Here’s a multiple-choice question: Which of the following would accurately describe the 15th-century figure “Vlad the Impaler?”
c. Family man
d. All of the above
According to “Dracula Untold,” an account of how one infamous historical baddie became an even more infamous literary and cinematic baddie, the correct answer is "d." And it’s the whole “family man” thing that makes this film such a strange ride.
Long before all the pointy teeth and coffins and debates about sparkly skin, we meet Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans), a Transylvanian prince who earned the nickname "the Impaler" by showing the business end of a spear to a disproportionate number of Turkish warriors.
We join the story sometime after the dust of war has settled, and Vlad has tried to settle into a domestic existence with a wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson). It’s an odd fit for a character so synonymous with violence and bloodlust, but well, you just have to get used to the idea.
It isn’t long, however, before this idyllic lifestyle is threatened by the local Turkish Sultan, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), who demands a thousand young recruits for his army — including Ingeras — or else.
Desperate to save his family and his people, Vlad makes a deal with the devil — or rather, the mysterious vampire (played by a gripping Charles Dance) who lives in a cave in a nearby mountain.
The bargain is pretty straightforward: Vlad gets enough vampire powers to fight the Turks for three days, and if he can make it through that whole stretch without giving in to a sudden lust to drink human blood, he’ll be back to normal and ready to live happily ever after. (Or at least until the next time some Sultan comes around demanding child recruits.)
But if Vlad gives in, he gets stuck with the powers, loses his humanity, gives his mentor a “get out of undead bloodlust free” card and takes over the mortgage on a really nasty cave.
Given that the audience knows how this deal is going to play out, “Dracula Untold” isn’t exactly built for suspense. Better to sit back and enjoy Vlad’s long ride down.
It’s an interesting concept, but this middle stretch of the movie, when Vlad should be fighting temptation on one hand and the Turks on the other, is the most problematic part of the film. Frankly, he doesn’t seem to have much of a struggle through most of his trial membership. And it really isn’t until the third act that “Dracula Untold” comes to life.
Vlad’s path to vampire status is only part of the central flaw with “Dracula Untold’s” core narrative. Director Gary Shore is trying to convince audiences that a bad guy is really a good guy who has to turn into a bad guy for good guy reasons in order to save the day. The story of a bad guy just getting worse won’t be very relatable, at least in a PG-13 sense, but what we get instead just feels insincere.
Still, that’s only if you think too hard about what you’re watching. If you go in expecting a Corleone-style fall from grace, you’ll clearly be disappointed. But if you load up on popcorn and cross your fingers for something better than Anakin Skywalker’s unconvincing metamorphosis into Darth Vader, then “Dracula Untold” makes for a pretty fun Halloween movie. Especially for audiences who want to avoid the kind of R-rated content you typically find in non-“Twilight” vampire films.
That being said, “Dracula Untold” earns its PG-13 rating. It avoids the graphic content, but there is enough violence to make parents think twice before bringing any of the younger kids along.
The best way to enjoy this one is to appreciate the little things: Dance’s performance as the Master Vampire, a painfully short sequence pitting the Turks against a band of vampires, and some fun effects along the way. Just don’t ask too many questions. Vlad doesn’t have the answers.
Or maybe, judging by the film’s ending, he just figures he’ll wait until the sequel to deliver them.
“Dracula Untold” is rated PG-13 for sequences of brutal violence, frightening moments and some sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.