The key to enjoying Dracula Untold is a simple matter of knowing what to expect. This is a character whose story has been pretty thoroughly covered at this point, no matter what the title may want you to believe. Any loose analogue to history found in the film is pretty much lifted from the ‘Historical and geographical references’ section of the Dracula Wikipedia page. But that’s fine. If a fresh story is what you’re looking for in what is ultimately a vampire movie, you’re probably looking in the wrong place.
The comic book-style origin story here is rudimentary – Dracula’s (Luke Evans) is a more or less A to B journey of hero becoming more heroic – bar for the light twist of the hero becoming a villain to be the hero. It’s a little convoluted and, given that the film is a tightly packed 92 minutes, it occasionally asks you to forgive some narrative leaps here and there.
But really, Dracula Untold lives and dies almost entirely by its tone and its visuals. There’s a definite self-awareness at work here from director Gary Shore; he seems all too aware that the script from Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama is a bit flimsy. The dialogue is functional at best, while the characters openly state their motivations and declare their emotional states just to make sure the audience isn’t lagging behind.
But Shore has managed to turn his first feature directing opportunity into a chance to make a flashy showreel, full of canny action direction that’s immersive and weighty and fun in a way ill-befitting of the film’s portentous marketing. When Dracula acquires his powers from an ancient vampire (Charles Dance), turning from respected Prince to creature of the night, his alarm at suddenly being able to travel in the form of a flock of bats is knowingly hilarious. The camera moves towards him as he stares behind him as if to say, “Man, did you see that?”
Shore and his director of photography John Schwartzman – no stranger to imagery that yearns for the huge and iconographic having shot Armageddon and The Green Hornet – find inventive ways to spice up what could otherwise have been dreary action sequences. In an early one where Dracula is laying waste to a horde of attacking Turks, the camera focuses on what we can see in the reflection of a sword as a soldier falls, slain, to the ground.
Other imagery of Dracula controlling a tremendous cloud of bats like an extension of his being – as glimpsed in the trailers – is similarly impressive, the excellent visual effects turning the cloud of creatures into a retributive, godlike storm. Most memorable, however, is a sequence late in the film set on a tower, which becomes an utterly gorgeous moment of suspense.
The film stumbles a little in its need to end somewhere, particularly the coda which sets up a sequel under highly suspect circumstances (which will nonetheless be a fascinating prospect if or when it comes to pass). Evans’ performance is brooding and surprisingly charismatic given the circumstances. Sarah Gadon gets precious little to do as Dracula’s hot wife – if there’s a knock to be made against the film, it’s that it should definitely be less patronisingly lacking in female characters. Dominic Cooper is also fine as the villain, Turkish Sultan Mehmed, getting only one scene to really cut loose.
Dracula Untold is a bit derivative, to be sure, but its sources are solid enough for the sum of its parts to work. Combining the visual and narrative economy of Dredd, some of the transformative substance crazy of Lucy, and the feel of a budgeted-up edition of Game of Thrones, it completes the equation with just a hell of a lot of bats.
With a sharp eye and a well-calibrated sense of its own silliness, Dracula Untold is a pretty great time at the movies – if you’ll let it be.
[rating=3] and a half
Laurence Barber – follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.