Saturday, September 5, 2015


If "zero to hero" is the popular paradigm today, the reverse of the coin is the villain who has his reasons. Just as we seem uncomfortable with characters who are inherently good or effortlessly competent, so we seem, if anything, more uncomfortable with characters who are innately wicked, neither reformable nor redeemable. Given a widespread inclination to see the mythic Dracula -- a modern amalgam of Bram Stoker's fictional character as interpreted in numerous films and the historic Vlad Tepes -- as a tragic figure, something like Dracula Untold was inevitable. It's not exactly "hero to zero," since this film's Vlad is always too scrupulous and sensitive to truly go bad, but it still reflects audiences' presumed obsession with the becoming of heroic or legendary figures, and in this case especially, to understand is to excuse.

Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans) is the stren, protective ruler of his people after a hard childhood as a hostage and child soldier of the rising Ottoman Empire, where he learned the fine art of impaling and its strategic uses.Gary Shore's film is at pains to tell us that Vlad doesn't impale folks gratuitously, but as a deterrent, for all the good that does when Islam is on the march. But despite what I just said, Dracula Untold admirably underplays the Turks' religious aspect. For this film's purposes they're generic invaders and enslavers, the better to make clear that Vlad does what he must for his people to survive. Understanding that the odds against him are hopeless, he takes interest in a legend of a powerful, demonic figure dwelling in a cave recently occupied by now-dead Turkish troops. This mystery man is a very old vampire (Charles "Tywin Lannister" Dance) who offers Vlad a deal. He'll let Vlad drink his blood, which will give the prince vampire powers for three days, time enough to fend off the Turkish threat, and when those days expire that will be that -- unless Vlad should drink human blood, at which point he'll become a full-time vampire, while his sire will be freed from his cave prison to pursue some nebulous mission of vengeance that may require Vlad's assistance down the line. An optimistic judge of his own integrity and willpower, Vlad accepts the generous offer.

Turk-trained Vlad is already a formidable fighter; we see him take out a half-dozen Turks singlehandedly to save his own son from enslavement. Now, with vampire blood seething through him, he's literally a one-man army, not to mention a one-man flock of bats. It's no longer cool enough for Dracula to turn into a bat; he's got to be lots of bats, a cloud of them, though there's no practical point to this. Shore clearly though it was a cool video-gamey effect for him to turn into a cloud of bats when he flies speedily from one opponent to another, but wouldn't it make his task easier if he could, in bats-form, attack multiple foes at once? Well, it's a moot point, since even in his own pokey one-at-a-time fashion he can take out an entire Turkish army by his lonesome. This show of power takes his people aback ever so slightly, but it's not until he starts to sizzle in sunlight that they really start to take offense. Still, they're going to need him when his childhood pal Mehmet II, the Conqueror, the man who took Constantinople (Dominic "Howard Stark" Cooper), comes calling with the main Turkish army. For the big battle he gets help from an actual flock of bats, and when his lady love (Sarah Gadon), dying from Turk treachery, begs him to drink the blood he'll need to finish the job, even at the cost of his soul, it looks like another rout. But Mehmet's not "the Conqueror" for nothing. He lays a trap for Vlad, luring him for a final battle in a tent piled ankle-deep with silver coins, nullifying our hero's vampire powers. But don't assume that history's a guide to what happens next, because there weren't vampires in history, after all.

Dracula Untold is unrepentantly preposterous but the director and writers brought some redemptive imagination to what could have been simply a by-the-numbers origin story. The fight in the silver-tent is an inspired idea, and despite the inevitable dull CGI skies the picture has some decent production design. Its main fault is its dogged refusal Dracula become truly evil -- though I suppose you could see something evil on the level of hypocrisy about the denouement. While Vlad's been fighting Mehmet the Turks have pretty much massacred his incompetent subjects. Our hero finds a handful of wounded survivors to whom he offers vengeance via vampirism. A total wipeout of the Turks results, until the only humans left alive our Vlad's son and a monk. The other vampires are his people now, but Vlad suddenly grows less protective of them. To be fair, their desire to drink his son's blood has something to do with that. After sending his son off with the monk, Vlad uses his vampire magic to part the clouds and expose himself and everyone else to purging sunlight, but before he can join them in deserved oblivion, a gypsy proto-Renfield he met earlier in the story (Zach "Captain Charles Vane" McGowan) drags his scorched form to shelter, and that leads us to the present day. Has Vlad lived out Dracula's legendary career of wickedness or has he just hung around Transylvania as a benevolent spirit? The film isn't telling, but the filmmakers feel that one thing Dracula must do is meet a reincarnation of his lost first love -- and it also chooses this point to remind us that Vlad still owes that older vampire some service, hopefully in a sequel that a worldwide gross of a quarter-billion dollars may justify. I understand that hopeful filmmakers like to leave their pictures open-ended, but it was kind of demoralizing to have this film's last words be "Let the games begin." The film we have is a tale told by talented idiots, but a lot of that was due to the pictorial potential of the period, and I doubt strongly that they can repeat what modest success they had with a period piece in modern dress, especially when burdened with the tired gimmick of the reincarnated lover. Better, I think, to quit when they're slightly ahead and leave the rest of this story untold.

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