Confession time: I adore the classic Universal Monster movies. They might be dated, but they’ve aged well by serving up genre icons with vaguely tragic backstories in gorgeously gothic settings. They’re all fun and in the studio’s early crack at endless sequelizing, even led to a couple of fun monster mash-up pictures like House Of Frankenstein or Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein. So, the news that Universal planned to reboot their monster movies with eventual plans of a crossover Avengers-style event was something that I was initially excited about. After all, we’re talking about a series of timeless tales that benefit from retelling and could suit a blockbuster update well. However, on the basis of the studio’s first crack at their great monster movie reboot, my excitement has been replaced by stirrings of impending doom. Sadly, Dracula Untold owes more to the fun-free post-Nolan superhero reboots than anything involving Dracula and that tone just as unsuccessfully/inappropriately employed here as it was in Man Of Steel. The filmmakers somehow managed to suck most of the fun and virtually all of the evil out Dracula with this blockbuster. At least it’s not I, Frankenstein though. That’s something.
The film picks up the life of Dracula (Luke Evans) back in his old Vlad The Impaler days. However, this is a far kinder and gentler Impaler than you’ve seen before. This Vlad has a happy monogamous relationship with his blonde babe wife (Sarah Gadon), a loving son (Art Parkinson), and an adoring kingdom to look over. Sure, he impaled thousands of men in the past, but he’s a good guy now! That is until the evil Turkish army that trained him to kill comes to town led by Dominic Cooper and demands that Vlad give up a thousand young boys to join their army including Vlad’s son. Obviously, our hero doesn’t take to kindly to that idea and heads out to a creepy mountain to see the local vampire (Charles Dance) for help. Dance offers to give Vlad incredible power along with a thirst for human blood and even promises the curse will be lifted in three days if he can avoid any bloodsucking. Vlad agrees and is soon able to fight off the first 1000 man wave of Cooper’s army all by himself. Everything looks like it’s coming up Dracula until Vlad’s kingdom gets wary of having a vampire for a leader. It’s only then that you’ll remember you’re watching a tragic tale rather than some sort of Lord Of The Rings-style heroic epic with vampire trimmings.
First the good news: there are actually some elements of the movie that work! First time director Gary Shore clearly relished staging grand scale vamp action and the first few times that we get to see Dracula unleash hell are a blast. Evans is also pretty strong in the title role and when the film stops being an action movie long enough to focus on the vampires, it even offers a refreshingly dark n’ gothic take on the iconic monsters after years of sparkly skinned emo nonsense. So, there’s some nice spectacle here that fulfills the promise of bonkers blockbuster vampire shenanigans. Unfortunately, these positive qualities in the film are few and far between. They are but fleeting glimpses of the Dracula epic that could have been rather than the limp n’ dull franchise starter that this thing actually is.
Dracula Untold clocks in at a trim 92 minutes, yet feels almost twice as long. So much screen time is wasted on empty world-building and desperately trying to present this pulpy fluff seriously that the story never achieves the feverishly intense pacing that it deserves. It’s a film that has an excellent dramatic arc at the center about a noble hero becoming an evil monster, yet constantly shoves that aside in favor of pointless war games and tiresome romance. The script also follows the overplayed hero origin story plot conventions so rigidly that there are essentially no surprises. Watching the film is like filling out a checklist of plot requirements with little attempt at delivering twists or the unexpected. Then there’s the massive central flaw of transforming an iconic evil monster based on a factually revolting man into a romantic hero that he never was. The conceit of this movie is a square peg being rammed into round hole and no amount of exciting vampire battle sequences can lube that peg up enough to slide in.
So, it’s safe to say that Dracula Untold is a failed franchise kickstarter. This monster-as-hero twist on the Dracula mythology simply doesn’t work, yet it’s not a total disaster either. There are pieces in place here that could be improved upon in a sequel if the filmmakers are allowed to deliver a darker tale that, you know, feels like a Dracula movie. There’s a tragic backstory that could serve a conflicted monster anti-hero series… Well, provided that Universal doesn’t insist on dropping the “anti.” However, that might all be a case of wishful thinking on my part, desperately hoping that Universal wants to actually bring back their monsters as monsters. With Dracula Untold, it’s clear the producers are hoping to manufacture their own superhero universe out of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and The Creature Of The Black Lagoon, which isn’t just a bad idea, it represents a complete misunderstanding of the appeal of their monster properties. With a little luck, the film will underperform at the box office and everyone involved with the Universal Monster revival will retool their plans. There’s still time to forget this confused mess happened and make some actual monster movies with crossover potential. Maybe one day Universal will even bring back the now-adult Monster Squad to fight off all of their monsters at once. Now there’s a reboot that I can get behind.