Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Full disclosure: I have a cold and I’m all hopped up on DayQuil and Mucinex. I felt fine when I saw the movie, took notes, etc. But right now I’m in a bit of a fog. There’s some fog in Dracula Untold, too, though perhaps not enough. So maybe this is the perfect time to sort out my thoughts.
Dracula and I go way back. I dressed up as the legendary count for Halloween when I was six or seven, complete with cape, amulet and hair slicked back with Vaseline. It took weeks to get it out, but it was worth it. I was a spooky kid, I loved Hitchcock movies, Beetlejuice and all things creepy and crawly. My parents didn’t let me watch R-rated movies too early. I was a good kid, too, so I avoided that kinda stuff when it was presented to me. At a fourth grade sleepover, I stayed in the other room while my friends watched Faces of Death. So it felt like a very special privilege when we went to Suncoast Video and brought home Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the first real R-rated movie I ever saw. I don’t remember there being much of a debate over whether or not I could watch the movie. My parents must’ve thought that seeing a movie based on a book would encourage me to read more (and it did, though I’ve never made it all the way through Stoker’s novel). I’d seen some Jackie Chan movies before that, but those are the lightest Rs on record, and would barely pass for PG-13 these days. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the real deal, full of gore, nudity, weird sex with werewolf creatures and gallons and gallons of blood. I must have been about 12 or 13 years old. It’s amazing what you take away from movies in early adolescence, and what sticks with you years later. I remember feeling like I was watching adult things, secret things that I wasn’t supposed to know about.
Revisiting Bram Stoker’s Dracula a few weeks ago, I was pleased to discover how nuts it is. Coppola can be a real visionary when he wants, for better or worse. In Dracula, he’s working in his Tucker: The Man and His Dream/One from the Heart mode. It’s a movie of big ideas that come at you non-stop. It reinforces one of my beliefs about the movies: that there is power in artifice and you can actively bring the audience into your world by allowing just the right amount of seams to show.
Dracula Untold makes a conscious nod to Coppola’s picture from the get-go. Looking sufficiently scary in weird red armor, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) stands in front of a field in which the dead are mounted on pikes, silhouetted by a blood-red sky. This recalls a scene in Coppola’s movie that itself felt lifted from Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped battles in The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, director Gary Shore, making his feature debut, borrows much of his aesthetic from Peter Jackson’s trips to Middle Earth. I found myself thinking about all the other Draculas — a little nod to Hammer horror here, even a dash of Jean Rollin or José Ramón Larraz, if you’re looking closely. The cumulative effect of these touches feels more like the lifting of ideas than an attempt to expand on the count’s mythology. Ultimately, Dracula Untold is much closer to 2004’s Van Helsing (studio exec: “Hey, it’s been 10 years since we made a movie like Van Helsing!”) than anything with Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Its medieval setting distances it from that genre featuring characters who look like they’re from the Matrix movies fighting the undead, exemplified by Blade (excellent), Underworld (never saw it) and Richard Elfman’s cash-in Modern Vampires (a criminally neglected gem).
Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I had thought Dracula Untold would be in 3D and rated R. It’s not. It’s in IMAX and rated PG-13. I don’t require my Dracula movies to be R-rated and in 3D for me to enjoy them, and those components definitely do not guarantee a good time (case in point, Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D). But I think it’s worth noting that, whatever my misconceptions, this movie could totally stand to be a little crazier than it is.
Dracula Untold is an origin story, told like the first installment of every superhero franchise. Its emphasis is on action over horror, and in the post-Twilight age we’re meant to sympathize with the titular bloodsucker while drawing clear distinctions between the good vampires and the bad vampires. Becoming a vampire gives Vlad superhuman powers that he relishes, like Spider-Man swinging around New York City for the first time. He can turn into like a hundred bats and beat people up with his bat powers, he heals from wounds instantly — that kind of thing. But it starts to get the best of him, of course, and he develops a weird blue vampire hand to show his inner struggle.
Shore gets some fun ideas in there when he can. Part of one battle sequence is shot from a sword’s point-of-view. Hey man, whatever! Also to its credit, Dracula Untold barely runs 90 minutes, and the last who-knows-how-long of that is the end credits. In a world where most multimillion-dollar blockbusters clock in at just short of three hours, it’s always fun to see something that gets in and gets out.
The Dracula character has been dragged through the cinematic cesspool for decades now. This isn’t the worst Dracula movie I’ve ever seen, I’m sure, but there isn’t anything especially memorable about it. A little personality goes a long way, and Evans isn’t really up to the task. His Vlad isn’t especially haunted or fun to watch. He’s mostly just tough or blank, two words you’d never use to describe Gary Oldman’s freakout of a performance as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It’s probably also worth noting that all the Transylvanians have British accents. Vlad and his enemies are both involved in some kind of child-slave trafficking that I guess we’re supposed to be OK with. “I’m worth 1,000 boys and you know it!” declares the main villain early on. That same villain, also devoid of interesting or memorable facets, is of some generic Middle Eastern ethnicity (“Turkish” in the film’s world — who knows or cares, really?), and he is the only character in the movie wearing visible eyeliner. It’s 2014 and we’re still doing things like this.