By most accounts, Vlad the Impaler was not a nice guy. He’s actually revered as a folk hero in Romania and other parts of Europe, even if his reputation in the rest of the world is not so hot.
Despite his rather awesome appearance, you don’t get to be the inspiration for the most famous vampire in history for no reason (Vlad’s victims are said to number in the tens of thousands). The infamous Count Dracula has appeared in all forms of media since his first appearance in Bram Stoker’s novel in 1897, and it is one of his most recent appearances that I am going to talk about today.
Last year Dracula got his very own cinematic origin story with a little movie called Dracula Untold. Response to the film was largely “Meh,” but I saw it recently and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking it.
The movie stars Luke Evans as Vlad, and tries to portray him as a pretty good guy who has admittedly done some horrible things, and is trying to leave his dark past behind him and move on with his life. The movie gives us some brief glimpses of impalement, which aren’t particularly graphic given the film’s PG-13 rating, but are still enough to get the point across (see what I did there?).
The movie opens with Vlad and some of his pals stumbling across a vampire in a cave. Don’t you hate it when that happens? His friends are killed but Vlad escapes and makes it back to his wife Mirena and son Ingeras.
Vlad tries not to think too hard about the whole “vampire-in-a-cave” thing, but gets distracted when the Ottoman sultan Mehmed sends a messenger the next day. The messenger tells Vlad that the sultan requires 1,000 boys to be trained in his army. This is unwelcome news, so Vlad goes to Mehmed to attempt to negotiate. He offers himself instead, but Mehmed refuses and demands Vlad’s own son as well, just to add insult to injury I guess.
On the day Vlad is supposed to give his son to Mehmed’s emissaries, Vlad changes his mind and kills the emissaries. Vlad knows this will mean war, and also knows that his army is no match for Mehmed’s, so in desperation he goes to seek the Cave Vampire’s help, in order to gain the power of the vampire to defeat his enemies.
The Cave Vampire (listed in the credits as Master Vampire, which would be a good name for a rock band) is played by Charles Dance of all people, a veteran actor best known these days for playing the (recently deceased) Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.
The red-eyed Master Vamp drains some of his blood into a skull and gives it to Vlad to drink. Doing so, he says, will give Vlad the strength of 100 men, the speed of a falling star, and dominion over the night and all its creatures. He also tells Vlad that if he can resist the urge to drink blood for three days, he will become human again. If not, he will be doomed to wander the earth as a vampire.
Vlad accepts, and drinks the blood.
From this point, everyone knows what is going to happen. I really don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Vlad does not resist the urge to drink blood, because if he did resist then there would be no Dracula and the point of an origin story would be moot.
So, yeah. Things ultimately don’t end up going well for our friend Vlad. Despite the story’s predictability, I still enjoyed the journey quite a bit, and there are some very cool scenes along the way.
One of Vlad’s vampiric powers is the ability to transform himself into a swarm of bats, which makes for some cool visuals. He also gains control over swarms of bats, which he uses to devastate Mehmed’s army in another very cool scene, and his strength enables him to singlehandedly slay 1,000 of Mehmed’s soldiers in a single night. The fight scenes are well choreographed and well integrated with the special effects, and the movie overall just looks really good.
The costumes and sets are also impressive, and I really liked seeing the different kinds of armor that the Ottoman soldiers wore, which looked great and give moviegoers something to look at that isn’t seen very often in Hollywood movies. I also quite liked Vlad’s badass dragon armor, which bears a slight resemblance to the armor worn by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula.
Luke Evans as Vlad is the movie’s greatest asset. He gives the character a real sense of gravitas, and I was surprised to find myself really rooting for the guy, despite being aware of the movie’s inevitable conclusion. He’s also convincing in the action scenes. The final fight between Vlad and Mehmed takes place in Mehmed’s tent, the floor of which he has covered with silver coins (since vampires don’t like silver, remember). It’s another well-choreographed fight scene that makes great use of a unique and memorable location, and is a satisfying conclusion to Vlad and Mehmed’s rivalry.
The movie does, however, have serious flaws. Apparently Vlad and Mehmed were raised together during the reign of Mehmed’s father, so there’s supposed to be some kind of brotherly-rivalry sort of thing going on, since they were once friends and are now enemies. But this aspect of their relationship is never really explored, and I was left wondering why Mehmed was such a douchebag. If they were friends while they were growing up, why does Mehmed seem to hate Vlad now? There’s no real explanation for this, aside from the obvious one that Mehmed is just another ruthless, power-hungry despot, which isn’t very satisfying from an emotional or dramatic perspective.
Mehmed is played by Dominic Cooper, who’s a really good actor but gets little screen time in Dracula Untold, and his underwritten character leaves the movie lacking a strong villain. This is really unfortunate, given that Cooper is a skilled actor and also that Vlad and his family are given pretty solid character development, so the lack of characterization for Mehmed really stands out.
Also distracting is the fact that most of the actors don’t really sound Romanian, the majority of them just sound English, which is slightly off-putting. And the movie is only 93 minutes long, so there’s definitely more that could have been done with the story. Still, the advantage of the short running time is that the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, which helps.
There are also quite a few plot clichés. Like I said earlier, anyone with half a brain already knows where the story will end up, more or less. This is partly because it’s an origin story, and anyone familiar with the title character will know how it goes for him, which robs the movie of some of its suspense.
Still, I found it to be an enjoyable way to spend 93 minutes. If you like these kinds of movies, check it out. I lowered my expectations quite a bit before I watched it, and ended up having a pretty good time, despite the movie’s considerable flaws. Sometimes lowered expectations can be a good thing. And the movie at its core is about a guy who sacrifices his humanity in order to save his family and his homeland, and that to me is still compelling, even if it’s in a slightly cheesy B-movie.
And hey, any movie that has Tywin Lannister as “Master Vampire” can’t be all bad, right?