Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blood of the Dragon

Luke Evans in Dracula Untold

A friend of mine described Dracula Untold (2014, directed by Gary Shore) as "300 with vampires." I can see what she means. Any retelling of the story of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, however tinged by dark fantasy, is liable to stumble over 21st century global politics. In his time, Vlad was a hero to the people of Wallachia and Romania and Eastern Europe for standing as a bulwark between Christendom and the depredations of the Muslim Ottoman Turks. The allegorical potential in a contemporary world divided in conflict along the lines of Christian and Muslim is too rich. This analogy breaks down, though, when one considers the (anti) hero of the piece. Even in his own time, Vlad Dracula was famed for his bottomless cruelty. I almost wish the filmmakers had included some of the gorier stories about Vlad (in one--my favorite, actually--a trio of monks refused to doff their skullcaps to the Prince, so he nailed them to their heads). Not for nothing is Vlad III forever nicknamed "Vlad the Impaler," something with which this film is very much in tune. Vlad Dracula was a monster even before Bram Stoker modeled his famous vampire upon him. So what do you get if you cast a monster as the bulwark of Christianity against the Infidel Turks? Something different than an allegory for contemporary politics, or, at the very least, a very different kind of allegory than the right-wing jingoism of 300.

The legend of Vlad the Impaler and of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula are so intertwined anymore that it hardly seems worth it to untangle them. The imagery implicit in such an entanglement is much too rich to abandon to mere factuality. One doesn't need the huggermugger of the horror genre to be horrified at the forests of impaled enemies Vlad left in his wake to intimidate his enemies. A contemporary reading of the way Vlad conducted his war against the Turks would convict him of crimes against humanity. Medieval warfare was brutal in ways that we can't even conceive anymore. Adding the vampire legend to Vlad almost seems beside the point, but add it to the story of Vlad the Impaler this film does, and the additional Romantic tragedy that has somehow accreted to both myths.

The story--highly fictionalized is putting it mildly--finds Vlad faced with an invasion by the Sultan, Mehmet II, (in real life, known as "The Conqueror" for his expansion of empire into the Balkans and for the conquest--finally--of Constantinople). The first whiff of the invasion is the discovery of the gear of Turkish scouts beneath a foreboding Carpathian mountain. The scouts, it seems, have fallen afoul of something monstrous on the mountain. Vlad investigates only to discover that a cave harbors a monster--a vampire. He escapes with his life and retreats to Castle Dracula where, during a feast, the emissaries of the Sultan arrive for their annual tribute. This year, the demanded tribute is upped to include a thousand boys to be added to the ranks of the Sultan's Janissaries (slave soldiers). Vlad knows that the princely thing to do is to accede to the demand--what are a thousand boys. Moreover, Vlad grew up as a hostage to the Turks and knows the Sultan well. He feels that he can negotiate with him. The Sultan takes his reticence as an affront, and demands Vlad's own son as a hostage as well. This Vlad cannot do. He promised his wife, Mirena, that he would keep the boy close and safe. His refusal starts a war, but Vlad has scant resources at his disposal. He conceives of a way to find the power to fight the Sultan, and pays a visit to the elderly vampire in the cave on the mountain...

Needless to say, you should not approach Dracula Untold with any expectation that it will provide history. True, there was a Vlad the Impaler and there was a Mehmet II, and they did go to war against each other. There are great whacks of politics and intrigue that gets omitted from this, though, including the meddling of Vlad's brother, Racu, who collaborated with Mehmet in order to take Vlad's throne, or the various defeats Vlad suffered that broke his reign in Wallachia into three parts. Or the fact that Vlad did not, in fact, kill Mehmet in single combat and that Mehmet lived another twenty years beyond the bounds of this film. But, well, movies, I guess. I think all of this would make an excellent season of television along the lines of Game of Thrones, and I wouldn't even object if they omitted the vampirism. But I like the vampirism. It's the horror fan in me. There's a much better film in this material than what we're provided. This is a Lord of the Rings-style CGI epic full of virtual armies and escalating stakes. In addition to being a complete washout as history, it's only a tepid fantasy adventure, redeemed somewhat by the fall from grace its hero suffers because of who he is and what he does.

Charles Dance in Dracula Untold

But then, occasionally, this film remembers that it's a Dracula film, and therefore, it's a horror film. Whenever it remembers this it comes to a vivid kind of unlife. The scenes that work best are the scenes in the elder vampire's cave. Charles Dance's elder vampire, unnamed in the text of the film, is one of the few genuinely frightening vampires to grace the screen in quite some time. Part of this is the actor--Dance is adept at skin crawling villainy. Part of it is the visual design of the character. Part of it is how he's written. Whatever else. There's a strange alchemy in all of this that makes him easily the most compelling thing in the film. Beyond these scenes, though, the film turns electric when, having embraced his vampirism after the three day grace period, Vlad leads a cohort of newly created vampires against Mehmet's army in order to rescue his son. These scenes have a vaguely apocalyptic feel to them and are more vivid and engaging than any of the mass spectacles the film has previously served to the audience. And those forests of impaled enemies? You get those right up front. It's a haunting image.

Luke Evans, it should be said, does not get blown off the screen by Charles Dance. He's a fine Vlad Dracula, who he plays as brooding, Byronic anti-hero. He's okay with his monstrosity even before he becomes a vampire, so his transformation--his willingness to embrace monstrosity--is entirely inside the scope of the character. Evans sells it. Opposite Evans is Sarah Gadon, who is wide blue eyes, flowing, Pre-Raphaelite hair, and heaving bosom constrained by period costumes. Visually, she's ethereal, but she also seems insubstantial as well. Gadon is a fine actor, but her character is underwritten. Ditto the Sultan, played by Dominic Cooper. Cooper underplays him, perhaps wisely.

Sarah Gadon and Luke Evans in Dracula Untold

It's perhaps disingenuous to note that the production craft of this film is superb. It's a big-ish budget wannabe tent-pole, so of course it's gorgeous. Even so, I noticed and loved the costume design (particularly Sarah Gadon's wardrobe, but also Evans's). I wish the (virtual) set department had been more historically minded than the screenwriters, because Romania has some gorgeous locations. Castle Dracula as depicted in this film is nothing like Bram Castle, which is likely the real Castle Dracula.

I'm sure Universal Pictures is hoping it kick-starts a franchise, something strongly hinted by a present-day coda. If they do, I hope they choose a couple of stops along the way to the present (19th century England, perhaps?). Otherwise, I don't care. The naked franchise building at the end is a sour note in a film not short on them. In spite of this, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have fun watching it. It's head and shoulders more entertaining than, say, Van Helsing or The Mummy. While this has the same digital effects pedigree, it feels less like a video game than those movies which is all to the good. The thing it reminds me of most is "The Blood Bequest", a comics story Steve Perry, Stephen R. Bissette, and John Totleben that ran in one of Marvel's old black and white anthologies. Most of the elements of that story are here, including the "bequest" of an elder vampire to Dracula, but THAT story took the gloves off. It was serious about horror and ghastly beyond belief. This film? It only dabbles, which is too bad. It's good at it when it commits.

Note: my current challenge tally includes Addams Family Values, which is as Halloweeny as they come.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 12

First Time Viewings: 8

Around the Web:

Bob at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind recites The ABCs of Death 2.

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number spends the night in The Haunted Mansion, and more power to him, I guess.

Scott at Blasphemous Tomes takes a gut-punch from Joshua.

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