Released in the Fall of 2014, Dracula Untold wasn’t revered by audiences or even critics. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus states:
Neither awful enough to suck nor sharp enough to bite, Dracula Untold misses the point of its iconic character’s deathless appeal.
I would agree with the first component of the verdict describing Untold as a “middle-of-the-road” movie, but the second section, mentioning the film missing the point of Dracula is largely unfounded. This is “Dracula Untold,” not “Dracula Told.” The general mission of the film is to tell a previously unheard of
Serving as an origin story for Dracula, we have the Undead character reimagined as Vlad the Impaler, working out as revisionist history for a largely barbaric figure of the past. After being a hostage and soldier of the Ottoman Empire, Vlad (Luke Evans) returns to his home of Wallachia to rule peacefully as a prince, looking after his kingdom and family.
But Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) wishes to recruit more soldiers for his army and seeks a tribute of a thousand children from Vlad’s kingdom, including Vlad’s son as a royal hostage. To protect his subjects, Vlad makes a deal with the devil giving him the strength of a 1000 men, but should he feast on the blood of humans before three days pass, he would become a monster of the night for eternity.
One of the better-informed reviews at the time of its release came from Chloe Leeson of Screen Queens who put the matter quite succinctly:
As long as you don’t really associate Untold with any previous Dracula renditions or think about the history behind it, then it’s a relatively fun and painless popcorn-munching storm.
Untold plays fast and loose with the story of Dracula, giving him powers we never knew he possessed. His potential is apocalyptic, carrying the ability to manipulate entire armies of bats and the forces of nature. Why worry about sunlight when you can simply create a blanket of clouds? As long as silver, wooden stakes, and crosses are out of sight that is. He’s got a heat vision sense of sight and hypersensitive ears to follow. This Dracula is undoubtedly more effective than Batman and would fit in nicely with the Justice League as well.
What makes him even more likable as a character is his nobility. Luke Evans has made a habit of playing the good guy, and his face betrays his intentions as always true and pure. We’re solidly in his camp against the whitewashed Sultan played by Caucasian Dominic Cooper. Cooper plays the Sultan like a high schooler mocking the voice of his Arabic classmate, so aye, we can root against horrible casting decisions.
What strangely works against Untold is its video game-level treatment of Dracula’s abilities. Wesley Morris of Grantland notes:
Most of the time, I found myself feeling like I was waiting for a turn with the gaming controls.
The concern here is the use of POV-style, first-person viewpoints when Vlad goes into beast mode, and also the feeling that he’s no match to the Sultan’s army. They pose absolutely no threat to Vlad. The action sequences and violence are mostly self-satisfying and gratuitous. A guilty pleasure if you will. To understand the actual danger, the story must be viewed on a more personal level.
The prince always meant to take any action necessary to protect his kingdom and his family. So what if his becoming a vampire is the very thing preventing it? Can a vampire with bloodlust truly safeguard his son if he’s a danger to all humans? There’s a need to discover the end point of the film as it pertains to our contemporary understanding of Dracula as an antagonist. How does this noble prince transform into a monster? Does he turn into a monster?
There isn’t strong evidence to suggest Bram Stoker modeled Dracula around Vlad the Impaler. Most of the writing work by professor Elizabeth Miller validates this. She’s made a living off Dracula, so if anyone knows, she should be the one. It could be viewed as problematic since you’re rewriting history by infusing it with myth, but it’s mostly interpretive, and I’d like to assume we’re aware of this fact. It’s similar to portraying Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter. We know it isn’t true. I mean, have you seen a vampire?
Playing loose with vampire and Dracula lore is a welcome change, opting to brush aside a nefarious rendition of the character for a more altruistic iteration. I’m all for it, but it doesn’t seem like most others are, or were.
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