A kind of Maleficent for dudes, Dracula Untold offers up a revisionist prequel to the classic vampire tale. When we first meet him this time around, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) is filled with regret. He’s spent his youth as a warrior-slave for the Ottoman Turks, committing horrific misdeeds in their service. Now returned to his rightful Transylvanian throne with a family of his own, he wants to keep his semi-autonomy from Sultan Mehmed II (a sneering, snarling Dominic Cooper), his former brother-in-arms. But the Sultan isn’t having it. He wants a thousand young boys to enslave anew for his Janissary army, along with Vlad’s young son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). “What’s one son?” the Sultan quips. “If you are virile, you will make plenty more.” This aggression will not stand, man.
Desperate, Vlad turns to the one force that can help him: a mysterious vampire who lives in a remote mountain cave, and whose untold powers our hero thinks he can harness for his own by joining the undead. He wants, essentially, to trade in one kind of slavery for another. There’s a catch, however: Vlad can have the powers of a vampire for three days, and if he can resist drinking another person’s blood for those three days, he’ll be freed of his curse and return to being a mortal. If not, then he’ll be “a scourge on this earth, destined to destroy everything you love.” That’s a pretty clear choice, and a pretty clear timeline: He has three days to defeat the Turks, or he becomes a monster. Will he succeed? Is there no franchise if this movie manages to have a happy ending? The blurring of the usual Dracula myth provides just enough uncertainty that we start to wonder where the film is actually headed.
Dracula Untold is a dumb, lowest-common-denominator kind of movie, but it’s a surprisingly entertaining one. It’s brisk, which counts for a lot in this overbaked genre. The action is directed with verve and imagination — and it’s all gorgeously bleak, with black clouds of bats whipping around remote, craggy castles beneath portentous Carpathian skies. There’s little nuance, but lots of intensity: Evans is called on to show tenderness for about five whole seconds; the rest of the time, he’s glowering, roaring, or screaming. But he’s got a face built for this sort of thing: In films like Fast and Furious 6 and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, he’s commanded our attention with those angry eyes and that constantly clenched jaw. (In fact, have I ever seen this man smile in a movie?) He seems genuinely tough and haunted: We buy the idea that this is someone who has already spent half a lifetime impaling humans on stakes. That makes his dilemma, as well as his potential for violence, rather captivating.
That said, the film also avoids taking itself too seriously, which is so often the kiss of death for these movies. A lesser, more opportunistic filmmaker might have tried to sell the Clash of Civilizations angle in this story, as Zack Snyder did in 300. But here, director Gary Shore (making his first film after a career in commercials) and screenwriters Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama avoid overtly Orientalizing the Muslim Turks: There isn’t a turban or a prayer rug in sight among the bad guys. (To be fair, this probably has less to do with aesthetic bravery and more to do with avoiding offense, and some will find it a bit of a chicken move, but hey, as a Turk, I appreciated it. And it’s not like they made us the good guys or anything; we’re still pretty awful people in this movie.)
I don’t want to oversell this film. But in an era in which we’ve seen a lot of failed attempts to reinvent classic fantasy tales as CGI-action spectacles, it feels remarkably assured. In part, it’s working with good material: The Dracula story has always been rooted in a mysterious, evocative milieu, and the character has always had a kind of brooding uncertainty. He is as much a romantic as he is a monster, and you can mold him to fit whatever sensibility you want. Dracula Untold may turn him into a hero, but we see the potential for real cruelty lurking right beneath the surface.