Throughout the countless versions of this story over time, Dracula doesn’t always get top billing in a film, on TV, in a play and through any other medium where he has been brought to life. Such as in 2004’s “Van Helsing” with the vampire hunter Hugh Jackman, sometimes Dracula is just a character within a larger story.

“Dracula Untold” should have been more like that – perhaps not “Dracula Untold” but something like “Monsters Untold” where Dracula is part of a melting pot with other vampires, werewolves, zombies and lycans. On his own, he’s not enough to carry this film’s reason for being rewritten.

“Dracula Untold” stars Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance, Art Parkinson, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye and William Houston from director Gary Shore, characters by Bram Stoker, writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless and producer Michael De Luca. It has a running time of 92 minutes and opened on Oct. 10, 2014. The film is rated “PG-13” for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images and some sensuality.

HollywoodChicago.com publisher Adam Fendelman

By ADAM FENDELMAN
Publisher
HollywoodChicago.com
adam@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com LLC

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