So how do you un-tell the story of Dracula? (Is it like when Toni Braxton used to sing about unbreaking her heart?) Well, if you’re first-time feature director Gary Shore, you begin by spinning a tale about children heisted from Transylvania by some dastardly Turks and molded into a gruesome child army, all of which is visually expressed by very inventive almost-still-but-almost-moving tableaus of kids being taught to slaughter.
One of these child soldiers, we hear, was the man who would become Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), heretofore known as VTI for short. As played by Evans, VTI is a sleepy sort of fellow who seems more like a narcotized and retired Robin Hood than the VTI of legend who is said to have killed between 40,000 and 100,000 people. His reputation for sadism was widely disseminated — one German pamphlet from 1521 reported: “He roasted children, whom he fed to their mothers. And cut off the breasts of women, and forced their husbands to eat them. After that, he had them all impaled.”
There’s no roasting of children here. In fact, if “Dracula Untold” is to be believed, poor VTI didn’t want to impale all those thousands of people and just wants to settle down with his beautiful wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and their young son: “I just want peace, that’s all,” he says wearily. But the Turks, as led by Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), need some more child soldiers, and they have their eye on all the kids in VTI’s castle and surrounding grounds.
Speaking of their shared youth, VTI tells Mehmed, “All I miss is the coffee,” and then phlegmatically tries to bargain with him over the kids. But Mehmed won’t be swayed, and he has his particular eye on VTI’s son: “If you are virile, you will make plenty more,” he offers. So VTI is forced to go into a cave to consult some evil spirit called the Master Vampire (Charles Dance). According to press reports, Dance’s character was originally going to be the spirit of the Emperor Caligula, but Universal wants to make a series of films featuring their major monsters, so this character was changed into a generic vampire demon at the last minute.
Dance is made up to look like a cross between the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” and Robert Blake in “Lost Highway,” and when he pricks VTI’s neck with one of his long fingernails, he opens his mouth to unfold an extra-long tongue to give the bit of blood a lick, a nicely nasty little moment. This Master Vampire makes a bargain with VTI, giving him super-powers for three days if he drinks some blood, but with the caveat that he will be condemned to eternal vampirehood if he bites into any necks during that time. This gets dicey for VTI, particularly when he is on top of his lovely wife and suddenly becomes more aware of her tempting jugular vein than any of her other charms.
For about the first hour of its running time, “Dracula Untold” is far too restrained and tasteful, and it certainly suffers from its tediously noble hero; it’s well made but fatally lacking in thrills or excitement. There are some modest battles here and there, but only Gadon’s lovely face seems truly worthy of the camera’s time until the last half hour, when the film springs to at least half life with several very imaginative images that make use of swarms of bats. The conclusion, which jumps ahead in time and is clearly setting things up for another film, is perhaps too hopeful for what has preceded it. As the first movie in what Universal hopes might be part of a series, “Dracula Untold” is not likely to get anyone eager to see another installment, but perhaps Shore’s visual imagination might be put to better use on other projects.