Reinterpretations of an iconic character are one thing. Wholesale deck-clearing exercises in which the story of said figure is almost entirely torn up and put together again to the extent that the end result bears minimal resemblance to its original source material beyond lip service is another matter entirely.
Dracula Untold, as it turns out, is another matter.
Although Vlad Tepes’ history as Trannsylvania’s mass-impaler is referenced, it is quickly pushed aside in favour of the story that first-time director Gary Shore seems more interested in telling: that of a peace-loving prince (Luke Evans) who is determined to do what it takes to safeguard his people.
First and foremost among these are his family: wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and son Ingeras (Art Parkinson, aka Rickon Stark from Game Of Thrones) from the forces of Turkish commander Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), even if that involves becoming what he seeks to destroy – or maybe even something worse.
For a film about a character whose evil and tragedy is common knowledge in both history and fiction, it’s slightly surprising how black and white everything is presented as: Vlad effectively selling his soul and subsequently butchering large swathes of Turks is presented as fine because they’re all child-capturing sadists, while his people are all peace-loving farmers – apparently Vlad impaled all those thousands by himself.
The titular role cries out for someone capable of effortlessly exhibiting the moral shades that such a character deserves; a Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston-type figure. Evans is likeable – too likeable, perhaps – and gives it his all, but doesn’t quite sell himself either as history’s ruthless warlord or fiction’s most frightening foe.
Similarly, the rest of the cast fare even better. Dominic Cooper’s Mehmed is seemingly drawn straight from the stable of cardboard-cutout bad guys, and it’s difficult to remember anything much about the bulk of the supporting players. The likes of Gadon and Parkinson do their best with roles that require them to do little more than look scared and plead, while Charles Dance elevates proceedings in his all-to-brief screen time as the agent of Vlad’s transformation.
Herein lies the problem with Dracula Untold: for every step forward it makes, it strides a further two back. Vlad’s new abilities post-vampirism yield numerous possibilities and prompt a few surprising – but welcome – moments of comedy, but are wasted in the uniformly terrible battle sequences, which quickly devolve into over-stylised CGI explosions that at their lowest points defy comprehension.
The final coda at least bears the hallmarks of something interesting being planned should this get the sequel it so clearly wants, but it does have the effect of making you wonder what the point of it was.
You get the feeling that with a different creative team and a new lead (we feel harsh saying this; it isn’t Evans’ fault he’s miscast), Dracula Untold could have been a better film. Indeed, there are things to take away and enjoy from it. In its current state, however, there is too little here to prop this up as an especially novel take on Bram Stoker’s enduring undead creation.