Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dracula Untold (2014)

In production before Universal studio’s announcement of plans to create a common cinematic universe for their classic monsters, Dracula Untold is rumored to have undergone reshoots to make it more of a first chapter in the upcoming run of monster films.  I can’t tell if the reports are true or not, but the movie is a cautionary tale of things to come, the attempt to build a superhero style franchise from the Universal catalog of things that go bump in the night.

Yes, this is a superhero origin story, with the Prince of Darkness as the hero.  And regardless of whether you go into the movie accepting that premise or not, the film is a crashing bore, a cacophony of CGI bats swarming through armies, Dracula (called Vlad throughout most of the film) crushing armies with his super powers, yet void of any suspense or sense of dread.  It’s a ninety-two minute movie that ends up feeling much longer than the running time.

Even when he dons the superhero costume, it's just dull

The opening is narrated by Vlad’s son, who tells of his father’s time as a political prisoner of the Turkish army.  Trained to fight for them, Vlad (Luke Evans, The Hobbit trilogy, Fast and Furious 6) earns the nickname The Impaler after leaving the bodies of the Turk’s enemies on spikes.

Now, ten years later, he’s the ruler of his homelands, married and with a young son.  He pays a tribute to the Turks to keep the peace, but is worried when signs of Turkish scouts appear within his borders.
Searching for the scouts, Vlad and his party investigate an isolated cave high on a mountain and encounter a powerful being that only Vlad is able to escape.  Speaking to a priest in his kingdom, Vlad is told this is the first vampire (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones), tricked by a demon and now cursed to remain within the cave unitl the end of time.  Oh, and the priest foretells this being will bring about the end of Vlad’s kingdom.

Yeah, it’s a “surprising” foreshadowing moment in the script, but you won’t be surprised how it turns out.

But that warning is enough to keep Vlad off the mountain, at least until he’s informed the Sultan wants more than his tribute.  With plans of future conquest, the Sultan’s emissary informs Vlad that he must supply him with young boys, new fodder for the Sultan’s army.  And his son will become a political prisoner, to insure Vlad’s compliance to this, and future, request. 

Vlad kills the soldiers sent to collect his son, than returns to the cave to implore the First Vampire to give him the power to smite his enemies.  The creature agrees, warning Vlad that he will have the power of a vampire for three days, as well as the blood lust.  Should he feed, he will become one of the undead, which will set the First Vampire free to hunt down the one that betrayed him.  But, should he abstain from drinking, he will return to his mortal state at dawn of the third day.

Yeah, trust this guy.  Than expect to defeat a nation in 
three days.  Even Tony Stark would have second thoughts.

Okay, you might think this review is spoiling too much of the movie, but if you can’t figure out were the story is going, then you might enjoy this film.  And all this occurs in the first half hour, or so, of the film.  I can’t really say how long it took before the rest of the film was spelled out for the audience, as I was surprised at how short the movie was.  The plot spoilers provided by the script could have occurred in the opening ten minutes, for all I know. 

And that’s the problem with this movie.  It lacks any sense of suspense or tension, as the audience already knows the outcome.  Vlad will resist the urge to drink blood, but events will prompt him to satisfy his thrist before the dawn of the third day.  We know who’s death will prompt this (remember, his son’s narration opens the film), so it’s only a matter of time before his wife (Sarah Gadon, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) bites it (sorry, could resist the pun).  And, though Gadon gives it her best, her death scene is so unbelievable that her imploring Vlad to drink will shatter any suspension of disbelief you might have at this point. 

I don't know why she wasn't credited as Sacrificial Lamb

It doesn’t help that the villains of the tale are cardboard cutouts, with no depth or interesting back-story.  As a contrast, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man worked because the script also developed the Green Goblin as well as Spider-Man.  But the Turks are just evil because, well, they are, leaving us nothing to focus on but the journey of the film’s hero, whose fate is already determined.

Yes, his character is just evil.  No backstory, just EVIL!

I will say the acting is okay, but rather pointless, as the script doesn’t really give anyone a chance to shine.  Some of the CGI effects towards the end are nice looking, and at least the filmmakers didn’t shy away from Vlad’s signature forest of impaled victims.  All are presented in as gruesome a manner as the PG-13 rating will tolerate and I don’t have a problem with that.

My issue with the film is it spends all of its running time telling how Vlad becomes Dracula, but that’s already a forgone conclusion.  The script needed to deliver something more interesting.  But the focus is on spectacle, rather than story.  Vlad turns into a flock of bats, than back again into human form, so often it’s no longer impressive.  And as he controls a flock of real bats as a wrecking ball against an army, one has to wonder how the creatures of the night survived all the impacts against solid bodies in full armor.

As bad as this movie is, more worrisome is the ramifications for the future Universal Monster Universe.  And, in this section, I will revel a bit more than most readers might like, so beware.  SPOILERS AHEAD!

And, as a break, Luke Evan's best "I'm NOT Edward Collins" face.  
Sorry, doesn't really work.

Okay, this was bound to happen with a cohesive universe.  One has to have monsters that fight on the side of good, others on the side of evil.  And Dracula falls on the good side.  No, the filmmakers don’t go full Twilight, but his wife’s death, and his desire to protect his son from his vampire army, marks him as an anti-hero.  And, as the film ends, he is potentially reunited with his wife’s soul in a new body, only with the First Vampire trailing him and leaving us with cryptic line, “Let the games begin,” which sets Vlad up as the sensitive, trying to do good but forced to drink blood hero that Universal might hope will bring in female viewers, a la Twilight.

And this is the problem with Universal’s attempt to create a world in which their monsters interact.  The studio will pick the monsters to play the tragic hero, the absolute villain, and back them with enough CGI moments in an attempt to making the franchise another version of the Fast and Furious series. 
The Universal Monsters deserve better.  As the CLASSIC films show, these beings can be neither good nor bad, just misunderstood or cursed.  This is not a catalog of superheroes or supervillains, but creatures living within the limitations of their origins.  The Frankenstein Monster is the product of bad parenting and misunderstanding.  The Wolf Man is a human cursed to kill during the full moon, The Mummy longs for his true love, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon just wants to be left alone (at least until Julia Adams enters his lagoon).

Seriously, these monsters are MUCH MORE INTERESTING than
the sap coming to theaters tomorrow.

These are characters that more emotions when they are allowed to be amoral, beings beyond our concept of right or wrong, just the basic human emotions of desire, whether for acceptance, a mate or just not to kill during the full moon.

But, if Dracula Untold is any indication, we’re about to be introduced to a new set of Universal Monsters, where the battle lines are drawn.  A superhero verses supervillain smack down of epic CGI proportions. 

It’s too bad Universal doesn’t seem willing to try another route, one with engaging stories and characters that transcends CGI effects and rigid moral guidelines.  Should Dracula Untold be the future of the Universal Monsters, I dread the results, but not in the right way.  

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