At some point in the future, some bright eyed and rosy-cheeked young film scholar will sit at his computer and write a paper on the current period of cinematic history. By that time, I’m sure, the era we’re living through will have become known as “the shared universe period” and much ink (digital or otherwise) will be spent dissecting and deconstructing the phenomenon of loosely connected films and their incredible, unstoppable mass appeal.
Marvel’s undeniable success (and takeover of the movie industry) has led to other studios rushing to catch up. Sony is busy planning ways for their Spider-Man license to be expanded. Fox is trying desperately to find a way to crossover the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Warner Brothers is so excited to create their own universe using DC Comics characters that they’re busy potentially ruining the entire franchise by throwing every character they’ve got into the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.
And Universal? Well, Universal’s got the monsters.
I’ll admit that the concept of a shared universe featuring the classic Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, et al.) sounds decent enough on paper. Universal has never exactly shied away from the crossover appeal these characters have, and if it was done right, it might be appealing. As of right now, however, the only indication we’ve got about the quality of this potential franchise is Dracula Untold.
To that end, Dracula Untold is bad. Like…really bad.
In this age of reboots and re-imaginings, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the granddaddy of all horror villains was resurrected. Dracula’s appeal is apparently as hard to kill as a vampire since it’s lasted well over a century. It’s been over two decades, however, since he was given the proper cinematic treatment in Francis Ford Coppola’s retelling of the Bram Stoker classic.
But Coppola this ain’t. Unfortunately for Dracula, Dracula Untold falls more in line with the laughable Gerard Butler vehicle Dracula 2000. Except this outing doesn’t even have the benefit of being laughable. Reimagined as a sort of superhero origin story, Dracula Untold tells the story of a young, Transylvanian prince named Vlad (Luke Evans) who is taken hostage by a Turkish sultan. Forced to live life as a slave in a slave army, he hones his brutality to the degree that he earns the nickname Vlad the Impaler. As an adult, he returns to his kingdom to lead his people into an era of peace and prosperity; when that is interrupted by the harsh demands of an invading Turkish army led by his former friend Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), the prince sells his soul to a dark creature (Charles Dance) in order to earn the power to destroy the trespassers.
Once again, we’ve got a concept that sounds kind of badass on paper. Unfortunately, the badassery doesn’t extend far past the premise.
For starters, coming in at a scant 90 minutes, there’s no time at all for any semblance of interesting development. Vlad’s early life is glossed over and rushed, thanks to a convenient voice over provided by his human son, which immediately ruins the potential for interesting backstory. Of course, in the hands of first-time screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, “interesting story” is a goal out of reach.
The script feels like a recap of a 101 class in film school. No subtlety. No intrigue. No heart. It is, simply, a series of predictable events that culminate into a predictable conclusion. To make matters worse, it never seems as though anyone ever figured out what they wanted this movie to be. Is it a superhero origin story? A sweeping, Game of Thrones-style epic? A horror? In an attempt to make up for this lack of focus, it tries to be everything and subsequently it fails at all of it. What’s even worse is that the writers have taken two fairly solid ideas — a reboot of Dracula and a film exploring the legends surrounding Stoker’s real world muse, Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes — and combined them into a single abysmal failure.
This isn’t helped much by first-time director Gary Shore, who presents the story (such as it is) as another glossy, uninspired digital effects romp through the wastelands of banality. There are no attempts at mood or atmosphere, nothing to indicate the apparent darkness that we’re told our hero must face. Just one familiar, subpar scene after another that plods along without any point or purpose.
Watching Dracula Untold, one can almost hear the conversations that must have taken place in some ivory tower of Universal’s executive suites. “Shared universes are in these days,” they would have said. “How can we cash in?” This rush to cash in is ultimately the downfall of the movie and, one hopes, the current plans to expand it into a series. They’ve taken a by-the-numbers script and given it to a by-the-numbers director in the hope of making a by-the-numbers cinematic universe. The result is insipid and has less heart than your average undead creature of the night.
I suppose that’s the nature of trends, though. Every successful venture in the history of man has begotten inferior attempts to replicate originality. Nothing we say or do will ever change this, and with every other studio now jumping onto the shared universe bandwagon, it was inevitable that Universal would attempt to grab their piece of the pie. It’s just a shame they had to drag Dracula into this. He deserves better than we’ve given him.