There Were Bats: A Review of Dracula Untold

Dracula UntoldThere were bats. Lots of them. I think we can all agree on that up front. I will admit that after the horror (not the good kind) that was Van Helsing, I went into Dracula Untold hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I am happy to report, however, that I enjoyed it a lot. Is it a masterpiece of cinematic art? No. But it was a fun ride. It will probably become one of those movies I’ll watch to the end if I happen to catch it while flipping channels on a Sunday afternoon.

I want to start with a little about the historical accuracy of the movie. I have heard rumblings on the Interwebs that the real Dracula was a horrible murderous psychopath and that the movie doesn’t portray him accurately. Let’s take a step back from that. The real Dracula was also not a vampire, so that kind of throws any arguments about historical accuracy out the window. I’m ambivalent about making him the prince of Transylvania rather than the prince of Wallachia, as the real Vlad the Impaler was, but I understand why they did it.

Interestingly, a lot of the plot hinges on two obscure facts that are absolutely true. As a boy, Vlad and his younger brother Radu were sent to live in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul as royal hostages, to ensure their father’s loyalty. After Vlad’s father and older brother were murdered (buried alive, if you’re keeping score) by rivals to the throne of Wallachia, Vlad was sent back to rule as a puppet prince and promptly turned on his Turkish masters.

The act of taking Christian boys to serve in the Sultan’s army also happened. It was called the “boy tribute,” devşirme in Turkish. Every Christian household was required to give up one son. It sounds harsh, and it was, but there were mitigating factors. A family that had only one son was exempt, and sometimes, if a family had any wealth, they could pay extra taxes instead, but that was a rare occasion.

Now for the movie itself. Here’s the good and the bad.

The Good

  1. The acting. Overall the acting was pretty solid. Dracula is easy to turn into a melodramatic caricature, but Luke Evans managed to avoid that pitfall and give the role some depth. You can tell when an actor is having fun, even when being serious, and Evans was having fun. Sarah Gadon played Vlad’s wife Mirena, and while her role was unfortunately relegated to “The Wife,” she was allowed her own moments to shine. Charles Dance played the Master Vampire and managed to be appropriately creepy and genuinely scary. The one performance that didn’t measure up for me was Dominic Cooper as Sultan Mehmed. When your hero is Dracula, you need a villain equally larger than life, and Cooper just didn’t pull it off. (That may have been the fault of the script. I’m not sure anyone could.)
  2. The bats. No really. The special effects were pretty cool, especially the “Army of Bats” sequence shown in the trailers. And it’s a lot more awesome to see Dracula turn into a whole bunch of bats rather than just one.

The Bad

  1. The plot. Not all of it. Some of the twists I didn’t see coming. The writers could have made obvious choices at certain points, but to my surprise and delight, they didn’t. Overall, though, the story felt rushed. Plot threads were dropped and never picked up again, and some ideas only lightly touched upon. This is one time I think adding twenty or even thirty minutes to the movie to develop the story and deepen some of the themes would have made it better.
  2. The accents. Movie accents have always been a pet peeve of mine, and in this one they were all over the place. Mirena, Dracula’s chief lieutenant Dimitru, and his son Ingeras all had English accents. Dracula had Evans’ characteristic Welsh accent. The other Transylvanians had pseudo-Slavic accents, which is a problem, because they were supposed to be ethnically Romanian, and Romanians are not Slavs. The worst offenders, though, were the Turks. I’m not even sure what accent they were trying to copy. Sometimes they sounded like Arab terrorists from a low-budget thriller. At other times they sounded like they were trying to dig peanut butter out of their back teeth with their tongues. Someone needs to inform Hollywood that not all people from the Middle East are the same. Personally, in a situation like this, where no one would really be speaking English anyway, I’d prefer the follow the example of Lord of the Rings and give everyone a vague, generic British accent. But that’s just me.

The Bad, however, doesn’t outweigh the Good for me in this case. This is a worthy addition to the canon of Dracula films, and I would definitely recommend checking this one out.

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