Thursday, October 23, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold was written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless and directed by Gary Shore.

I wasn't really expecting much from this film, but I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. By this point you've gotta have a lot of chutzpah to call your movie Dracula Untold, as pretty much everything there is to say about the character has already been said a thousand times before. The filmmakers managed to infuse a bit of new life into this version though by turning Dracula into a superhero instead of a monster. Yep, despite all the horror trappings, this is most definitely a superhero origin story. 

All the familiar super-heroic beats are there. You've got a hero who's facing a personal tragedy, he gains super powers, he tests out his newfound powers, he goes through a period of self-doubt and then ultimately rallies and faces off against his arch enemy and saves the day. In this particular case, Dracula is pretty much Spider-Man.


SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Prince Vlad is the wise and benevolent ruler of Transylvania, whose kingdom is being threatened by the Sultan of Turkey. The Sultan demands Vlad hand over a thousand young boys, including his own son, as tribute. When Vlad naturally refuses this polite request, the Sultan gets a bit miffed and sends out a conquering army.

Vlad seeks the help of a Master Vampire who lives in a nearby cave. The Vampire agrees to help him for some reason, offering Vlad a cup of his blood (in an awesome skull goblet yet). Once Vlad drinks the blood he'll temporarily gain all kinds of cool vampire powers, with which he can defeat the Sultan's army. As always though, there's a catch– Vlad will have to avoid drinking human blood for the next three days or he'll be cursed and become a vampire forever. You can probably guess where this is going.

With his newfound powers, Vlad easily defeats the Sultan's attacking force, which causes him to send out an even bigger army. Vlad's son is captured by the Turks and his wife is mortally wounded. With the three day time limit almost up and minutes from losing his powers, Vlad's dying wife begs him to drink her blood and kill her, so he'll have the power to rescue their son. Which he does. He kills the Sultan, rescues his son and becomes a vampire forever.

In a hastily tacked-on final scene, we see Vlad in the present day. He spots a young woman who looks remarkably like his long-dead wife, believes she's the reincarnation of her, turns on that old Dracula charm and the two presumably head toward his high-rise penthouse apartment. The Master Vampire, who's also still alive, follows them and says, "Let the games begin," which either means he's going to join in or Universal hopes this will start up a lucrative Monster Cinematic Universe.

Thoughts:
• In the opening infodump, er, I mean exposition, we're told that Prince Vlad was taken from his home at a young age and raised by the Sultan of Turkey. Vlad quickly rose in the Sultan's ranks and developed a penchant for impaling his dead foes on wooden stakes as a form of psychological warfare. It was here that he gained the nickname "Vlad The Impaler."

He eventually escaped the Sultan and is now the prince of Transylvania. He's a wise ruler, a loving husband and a devoted father.

Annnnd apparently we're supposed to forget all about that whole pesky "impaling" thing.


I'm sure that in the real world there are many retired soldiers who've moved on and are now caring family men. But Vlad didn't simply kill for his country– he killed and then gruesomely desecrated his victims' corpses in order to make a statement. And he even says he feels no remorse for what he did. And now he's reading bedtime stories to his son? Yikes! Talk about a 180Âș turnaround!

I understand they wanted to include the whole "Vlad The Impaler" legend here, but it just doesn't work with an heroic character. In this case I think it would have been for the best if they'd have dropped it.

• The Sultan of Turkey sends an emissary to Vlad's throne room, demanding he hand over a thousand young boys, who will be raised as soldiers.

Just how populous is Vlad's kingdom anyway? We never really get a good look at it, but I get the impression it's not all that big. We mostly just see the castle and a few primitive huts around the gates. So where are they supposed to find a thousand boys under ten years of age?

• Of all the classic movie monsters, vampires seem to have the most rules. They can't go out in daylight, they can't be seen in a mirror, they can't enter a house unless invited, they're repelled by crosses and garlic, they can turn into bats, wolves and fog, and on and on.

Few vampire movies use all of these rules though. They pick and choose, using some and ignoring others. This can become confusing, especially when a movie doesn't spell out just which rules it's using.

That goes double for Dracula Untold. We see him demonstrate some of his powers, but we're never quite sure which ones he may or may not have, or how far they go. 

Case in point– his aversion to sunlight. Early on we see the sunlight painfully burn his skin, yet later he's able to walk outside unaffected on an overcast day. So I guess it's only direct, unfiltered sunlight that harms him? Would he be OK then if he carried a large parasol? What about if he wore a sombrero?


To add to the confusion, he keeps discovering new powers as he goes.

• One of Prince Vlad's cool new vampire powers is the ability to rapidly turn into a large swarm of bats and flit from place to place before reforming into a human. He's able to decimate an entire Turkish army with this power.

During the battle the Turkish soldiers swing their swords wildly at the attacking cloud of bats. I wonder what would happen if one of the bats in Vlad's bodily swarm was hit and killed? Would he be missing a finger or a spleen when he transformed back?

• In case you have doubts that this is a superhero movie disguised as a vampire film, here's your proof. Not only can Vlad turn into a swarm of bats, but he can control actual real bats as well. He manipulates these bats much like the Green Lantern uses his power ring, causing them to form a giant fist with their bodies that slams down on the Turkish soldiers. 


I'm surprised he didn't have the swarm of bats form a pair of scissors or a hypodermic needle and chase the Turks.

• Although Vlad's vampiric abilities were indeed cool, I feel like they may have made him a bit too powerful. He single-handedly wipes out an entire army without suffering so much as a scratch. 


When a character can never be harmed then it's hard for the audience to care when he's placed in a dangerous situation. This is why Superman needs kryptonite.

• Luckily for Vlad, once he becomes a vampire the Turks conveniently only attack at night. They finally get the message and attack during the day near the end of the film, but by then Vlad has learned to blot out the sun with his powers.

• The Master Vampire says he'll be released from his imprisonment if Vlad succumbs to his blood thirst. He says if and when he's freed from the cave, he'll be able to exact vengeance on the one who imprisoned him.

Later we see that the Master Vampire has indeed been released from his cave. I was expecting to see the Master Vampire get his revenge on someone, most likely the Sultan of Turkey. But apparently 
the target of his revenge was none of our concern.

I was also a bit surprised to see that he'd survived to the present day. I got the impression from his speech that once he was freed from the cave and had his revenge he'd be released from his curse and die for good. 

I have a feeling that's what was supposed to happen, but it got ret-conned at the last second so they could have him pop up in the end scene.

• Rumor has it that Universal reshot the end of the film to feature Dracula living in the present day. Supposedly they did so because they want in on some of that sweet Marvel Cinematic Universe money, and want to start up a Monster Universe. This film is the first step in that plan. I wouldn't hold my breath though– so far Dracula Untold hasn't exactly been setting the box office on fire.


So I guess that means their other proposed monster movies would take place in the present? That doesn't seem right. Frankenstein movies should be set firmly in the past.

I wonder if The Wolfman reboot from 2010 (the one that Benecio Del Toro sleepwalked through) will be considered part of this proposed universe? Or will they reboot that one yet again?

By the way, the idea of a shared Monster Universe is nothing new. Universal did it way back in the 1943 with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, along with the various Abbott & Costello monster movies.

Dracula Untold is a reasonably acceptable retelling of the vampire legend that focuses more on action than horror. I give it a B-.

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