Director: Gary Shore / Screenplay: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless / Editing: Richard Pearson / DP: John Schwartzman / Music: Ramin Djawadi
Cast: Luke Evans / Sarah Gadon / Dominic Cooper / Charles Dance / Diarmaid Murtagh / Paul Kaye / Ferdinand Kingsley / William Houston / Noah Huntley
May DO Contain Bats…
Let’s have a little fun and try some role play. Imagine you’re a ‘suit’ within Universal Pictures. You’ve seen rival studio Disney acquire upstart Marvel and ruthlessly exploit its catalogue of heroes & villains in the so-called ‘Marvel Continuous Universe’ and make a shed-load of cash in the process.
Inevitably, you get to thinking about what might lurk in your own dusty archives; something that might be shaken-out, shaken-up and reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster. Then it hits you. Right. Between. The Eyes: Universal already has a trove of classic horror franchises dating back to the Thirties & Forties! Why not tie-together evocative properties such as The Wolfman, Frankenstein, The Mummy et-al, in a rebooted contiguous universe all their own? You could even call it something like, I dunno, ‘The Dark Universe’ (catchy)… It’d be great!
History will record how that Big Idea ended-up (clue: not well) but, to kick things off, back in the heady days of 2014 when the whole ‘TDU’ thing was but a twinkle in an executive’s eye, came this toe-in-the-water exercise featuring that thespian rarity: the Welsh Action Hero. Direct from a stint in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy (2012 – 2014), Luke Evans was Hot! Hot! Hot! by this point, although he’d apparently come to Universal’s attention, not via Middle Earth, but his role in Fast and Furious 6 (2013)… No-one’s fooled: having seen the mastery Evans had over his sword (and the occasional giant crossbow) in Hobbit, Universal offered him the pick of a number of ideas; no prizes for guessing which one he plumped for…
Since Bram Stoker’s ür-text first took a lump out of the silver screen, courtesy of F. W. Murnau’s still-disturbing Nosferatu (1922), there have been countless adaptations, interpretations and re-inventions of the Dracula character, but this exsanguinated movie, directed by Irishman Gary Shore, might be one of the more disposable…
Things begin promisingly enough, with a CGI-rendered, multi-layered depiction of a medieval battlefield, caught frozen amidst a mêlée, whilst a VO from a young boy (later revealed to be the son of our hero) tells of how the Turkish Sultan kidnapped a thousand young boys from the Transylvanian province of Walachia (yawn) and from them, shaped an army (as you do). He goes on: ‘And out of the thousand came a warrior so fierce, entire armies would retreat on hearing his name’.
Cue: our hero kneeling before a panorama of impaled corpses, silhouetted against a bloodied sunset of an intensity last seen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). This turns out to be merely the first ‘homage’ to Coppola’s picture that we’ll see. Dracula Untold is a film so lacking in invention – indeed, in having any ideas of its own – that it’s a wonder Coppola didn’t sue for plagiarism!
Ten years-on from his last impaling, Prince Vlad has, somewhat improbably, become ruler of a land at peace with itself; like a bucolic King Arthur overseeing Camelot before The Fall. That begins innocently enough, when Vlad finds a Turkish helmet in a creek, that’s been ‘washed-down’ from ‘Broken Tooth Mountain’; an ever-present and ominous peak. Ignoring how long it might’ve taken to have ended-up there, Vlad announces that Turkish scouts are in the vicinity, though HOW he knows this for certain, is never explained. Having sent his BFF back to the castle, Vlad goes on in the company of two disposable underlings towards the mountain.
It’s a CGI-inflated peak the size of Ben Nevis yet, later that same day, they’re entering a cave on its slopes, the location of which they ‘somehow’ knew. After his chums fulfil their contractual obligations, Vlad comes dangerously close to their killer: a Vampire of the old school, who’s decorated the place with a scattered collection of human skulls and littered the floor with crushed bone; an effect stolen from Jackson’s own LOTR trilogy; remember that bit in Return of the King (2003) when our heroes are padding through the Ossuary in search of the ghosts? Precisely…
There’s more, for just as Aragorn wields his sword to hold-back the ghosts, so Vlad does likewise; the afternoon sun, glinting off its silvery blade, drives the vampire back… I mean, if you haven’t seen any of this stuff before, and you’re coming to the whole Vampire thing with perhaps the Twilight saga as your only reference point, chances are high that this might blow your mind, but for everyone else? It’s old news. Oh, and a word here for the vampire’s roar. For someone still possessing a human voice-box, it’s mightily bassy…
By now, daylight should well and truly have turned to night but, miraculously, there’s still time for Vlad to ride back to his gaff; a castle that looks bigger than The Tower of London; not bad for Fifteenth Century Transylvania. It’s probably taken a century’s worth of the region’s GDP to build, but it looks worthy of the sacrifice. What’s more, it sits alone, with neither town nor village nestling under its walls (the locals were too knackered to build something of their own), which helps preserve the views… Luckily for Vlad, while there might not be any neighbours to look down on, he does have a canny priest living-in (Paul Kaye) who presents an illustrated ‘bestiary’ of the demon, for future reference.
So far, then, so silly. If you hadn’t made your mind up by this point, surely watching Brother Lucian flip through an illuminated manuscript with all the production values of a Dorling Kindersley encyclopaedia might do it?
‘Come in and meet the missus and have a cup of tea’ as a caterpillar once said and so we do, as Vlad (an earnest-looking Evans, who looks like he’s at least committed to the role he signed-up for) is reunited with wife Mirena, played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon. This is the first time I’ve seen her on-screen and I was struck by the expressiveness of her open face; if not the godawful dialogue she has to spout from time-to-time. There’s a little on-screen chemistry between husband and wife too, but not enough to tickle the film’s 15 / Teen Certificate. Still, Mrs Impaler does get to ogle her old man’s impressive six-pack as he peels off for a bath, lucky thing and I suppose that makes a change from the usual…
Next day and – wouldn’t you know it – it’s Easter; the traditional day when the Turkish emissary Hamza Bey (Ferdinand Kingsley) pops-round to collect tribute for the Sultan. Except now, he’s also asking for a new round of boys to be delivered, along with Vlad’s own as a royal hostage; like father, like son, you might say. A word here on the production design of the castle’s hall, by François Audouy: so much attention to detail in a set that’s on-screen for scant minutes. I both salute and commiserate with you, sir!
Naturally, Vlad doesn’t comply with the order. On the bleak, windswept Irish moor on which he’s due to hand over his boy (no CGI here) he single-handedly kills the Turkish delegation; a desperate move driven by a need to protect his family. Now, of course, he knows that Sultan Mehmed (played with a glowering, camp intensity by anachronistically-coiffed Dominic Cooper) is going to be pissed. So what does he do? Yep: he returns alone to the cave and invites dialogue with the Master Vampire – an incongruous Charles Dance – in a fleshy skullcap who, I’d wager, kept his glorious false nails so as to scare his Grandchildren… As Mr Dance intoned about ‘how grim it is being a monster’, I started thinking about his proximity to Vlad’s patch and at the number of bodies he’d accumulated up there in his ‘bat-cave’ and it dawned on me, that no-one appears to have known of his existence! Yet, how could this be? Where were the pitchfork & torch-wielding villagers to guide Vlad on his quest? Then it hit me: they’d already been eaten / sent off to the Turks / were still too knackered after building the castle to go on and have children, let alone a place of their own…
Of course, Vlad drinks the blood-flavoured Kool Aid and duly becomes vampiric, but ‘only for three days’. If he resists the bloodlust and doesn’t ‘feed’, he’ll revert to being a normal man. Otherwise, he’ll be condemned forever. After his initiation, Vlad wakes in the (same?) creek where the helmet was found and finds he now has superhero powers that he wastes literally no time in learning & mastering. Super hearing! Strength of ten (or is it a hundred?) men! Ability to morph into a colony of bats then re-form! Err… More to be revealed, later!
Soon back home and behaving as if nothing’s happened, Vlad discovers his beautiful castle’s under siege, so he faces the enemy alone and creates merry havoc to the startled bemusement of his followers. Later, unruffled at dispatching a thousand enemy soldiers single-handed, when presented with Mirena’s throbbing vein (in her neck, of course! Where else?) he resists her tender entreaties with the timeless line ‘I need some air… Sorry.’
Things just roll along from this point, through ever-outlandish fight scenes (though choreographed well), the death of a Significant Other, the callous induction of colleagues & their eventual release from service. Lastly, there’s a ridiculous meet-cute in a London street market circa last-Tuesday, between Vlad as he is now and a reincarnated Mirena, in another massive hat-tip towards Coppola’s movie (the irony being, it’s not so great a movie to be ripping off in the first place…). It’s as if the writers (Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless) had watched that one version of the story and decided there was nothing to be gained from watching anything else!
Other problems? Yes. Yes, there are.
There’s too much anachronistic dialogue for starters. How about nonsensically-compressed timelines and plot (where DOES Vlad acquire his fresh set of oxblood armour? Coppola’s old dressing-up box?). How about CGI backdrops that glitter with ostentatious excess. A movie such as 300 (2006) based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, worked because its entire milieu was pure fantasy with no nods to reality. But, the writers of ‘Untold are basing their story in this world, so why sanction such overblown set design?
I could go on, but I fear little would be gained. Suffice to say that, in my gut, I get the feeling that the studio – not the writers – insisted on the film’s likely certification. ‘18’ movies don’t perform well in-theatres these days and that realisation would’ve left the writers no choice but to deliver what they believed an audience of teenage boys would want to see. That demographic is the largest attending cinemas today (why else are there so many superhero movies?) so it made sense to appeal to their assumed sensibility and build the movie accordingly. That requires two or three fight sequences of escalating impact and scale. Minimal emotional involvement (because, teenage boys…). Inconsequential plotting, chronology and logic as they just get in the way, as do long scenes and elegant cuts. Throw-in perfunctory dialogue delivered with all the grace of a Speak & Spell machine and you’re getting there. When a genre picture fails to move the emotional needle as little as this, what possible explanation might there be, other than an inability of the script to engage on any level beyond superficial?
The target audience is also the likely reason why this might be the first Dracula movie to show hardly any claret, either spurting, fizzing or smeared across our hero’s chops… The tumultuous fight scenes are equally inconsequential and inane, relying on blurred movement, slo-mo, agitated cross-cuts & athletic choreography, to make up for what someone might expect of a vampire movie…
And yet… If you needed an object lesson in how to resurrect a moribund franchise, consider Christopher Nolan’s rehabilitation of Batman for Warners’; a brand that had imploded under its own hubris following Tim Burton’s departure. Nolan took a different approach to Shore, in giving up-front credit to the audience’s intelligence and likely attention span when presented with a vision worth savouring. The resultant trilogy was revelatory, for both its forensic examination of the titular character’s composition as much as the genre-reappraisal it allowed, nay, encouraged.
Which leads me to ‘Untold’s fatal flaw: Count Dracula is a villainous character. He is EVIL PERSONIFIED, wrapped in an urbane, cultured shell. What he is NOT, is a family man and enlightened ruler, dedicated to the wellbeing of his people! As a result, this Dracula is a bloodless, toothless and impotent action-plodder that uses a familiar brand as a fig leaf, to cover its own sorry lack of invention and soul. In one of the Special Features on my disc, Evans talks of his honour & pride in making a Dracula picture, which begs the question: Where is it?
One can imagine an early conversation in which Evans was advised on how a picture such as this, might ‘build his brand recognition among a key market demographic’ with a view to – possibly – winning a future franchise. An understandable position: Evans is a working actor, considering each offer that can fit into his schedule. However: in the case of Dracula Untold, did he really see its potential, or did the cheque blind him to its calculated cynicism?
‘Untold is yet another example of Hollywood looking within, in an era when truly original content & ideas are migrating to pay-TV; towards business models with a guaranteed income, independent of age-certificates and box-office revenue. For studios such as Universal to remain relevant – and viable – they’re going to have to try harder than this twaddle; a point they may have learnt to their cost, after the first ‘proper’ entry in TDU – The Mummy (2017) – comprehensively bombed in-theatres, despite Tom Cruise’s name on the posters. If you want to get into numbers, the so-so version from 1999, starring Brendan Fraser & Rachel Weisz has made more money and nearly DOUBLE what ‘Untold’s gross currently stands at… Unsurprisingly, any further explorations of TDU have been put on ‘indefinite hold’.
What disappoints most however, is ‘Untold’s studious lack of ambition; an apparent unwillingness by the creative heads to build something of worth. Instead, it’s as if they served up fare of the lowest common denominator to one tightly-programmed slice of the audience, without ever giving thought to doing something great into the bargain.
Why? Well, one answer might be that they felt the audience would neither appreciate or deserve the extra effort and if THAT turns out to be the case, then is it any wonder why studios other than Marvel are in such existential crisis? One only has to consider Marvel’s success, to see how attention-to-detail can attract major talent, both in front of – and behind – the camera. If Universal had taken Nolan’s lead and actually diverted key talent to ‘Untold, then the entire TDU project might still be alive, if not thriving: turns out that teenage boys (and others) LIKE exploring a cinematic universe with depth and, you know, pathos.
It’s also why there haven’t been any other successfully-implemented ‘Continuous Universes’ from other studios: Marvel is sucking all the air out of the market. For another studio to compete, it’s going to take work of equal – or better – quality. No wonder that ‘Untold and the wider TDU failed if this is the best Universal can offer.
Lastly, I think it was telling, that the studio should’ve entrusted Dracula – one of horror’s ‘Crown Jewels’ – to an untested director; one who’d yet to find his own artistic imprint, so who was forced to deliver a journeyman’s film that cherry-picked its ideas with all the enthusiasm of a kleptomaniacal magpie…
Unsurprisingly, we get a film that not only has no idea about what it wants to be, it has no idea what it is, which is even worse…
Vlad: I’m going to win this war in three days!
Officer: Why not two and really impress us?