Out of the pantheon of horror deities, I’d have to say that my favourite is Dracula. There’s something about a European count who manages to seduce his way through Victorian London. To say he’s recognisable is a tremendous understatement, with a cape more identifiable than superman’s and an allure known the world over. As such, he’s an incredible ambassador to start a new horror franchise, at least that’s what Universal hoped when they looked to take on the juggernaut that is Marvel. And what better way to set the planed cinematic universe in motion than with his backstory in 2014’s Dracula Untold.
After being abducted as a child, and conscripted into the Ottoman Army, a young prince Vlad Tepes, returns home to a quiet life. Years later he received an impossible order from his liege for more child soldiers. Vlad, having been subjected to this treatment previously, defies this demand and plunges Transylvania into an armed conflict with the vast Ottoman empire. In order to win this battle and save his people, Vlad has to enter an agreement with the heart of evil itself.
Dracula Untold takes the opportunities presented by its namesake to the fullest intent. Giving the audience the entire backstory of the prince of darkness. While this isn’t the first time we are told of the story of how Dracula got his mojo as the 1992 Francis Ford Copula version famously depicted it at the start. In 1992, we got a brief synopsis, In Untold we are treated to the extensive breakdown of the vampire mythos. Its origin in ancient history and even new titbits like the Master Vampire’s banishment in the cave, how a vampire gets powers, and an escape clause for three days if they do not succumb to their newfound Bloodlust. Whether this is to set up potential plot points for future films, it serves as excellent world-building and a welcome enhancement of the character.
The casting is on fine form with a surprisingly good performance by Dominic Cooper as the Ottoman Sultan, Luke Evans portrays a charming Vlad. Unlike in The Mummy, we aren’t introduced to any of the other monsters that were intended to inhabit this universe. This is a shame as the deviations and additions make these characters feel fresh while sticking to their well-known roots. Again, unlike The Mummy, Dracula, while punchy, isn’t afraid to take its time with certain scenes. This pace may not be for everybody, but it shows a palpable commitment to the plot.
Dracula in this film is portrayed entirely sympathetically, with the same treatment that is usually reserved for Frankenstein’s monster. His initial attempts to save his citizens are made with the same contempt (and the same copious amount of fire) as the aforementioned monster. Even when he’s mowing down hundreds of enemy soldiers. The usage of Ireland as a stand-in for medieval Transylvania is also an inspired choice with the scenery aiding the story as much as the acting does.
Dracula Untold is an exclusive take on a fundamentally well-established creature of the night. As an origin story, it triumphs in re-establishing interest in and bring the audience up to speed with the man behind the cape. While it takes a lot of creative licence with the rich history of The Count, a lot of the new concepts feel interesting enough to warrant this experimentation. Untold shows promise and excels at setting the stakes of a capable franchise.
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