Where have all the superhero origin stories gone? Turns out they’ve transformed – in this case into a cloud of bats titled Dracula Untold. Like Noah, Maleficent and Hercules before him, Count Dracula gets the origin story treatment, hewing closer than ever to the ever-popular superhero genre. The armour worn by Vlad (Luke Evans) – complete with red cape – feels like the natural continuation of the masculinised costume from Man of Steel. There’s the requisite “hero discovers his superpowers” scene after he becomes a vampire, and the movie pulls off a classic Spider-Man moment far better than The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could. Hell, you could have just as easily called this Bat Man Begins if the title wasn’t already taken.
I fully expected Dracula Untold to follow in the footsteps of Noah, Maleficent and Hercules and, well, suck (in the figurative sense). I was as surprised as anyone when the film turned out to actually be an enjoyable, well-crafted example of genre cinema. Oh, the script is mostly nonsense, but director Gary Shore compensates with swift, no-nonsense pacing and a real sense of visual style that’s heavily indebted to comic book iconography.
Early scenes borrow from the gothic horror history of the character with amplified sound effects, quick cutting and Charles Dance offering Evans a broken skull filled with thick black blood. Later scenes use a sense of visual panache to make the familiar combination of medieval warfare and magic – phalanxes of nameless soldiers torn asunder by dark clouds composed entirely of bats – actually work. The conclusion of the first big battle is seen entirely in the reflection of a shuddering sword, and there’s similarly creative storyboarding throughout (not to mention impressively sharp special effects).
Evans is well-cast in the lead role, possessing the necessary combination of smouldering sexuality (at one point literally smouldering) and rugged masculinity that seems to elude modern American actors. While most of his co-stars draw attention to the clumsiness of their dialogue – with the notable exception of Dance, as a Nosferatu-esque character who devours his lines with relish – Evans is able to make the most tin-eared lines sing. As you may have gathered by now, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ screenplay isn’t the greatest in the world, but to their credit they find numerous opportunities to get their leading man shirtless.
They also manage to find an intriguing allegory in their melange of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the history of Vlad the Impaler, even if by accident. The plot is predicated on a conflict between Transylvania (led by Vlad) and Turkey (ruled by Sultan Mehmed, played by Dominic Cooper) that arises after Mehmed demands one thousand boys are turned over to serve in the Turkish army. At first I rankled at the broad strokes used to distinguish the two sides. Transylvanians speak the King’s English (no “I vant to suck your blahd!” here), many of them are blonde and all of them are Christian. On the other hand, the Turks are olive-skinned, kohl-eyed, speak with thick accents and follow Islam.
So far, it seems like a pretty typical example of “othering,” with the bad guys as funny-sounding Muslims. Except that things get a little bit more complicated, and by the time we reach our conclusion – where it turns out that Vlad resorting to vampirism to save his people just might have some negative repercussions – the parallels between the modern conflict between the Christian West and Muslim extremists become hard to ignore. I’m not sure that Sazama and Sharpless set out to present a commentary on the West becoming monsters in their desperate need to defeat the violent offshoots of Islam, but it’s there if you want to look for it.
Dracula Untold‘s similarites to superhero origin stories are far from accidental, with Universal announcing plans for an eventual monster-movie crossover; essentially Avengers except with monsters. I’m not convinced that film will work – especially if it takes the lead from this film’s entirely silly sequel-setup in its final minutes. But I’ll be in the audience nonetheless, hoping they can somehow recapture the spark that makes Dracula Untold work against all odds.