The latest member of the increasingly popular, consistently tiresome origin story bandwagon, Dracula Untold is a derivative mix of every other popular fantasy property of the last decade or so, in both visual and narrative execution. There’s a dash of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films here, a sprinkle of brooding superhero movies there, and enough Game of Thrones alumni in supporting roles (Charles Dance, Art Parkinson, Paul Kaye) to make you wish you were watching that instead. Thrones is certainly bloodier and, to be honest, scarier than this incarnation of Dracula, which barely seems to want anything to do with the icky red stuff, yet alone any semblance of horror filmmaking.
Taking a cue from the prologue of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, a film with an actual personality, Untold has the real-life Vlad the Impaler as its inspiration for Ol’ Fangface, though here Mr. Impaler (played by Luke Evans) is an honourable ruler wanting peace for Transylvania and to put his stabby-stick past behind him. That proves difficult when Mehmed (a sneering, boring Dominic Cooper), leader of a massive Turk army, demands 1,000 Transylvanian boys as child-slave soldiers. Having been commandeered into military service for the Turks as a kid, Prince Vlad is reluctant to send his own son (Parkinson) and 999 other boys to the same fate, and provokes the Turks’ wrath upon his land.
Vlad “Dracula” Impaler thinks he has a plan, however, as something lurking in a cave nearby has been known to slaughter several spying Turks in the bat of an eye (bat-puns!): a skeletal, pale master vampire (Dance, the film’s most compelling figure for his few scenes) who offers our lead a Faustian bargain. With one drink of the creature’s blood, Dracula will be granted super strength and powers (Predator-like blood vision, control of clouds, and turning into a full swarm of myriad, soldier-pummeling bats now among the vampire repertoire) to conquer the Turk forces, but will retain the disadvantages like having to stick to darkness unless, after three days, he manages to avoid drinking the blood of his kind. If he succeeds, he’ll revert back to human.
After Dracula drinks Dance’s blood and becomes a batman, Untold goes through a repetitive routine of incomprehensible, lifeless battle sequences and obligatory crisis of consciousness regarding both prince and familial duties (recent Cronenberg regular Sarah Gadon is wasted as the loving, doomed wife), until Vlad finally embraces his destiny and becomes The Dark Knight: the Nolan and Goyer-aping line “Sometimes the world no longer needs a hero, sometimes it needs a monster” is just one element that, like most of the film, will send one’s mind wandering elsewhere about what else you could be watching instead.
Dracula Untold is one of those misfires that’s not even memorably or enjoyably poor, just a monotonous distraction for an admittedly brisk hour and a half. The revisionist Maleficient-like interpretation of Dr. Acula as a heroic figure just doesn’t work with material like this that’s so miserably solemn and lacking in any stirring entertainment value. Only in one brief part of the final act does the film gain some goofy spark, and it’s fittingly when the film actually embraces its horror roots as a fully vampire Vlad turns a bunch of his people and they all go sharp-toothed upon the Turk forces. Of course, that’s all for naught as Gary Shore’s feature debut goes back to neutering Dracula’s bite in making him the lone ‘good guy’ among his suddenly all evil people, and concludes with a likely far too optimistic franchise tease: ending a film with “Let the games begin” almost feels like mockery when there’s been so little incentive offered to come back and play.
— Josh Slater-Williams