‘Dracula Untold’ (2014) review: The fear of monsters

Luke Evans is shown in a scene from "Dracula Untold." (Photo credit: Universal Pictures)

Luke Evans is shown in a scene from “Dracula Untold.” (Photo credit: Universal Pictures)

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Classic vampire origin story gets a sympathetic remake

With a more than a dash of pity and less-than-subtle allusions to Christianity, this origin story renders unto us a new feeling when it comes to the most famous of all vampires: sympathy.

You see, in “Dracula Untold,” the creation of Bram Stoker isn’t a monster in the darkness, waiting to devour you body and soul. Well, he is that, but he’s so much more: a father, husband, leader and — perhaps most importantly — fallen hero. What he does he does for love, for county, for honor, even if it happens to involve murdering a bunch of enemy soldiers with dark, Satanic-like powers.

For those unaware, Stoker created Count Dracula based on inspirations from Vlad III, the prince of Wallachia who was part of the first stages of the Ottoman Wars in the mid-1400s. Known as a hero among Romanians, Vlad (who would later go by Dracula because of his patronymic) was legendary in his cruelty and skill on the battlefield against the Ottomans’ quest to expand its empire. (He wasn’t nicknamed Vlad the Impaler for nothing.) But rather than leading a vicious but natural life, “Untold” focuses more on a supernatural twist in fate for our anti-hero.

Directed by Gary Shore in his first feature film, our scene opens in none other than a bat- and skull-riddled cave as a spectral-like entity eyes the young man in front of him. This creature, called the Master Vampire in the credits (and played by Charles Dance), remarks on the both the fear and hope he senses from Vlad (Luke Evans), the infamous king of Transylvania. Both those emotions are well-founded: Vlad stands at the precipice of an invasion by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, and he seeks a dark power only whispered about before to win the coming battles. In what could only be considered a Faustian deal, the Master Vampire will bestow Vlad with darks powers for three days (at which point he’ll return to normal) with but a simple directive: drink no human blood, for if he does, he will forever remain damned, an undead creature of the night.

Less a horror film than action flick with touches of fright, “Untold” (written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless) ditches the hideous world of Nosferatu in lieu of dark and magic and chances for redemption. The script begins simple enough, recounting Vlad’s youth as a prince-captive of the Ottoman Empire and his rise as a leader of the Christian crusade directed by Pope Pius II against the Muslim invaders.

And though Vlad has become ruler of people and the land is peaceful (at least superficially), violence seems inevitable when the Turkish king Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands that Vlad relinquish 1,000 boys as soldiers for the wars (including his own son Ingeras, played by Art Parkinson). Being who he is, Vlad refuses him, causing a crisis and his search for the power to save his family and kingdom.

Here’s where the comparisons to Christianity, and Jesus Christ in particular, become apparent. Both in tone and deed, “Untold” moves Vlad away from a nightmarish monster to a man who shares a similar story to that of the Christian Messiah: born in a foreign land before growing up to become a fighter and symbol for his cause; choosing to die (the first step in becoming a vampire) in order to become his people’s salvation; suffering for three days between what amounts to be his crucifixion and resurrection (only in reverse this time). The similarities are too much to be coincidence, so the only takeaway is a purposeful comparison between the two, which has a sense of history behind it, considering the battles that would be fought between Christians and Muslims during the coming centuries.

So, Vlad uses his dark powers (super speed and strength top among them) to defeat squadron after squadron of Turkish soldiers, claiming he will become the monster that men fear. But it doesn’t take long for the weakness of being a vampire become apparent (aversion to gleaming silver and death in the sun), which causes the townpeople to try and restrain him. With his third night approaching, Vlad comes to a starling realization: Maybe his powers aren’t enough to save them. Enter the wife (a respectable Sarah Gadon), who offers Vlad her blood to gain the strength he needs.

In the end, what transforms Vlad in a creature of the night wasn’t an act of weakness or greed. He did it for love.

The battles that ensue are well-paced and action-packed, if a bit bloodless. (A PG-13 rating will do that to you.) And while “Kill Bill” it isn’t, cinematographer John Schwartzman does a marvelous job highlighting subtle tones during the night battles and showcasing the actors’ good side.

In the end, “Dracula Untold” succeeds in retelling an already famous tale of that fanged monster in the night. Clearly meant to be the start of the franchise (really, you end the movie saying “Let the games begin”?), “Untold” could have done far worse in casting its Evans as its lead. Known for his strong dialogue skills (he was first discovered in on the stage) and that he has the looks and physique needed to be an action-film hero, Evans is capable of continuing this storyline. Let’s just hope the future source material doesn’t run dry like one of Vlad’s victims.

Three blood-starved stars out of five.

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