I blame Peter Jackson! And so should you. Here’s why:
I’m sitting there watching Dracula Untold, the Gary Shore-directed movie made from a script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, based on Bram Stoker’s (quite literally) immortal creation Count Dracula.
We open in Transylvania, where it’s 1462 and our sort-of hero is a soldier/prince named Vlad. Apparently the Transylvanians have a long history of battle with the Turks. But several years ago a détente was reached through this nifty treaty: If the Transylvanians give the Turks all their young men to be soldiers in the Turkish army, so they can conquer other nations, the Turks will leave the Transylvanians alone.
They’ve never really been happy with the arrangement but it’s been going on for such a long time, and as Vlad says as he stares adoringly at his loving wife Mirena (which he does a lot), he was once indentured in the Turkish army himself. This year, though, the Turks have gone and made a big mistake. They’ve come to take Vlad’s son.
Oh no you di’in’t!
Vlad (who is only slightly based on the historical Romanian figure Vlad Tepes a.k.a. “The Impaler”) is beside himself with grief. How will he ever get his kid back, defeat the Turks, protect his people, and be home in time to stare lovingly at his adorable wife?
Well what do you know but there just happens to be a vampire living in a nearby mountain cave, and this Master Vampire has a little proposition. If he, Vlad, drinks Master’s blood, it’ll give him the power to vanquish a thousands armies and cheat death and still have time to go make goo-goo eyes at Mirena! It looks like a rapturous day for Poppa.
But just as with that prince who lives in Nigeria and keeps wanting to send me $36 million, there’s a catch. If Vlad doesn’t drink anyone’s blood for three days, the curse will not take hold and he can stay a normal human being. (Well, as normal as someone with the nickname “The Impaler” can be.) However if he gives in and has a plasma pick-me-up then he’ll become a vampire and have to move into the cave. (You see, there always has to be a vampire in the cave—I guess they’re waiting for the cable guy—and Master can’t leave until he finds someone to take his place).
Gee, what could go wrong with that plan?
And that’s the set up for this slightly daffy, curiously half-baked movie. Luke Evans plays Dracula and he does as well as anyone could. Vlad doesn’t have much to do here except look sad, exchange puppy dog eyes with his wife, and kill a lot of people.
One silly thing about Dracula Untold is that even though it’s set 550 years ago, you’d swear you are sitting behind a large, moody family at a baseball game. While I certainly didn’t expect a documentary about life in the 15th century, I was hoping…I mean c’mon fellas, would it kill you to at least make an effort?
Mirena looks longingly at Vlad: “Are you okay?”
Vlad looks lovingly at Mirena: “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Is that really 1462? Or is it two kids standing outside an Apple Store at the mall? Vlad may be an Impaler…but that’s just his job, man! Who he really is, is a loving and supportive husband and father who only wants to keep his family safe—even if it takes him all eternity to do it.
Over-Acting, Under-Scripting, and the Nefarious Plan Behind the Plot
There’s a whole bunch of special effects, although why everyone is killing everyone else isn’t entirely made clear. Dominic Cooper plays the evil Turkish warlord demanding the conscription of all those boys, and the fact that he doesn’t have a black mustache to twirl could only mean that the makeup trailer burned down on the day he started filming. As the conniving, ancient Master Vampire, Charles Dance chews the scenery so voraciously it’s amazing he doesn’t have splinters in his gums. Cinematographer John Schwartzman bathes everything in a fuzzy bronze light, like one of those Lifetime TV specials, which this movie sort of is: “My Life With Vlad: Fangs for the Memories.”
It’s all goofy and dopey, and the manner in which the writers flaunt their lack of originality so brazenly is, in an odd way, entertaining. Nothing makes much sense and plot points and key thematic elements just fly right by. For a big action blockbuster Dracula Untold is very short, only 92 minutes. But it does occur to you that even at 92 minutes it feels drawn out.
And that’s when it hits you. You haven’t been watching a movie, you’re actually watching an extended trailer for what is sure to be a number of Dracula sequels.
Which is why I blame Peter Jackson. Only he, after the fabulous but bloated cinematic achievement of the Lords of the Rings trilogy, would then take one book, The Hobbit, and stretch it into three more-than-feature-length films.
Every single thing that happens in Dracula Untold could have, in fact, been told in a brief flashback sequence in a proper Dracula movie. But if Peter Jackson can a beat a dead horse and make a fortune out of it, then director Shore and Universal Pictures can make a 92-minute movie out of what is, in reality, a parenthetical remark.
And a little sleuthing reveals that to be exactly the plan. No doubt coveting the recent success Marvel has had in exploiting its back catalogue, Universal is hoping that Dracula Untold and its sequels will be the beginning of a reboot of all their legendary monster pictures from the 1930s. So I guess that means we can look forward to Frankenstein Unplugged or The Invisible Man Unwrapped or The Wolfman Unshaved.
Damn you, Peter Jackson, damn you to hell!
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.