“Sometimes the world doesn’t need a hero,” someone croaks early into Dracula Untold. “It needs a monster.” These primo lines of Christopher Nolan-speak come courtesy of the cadaverous, cave-dwelling bloodsucker who grants the title character his malevolent powers. Here’s the thing, though: The Dracula who appears in this expensive, action-packed reboot is more hero than monster. Raised by his enemies, the Turks, to be a great warrior, the count (Luke Evans) only joins the ranks of the undead as a desperate measure, to save Transylvania from the conquerors at its gates. Once he’s slurped down the red stuff, Drac gains all kinds of nifty skills: He can cover long distances as a flock of bats or conduct the little winged companions like a biblical swarm. These gifts are not without their drawbacks, however—namely an insatiable hankering for vein juice, as well as the distrust of the people he’s sworn to protect. Heavy is the cape, etc.
More sad dad and noble martyr than creature of the night, Evans’ dashing Prince Of Darkness inspires less fear than just about any incarnation of the famous character, save perhaps the one played by Leslie Nielsen. That’s mostly because Dracula Untold isn’t in the scaring business; rebooting a horror icon into a 15th-century Dark Knight, the film sees in its Bram Stoker source material only the promise of an untapped franchise. (Or many franchises, considering Universal’s plan to give its roster of monsters the extended-universe, Avengers treatment.) Those who go in expecting some seasonal Fangoria fare will instead be greeted by yet another comic-book origin story, this one complete with requisite CGI armies and little Year One winks (like the brief appearance of a Renfield type, hissing “master” at the fledgling fiend).
Essentially an extended remake of the prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s boldly stylized 1992 adaptation, Dracula Untold mixes elements of historical fiction into its wannabe blockbuster makeup. The legendary clash between Vlad The Impaler—Stoker’s real-life inspiration for Dracula—and the Ottoman Empire is the fact-based backdrop, with the film’s screenwriters entertaining the notion that a supernatural influence accounted for Vlad’s 300-like vanquishing of the Turks. Unable to protect his homeland from Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), who demands an army of Transylvanian child soldiers, Dracula makes a pact with the forces of darkness; he’s got three days to defeat his enemies before vampirism becomes a permanent (read: eternal) way of life. And so while his wife (Sarah Gadon, totally wasted) frets about his condition, the count goes to town on teeming masses of soldiers, fighting the urge to sink his fangs into some jugulars and seal his franchise-mandated fate.
The battles are bloodless and frenetically shot, preserving the coveted PG-13 rating though a flurry of unintelligible carnage. At least the castles and landscapes look cool, in a very Game Of Thrones kind of way; Dracula Untold suckles at the veins of that HBO series, borrowing a composer, Ramin Djawadi, and a few cast members. (Done up like Nosferatu, Charles Dance brings a Lannisterian disdain to his role as the Ra’s Al Ghul to Evans’ Batman.) As a character study, though, the movie is utter hogwash. Determined to make a tragic antihero out of their eponymous monster, the filmmakers sell Vlad The Impaler’s infamous cruelty as some sort of honorable deterrent, applying the Truman atomic-bomb rationale to a man who slaughtered men, women, and children and stuffed their bodies onto pikes. Of course, to take Vlad’s barbaric villainy at face value would be to risk turning this material into, yes, an actual horror movie. Dracula Untold would rather fit the count into the superhero-movie mold, supplying him with Nolanesque wisdom like, “Even after the darkest night, the sun will rise again.” But this is neither the Dracula we need nor the one we deserve.