While the popular mythology of vampires seems to be all sparkly and romantic (to wit, the banal Twilight series) the creatures themselves have a darker past, tapping into a mythic, archetypal fear of things that stir in the dark. Modern beliefs stem from 1890’s author Bram Stoker and his sensational book Dracula, but the myth is widely believed to have been based on the life of 15th Century nobleman Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia and member of the House of Draculesti. A bloodthirsty and vicious soldier, he was dubbed Vlad the Impaler for his habit of impaling his enemies on stakes, sometimes hundreds at a time.
Dracula Untold explores a different sort of origin story for this well known villain and mainstay of hundreds of horror movies: as a boy who was torn from his family and taught by the Persians to be a heartless unthinking killer. Finally released from the service of the Sultan, Vlad (Luke Evans) goes back to his family castle in Transylvania and vows to never again let the Persians take boys from his kingdom to turn into soldiers. Ten years later, he’s brought peace to the kingdom, has a beautiful wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and a handsome son Ingeras (Art Parkinson), and is even a reluctant Christian.
Then during an Easter celebration, the Turkish envoy arrives for the customary annual tribute of silver coins. And – no surprise – an additional 1000 boys to be trained by the Turks as soldiers. Vlad travels to the Turkish camp to beg Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) not to insist on the conscription of the boys. Mehmed laughs and says that it’s now “1000 and 1” because he wants to have Vlad’s son Ingeras by his side, not with his mother and father.
The story then become one that revolves around the question of how much a father would do for his son, how far he’d go to the powers of darkness to save his boy, particularly a father who has gone through a similarly hellish experience when he was young. In this case, Vlad makes the proverbial deal with the devil, seeking out a vampire (Charles Dance) who he barely survives an encounter with at the very beginning of the film.
“Drink my blood, you shall have my powers for three days. But you shall have a terrible thirst for more blood that entire time.” Vlad drinks the vampire’s blood from a shattered skull — a shot that reminded me of the tortured Macbeth — and uses his newfound powers to wreak havoc on the invading Turkish army. He knows the price he’s paid, he quickly finds that he cannot wear the silver wedding band that symbolizes his love for Mirena and that he must now avoid direct sunlight.
In the end, Mirena also must address the question of how much she’ll sacrifice, how far she’ll go to preserve the life of her beloved son, in an echo of the core question of this interesting retelling of the Dracula myth. Every father, every parent ponders this question: would I kill to protect my child? Would I do terrible things to preserve their life? Would I sacrifice my own life for my child’s life?
Dracula Untold reminded me of a similar origin story Batman Begins, both of which revolve around the hero’s journey. There are smart references to the original dracula myth too, including references to “dracula” meaning dragon in Romanian, not vampire. The special effects are good, and sometimes excellent, and it’s clear that director Gary Shore is much more focused on telling the story than on creating a horror film. Indeed, there are scenes that come and go far too quickly, scenes that could have given the film a darker tone and made Vlad far more frightening.
Even with all of that, however, the truth is that this is an expensive B movie with more mediocre performances than good ones, with plot holes and historic blunders (the righteousness of Christians fighting Turks to protect children should have been referenced, particularly in that post-Crusades era), and an ending that should have been saved for the Director’s Cut rather than included in the cinematic release.
Dracula Untold isn’t a great movie, and it’s definitely not a particularly scary or gruesome horror film by any stretch of the imagination. But it does have the seed of a really interesting story about parenting, about a father’s love and sacrifice, and offers up an intriguing spin on an oft-told tale. And for that I’ll give the filmmakers credit and encourage you to watch it, warts and all.