The recent cinematic adventures of Dracula have been a rather mixed bag. Decades have passed since the big-collared glory days, when both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, under the Universal and Hammer banners respectively, inhabited his arch villainy to an iconic degree.
More recently, in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola churned out an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, a bloated erotica, as unashamedly indulgent as it was good fun. Keanu Reeves was cast as a blank-faced Jonathan Harker, unfortunately, and Coppola’s once masterful touch abandoned him in when faced with the camply rendered material. Similarly, Universal’s 2004 monster-revival effort Van Helsing included a preposterous Richard Roxborough as the cartoonish count in a film otherwise hobbled by the presence of Stephen Sommers in the director’s chair and the (not unconnected) fact that it was utterly dreadful.
Not to be put off, however, Universal has persisted. With a new generation of moviegoers unversed in the vintage franchise that few were clamouring to see recharged, Dracula Untold is the latest iteration of an age-old vampire yarn. It is a challenge that the studio meets with decidedly ambiguous results.
Dublin native Gary Shore helms this $100 million behemoth, overseeing an often visually dazzling piece of blockbuster popcorn cinema that falters, in spite of an enthusiastic cast’s nobly straight-faced efforts, due to risible dialogue, predictable plotting and a conclusion which will, of course, offer few surprises.
Humanising origin tales remain a well-trodden path at present, Dracula’s roots existing in a strand of Romanian folklore centred on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. It is from this source that Shore draws his inspiration, blending high fantasy with historical record. A late nod to Stoker’s take on the legend acknowledges its broader impact but for Shore the genesis of this mythology holds the most allure.
In the lead role, a smouldering Luke Evans is Prince Vlad, the beneficent ruler of his Transylvanian heartland, whose love for a wilful spouse, Mirena (Sarah Gadon: exquisite, doomed) and spritely son, Ingeras (Game of Thrones alumnus Art Parkinson, working in a familiar genre) is bound for a tragic climax from the moment they are witnessed cavorting around their grand homestead in familial bliss.
Trying to purge from his mind a past spent impaling innocents for the Ottoman army, Vlad is a devout Christian, a peaceful man whose plans to avoid conflict with the imperial overlords are inevitably undermined by a demand from Dominic Cooper’s preening sultan — gilding his scumbag bona fides with eyeliner and a bad eastern accent — for 1000 child soldiers and a royal hostage in the form of Ingeras.
Predictably enough, Vlad, having little regard for the scheme, resists these Turkish advances. He instantly seeks salvation from arts more dark than martial and, from this point on, a finely balanced opening gives way to bombastic CGI and a contrived, poorly paced, surprisingly bloodless, 12A depiction of one man’s descent into the blackness.
Many of Dracula Untold’s weaknesses stem from a truncated running time which squeezes major events into a series of narrative pit stops. From the moment that Vlad resolves to sell his soul to a cave-dwelling demon (Charles Dance) he knows next to nothing about — save for the conveniently accurate exposition provided by Paul Kaye’s watchful monk — one cannot shake the notion that Shore is scrambling to cram a crowded tableau into a very tight space.
As he surrenders himself to three days of demonic prowess, a curse with which he will be laboured for eternity if he drinks human blood, Vlad’s embrace of these new powers, at once interesting and chilling, is jettisoned to make way for a series of shiny, hollow battle scenes.
Acutely aware of studio pressure to feed the masses with Universal’s expensive fare, Shore occasionally steps outside bland multiplex drudgery — the relationship between Gadon, so affecting in this year’s Belle, and the serviceable Evans is never less than touching — but such moves are clearly ancillary to the spectacle.
Inconvenient tensions are overcome as swiftly as they arise. In one scene, Vlad chides the small band of superstitious compatriots he has chosen to protect (all of whom seem to reside in his castle) for attempting to burn him alive. He dismisses their concerns about his alarming new ability to transform into a cloud of bats; they forgive him his possession.
If there is a genuinely redeeming quality, it rests in the aesthetic. Tellingly, Shore finds more success within the frame than he does beneath it and, given his background in commercials, it should come as no surprise that he brings significant style to his debut featured. Northern Ireland granted Universal a bespoke production base and the region’s rugged beauty forms an especially stunning backdrop. This is a Transylvania of verdant glens and towering mountains, its vastness accentuated and lingered upon by Shore’s admiring lens.
Indeed, his considerable technical skills intermittently light up the mostly dull drama: a stunning opening 3D montage, all swooping cameras and brooding shadows, tells of Vlad’s early years in service to the Ottomans; later, as Evans lays waste to a field of foes, his omnipotence plays out in the reflection of a dying soldier’s falling sword. Taken as individual components, these achievements impress on a deeper level than one might expect from a film of largely rote ambitions.
Whatever their superficial effect, however, such flourishes are, in truth, little more than a mere shimmer, garnishes to a story requiring a truly gothic treatment.
An edited version of this article was first published here.