A review of Dracula Untold
The first in the reboot of the Universal Monsters franchise, Dracula Untold attacks with a different angle, but lacks bite.
Every retelling of Dracula aims to tell the story with its own unique twist – something so overdone that by now it has become a cliche in itself. Universal’s recent addition, Dracula Untold, released in the weeks prior to Halloween of this year, falls victim to this plague, but tried to do what has not often been done before.
Dracula Untold looks at the historical figure of Vlad Drăculea, also known as Țepeș – the Impaler. This very real Wallachian prince-warlord was the namesake of Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire in his 1897 novel Dracula, and the true history is a lot bloodier than anything Stoker could come up with. Vlad was one of the fiercest defendants of the European frontline from the advancing Ottoman Empire in the mid-fifteenth century, and his nicknames were a testament to his habits of impalement and torture, both to enemies and to any of his own countrymen who broke the rules, no matter how insignificant their crime was.
Many Dracula films make reference to his Romanian warlord past – such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1993) and the popular manga Hellsing, but few focus exclusively on having a story set in this past. Dracula Untold takes one of Vlad Țepeș’ landmark wars and attempts to build a vampire origin myth into it.
The Real History:
The inspiration for this film’s story is one of the most engaging aspects of Drăculea’s history. In 1444 his father gave him to the Ottoman Sultan as a tribute – he was only thirteen at the time and was a political prisoner for many years. His traumatic experiences in the Ottoman camp meant that when he eventually assumed rule of Wallachia (a principality within Romania), he refused to play into the hands of the Sultan as his father had done. This meant denying all further tributes of young boys into the Ottoman Army.
Sultan Mehmet then sent out various assassins and armies to deal with Vlad, leading to an epic 300-style Spartan ambush around the Danube. Vlad then went on a rampage into Bulgaria, laying waste to Ottoman camps everywhere. It took three years for Mehmet to retaliate by invading Romania, whereupon Vlad countered his every move with battle upon battle, until the Sultan was forced back.
The film’s approach:
The main problem is that Dracula Untold tries to get all this historical context across in ninety minutes, which doesn’t really work. The many battles that were fought after Vlad’s initial rebuke of the Sultan were mashed into one main assault in this movie. The infamous Night Attack, where Vlad’s army used cover of darkness to kill 15,000 Ottoman soldiers and make an attempt on Mehmet’s life, was possibly the inspiration for the final phase of the film. And this is where it crosses over into Stoker’s lore: in order to win the battle, Vlad makes a deal with a dark creature and attains immense power, which, as we all know, comes with a price.
Funnily enough, it was not too far of a stretch to create a Dracula origin story here – Vlad really did use vampiric methods to defeat his enemies, such as infecting the Ottoman Army with the bubonic plague and other diseases, dining in front of freshly-impaled Turks, and sending bloodied body parts of his enemies back to the Sultan. And the Night Attack is just too perfectly set up as a cover for someone who might find themselves suddenly unable to travel in daylight any more!
Playing into the vampire lore even further, it’s nice to note that the ancient vampire Vlad meets and gains his powers from is, stylistically, very similar to Max Shreck’s Nosferatu, while Vlad himself retains the classic handsome, dark-haired aesthetic first started by Bela Lugosi in the original Universal Monsters film from 1931.
Another thing I appreciated was that this was a love story, but not in a conventional sense. It was about family love – about Drăculea protecting his son. And that was a nice angle.
But it wasn’t enough to make the movie stand out. Luke Evans, previously known for his role as Apollo in the 2010 movie Clash of the Titans, was a good historical Dracula, but I feel he didn’t have enough time to truly explore his character. If you’re going to make a film about a well-known historical and literary figure, you have to go full-throttle.
This film deviates too much for a history buff to be adequately satisfied, and doesn’t get that gothic emotion across enough for the horror contingent to be pleased. Even the fact that it features both Art Parkinson and Charles Dance; Rickon Stark and Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones fame, isn’t enough. Dracula Untold could actually have done better had it taken a leaf out of George R.R. Martin’s book and made this a series, which would have allowed for a more immersive historical universe and a better mixing-in of supernatural forces.
This is Gary Shore’s filmmaking debut, and was a tall order to fulfil. He did an admirable job, but sadly not enough to please both horror and history fans together. As this film is billed as the first in a reboot of the entire Universal Monsters series, lets hope they refine their focus in time for the next instalment.
main image © Universal Pictures