Dracula Untold doesn’t so much un-tell the mythos of the iconic vampire that’s been presented to various degrees of eloquence to readers and cinema-goers since the publication of Dracula as it perverts the history that presumably influenced Bram Stoker. The film, ostensibly set in the 15th century, also takes the real-life Vlad the Impaler as its inspiration for Dracula, but it reimagines the psychopathic butcher of tens of thousands as a noble ruler, played by Luke Evans, driven to self-sacrifice when the menacing Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), head of the Ottoman empire, demands 1,000 Transylvanian boys, including Vlad’s own son (Art Parkinson), as recruits for his child-slave army. It’s a story arc that wouldn’t be out of place on Game of Thrones, except it lacks for the HBO program’s dense and surprising dramatic reflexes.
A former child slave himself, Vlad broods over this predicament, attempts to “negotiate” with his Turkish terrorizer in a gesture of Obama-like reconciliation, broods again, then obligatorily strikes a Faustian bargain with a master vampire (Charles Dance) who resides in a nearby bat cave. Granted superhuman strength to slay his enemies, Vlad will revert to his human form only if he can resist sucking blood, a crisis of consciousness that, as delivered by first-time director Gary Shore, plays out across a series of mushy heart to hearts—and eyes to neck—with his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and incomprehensible battle sequences that, in their predetermined sense of momentum, suggest video-game cutscenes.
It isn’t the desire for power or infamy, but the tragedy of familial loss, that pushes Vlad toward closing the master vampire’s deal in the manner he hadn’t originally planned. He thus corroborates the film’s insipid commitment to giving Dracula the full-on Maleficent treatment. It is, though, worth mentioning the subtle, if dully solemn, thematic resonance of a shot of three wise monkeys lying on a table in one scene, as Vlad’s transformation into Dracula is a rebuke to the more popular understanding of the pictorial maxim as a representation of a person’s willful ignorance. But like the scene-stealing Dance, who cuts a mean figure as his ancient vamp delectably dances the long fingernails of his hand along Vlad’s sword, it’s a mere blip of inspiration in a muggy spectacle of uninspired CGI and hollow moralizing.