Zombos Says: Good (but I have reservations)
Dracula Untold is a good movie. It's just not a horror movie but more a blend of dark fantasy, historical rearrangement, and bloodless swordplay. Unlike Van Helsing, the CGI is apropos to the storyline. The story just lacks bite, you know, the usual bite we have come to expect from Dracula the vampire. Or, rather, have come to yearn for ever since Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee portrayed the blood-thirsty count. Too often sub-textual nuances are lacking in the predominantly visually interesting rehashings or re-imaginings we've been subjected to over the decades. With Lugosi and Lee it was very simple: evil begot evil, and evil was simply that, no more, no less, and very corruptive. No explanations to soften the terror, no apologies to bring on our sympathies: Dracula embraced his blasphemy and made playthings of anyone and everyone.
But ever since Dan Curtis gave us a vampire filled with feelings and remorse, letting us feel Dark Shadows' Barnabus Collins torment with each reluctant bite of his damnation, and more specifically, Jack Palance's lost love torment as Dracula in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1973), which is now an often used background story element--all this unfortunate emotional baggage has leeched onto Dracula, the supreme vampire. Horror fans have suffered the repercussions of this softened and more romantic anti-hero ever since.
And continue to do so with director Gary Shore's Dracula Untold. The writers have penned this movie as a franchise-building first chapter in the super hero vein, so Vlad Dracula (who historically is Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia), who spiked thousands of innocent and not so innocent people for kicks and giggles, is now just a family man trying to keep his kingdom from being overrun by the Turks. He doesn't just become a vampire, he becomes a super vampire with a heart of tarnished gold to defend his people. While Penny Dreadful on Showtime shows more promise for those horror fans who remember Dracula as a true evil, unexplained and unapologetic, Universal Studios new Dracula is offering his services as chief character in their new franchise mythos. He's handsome, urbane, and keeps his fangs to himself as best he can. I wonder what the studio, the one that wrought the classic horror monster movie cycle in the first place, has in store for the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon now that they're to be joined at the hips like the characters in the Marvel and DC Universes?
For those who remember the all in one (or as many as the budget allowed) Monster Rallies, where the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and Dracula prowled together in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), Universal's approach seems like a more serious attempt at a meta-rally than the one used in The Monster Squad (1987). In that movie Dracula gathered the Monsters together in his quest to rule the world. But Dracula doesn't want to rule the world in Dracula Untold. He doesn't want to be evil, either. This tends to take a bite out of his more sanguine appeal and threat potential. To be fair, even though he may be a reluctant vampire, his intentions for good do get twisted into malevolence no matter what he does.
A beautiful, gothically-colored flourish has him change into a small colony of bats for quick trips and bedeviling enemies. A clever embellishment using point of view imagery mirrored on a sword blade, and a darkened palette throughout, makes Dracula Untold a beautifully rendered movie. But Dracula here is a pawn in a larger game, one being played by HIS master, the vampire that turned him, and this, by its structural implication, waters down the horror we should be seeing--and feeling--from the Prince of Darkness himself. Instead, the Master Vampire, the one who turned him, has all the plans and machinations for ill-intent. Go figure. All this time I thought Dracula was the master vampire.
Do you recall this line Lugosi speaks in Dracula (1931)? To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious.He says this to Mina during the opera's intermission. So much is implied in this odd utterance. Is Dracula yearning for true death? Is Dracula mocking those who CAN die? He follows this with his more ominous There are far worse things awaiting man than death. Is he referring to his fate or to the fate he brings? So much to ponder in two sentences. So little to ponder in Dracula Untold. There are no notable quotes, no outstanding performances, no suspense delivered from Dracula's potential terror.
In essence it's the streamlined actioner we've come to expect from cinematic franchises. Simple plot, lots of action, and an ending that doesn't quite end as it builds a bridge to the next movie in the series. Let the monster rally commence.