We’re living in an era when major Hollywood studios live and die on their tentpole franchises. And right now, that’s really bad news for Universal.
The Fast & Furious series is easily the most successful franchise at Universal… as of last year. Now that Paul Walker is dead, it’s a huge freaking question how much longer the property can stay viable. Speaking of which, Despicable Me is going on its third movie, and there’s no sign of how much gas is left in that tank. They’ve also got Jurassic World coming out next year, but a fourth Jurassic Park movie thirteen years after the ill-received third entry is a very dicey proposition. To say nothing of Dumb and Dumber To next month. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Riddick, the franchise that seems to be fueled entirely by Vin Diesel’s mania. The most recent film in that franchise — last year’s Riddick — couldn’t even break $100 million worldwide (which, to be fair, isn’t bad for a movie with a reported $38 million budget).
Then we have Battleship, R.I.P.D., Skyline, and other such spectacular failures that never yielded sequels. That isn’t even getting started on Namor, the superhero Universal acquired from Marvel in 2001 so they could let him sit in development hell for over a decade. It’s little wonder why Universal is giving sequels to movies like Ted, Pitch Perfect, and The Purge — they have nothing else to work with.
…Well, almost nothing.
The studio retains its stable of Universal Monsters, comprised of such classic creatures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, et al. Though these monsters remain iconic and marketable nearly a century after their introduction to theaters, Universal has been struggling for ages to revamp them. Granted, it’s not like the Universal Monsters have been completely absent from pop culture. Stephen Sommers rebooted The Mummy with very impressive success, until The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor tapped that well dry in 2008. There was also the 2010 remake of The Wolfman, though behind-the-scenes difficulties doomed that project long before it ever premiered. And of course, there was Van Helsing, an attempted crossover that shit the bed in such extraordinary fashion that Universal execs are still living it down a decade later.
It seemed like no one at Universal could figure out a way to reintroduce the Monsters to modern audiences. Then two things happened.
First, Alex Proyas came to Universal in 2010 for a project called “Dracula: Year Zero.” The plan was to tell a reimagined origin story for Dracula, comprised of vampire lore spliced in with loose historical tidbits about the character’s real-life inspiration, Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes. That project stalled until the second major event happened: Marvel Studios made over a billion dollars on The Avengers, pioneering the concept of the superfranchise. In the time since, every studio in Hollywood has been slowly trying to build their own line of interconnected film series to replicate Marvel’s ongoing success.
In response, Universal dusted off Year Zero, gave it a new cast and crew, and tinkered with it right up through post-production reshoots. Thus we have Dracula Untold, the planned launching pad not only for a new Dracula franchise, but for the new Universal Monsters superfranchise. It will be followed in 2016 by a rebooted Mummy film directed by studio shill extraordinaire Alex Kurtzman. No word on what they’re doing with Wolfman, though I can’t wait to see how they address the 2010 remake and how that fits into all of this.
Incidentally, I find it hilarious how Universal is pinning so many of their hopes onto creatures that are public domain. Case in point: 20th Century Fox has a Frankenstein adaptation coming out next year, written by Max Landis with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe starring, and it’ll be so much fun to see if that throws a wrench in Universal’s plans.
Before moving onto the film proper, there are two more facts that merit consideration. First, it was co-produced by Legendary Pictures, the same company that developed 300, Pacific Rim, Godzilla (2014), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, and other such blockbusters for Warner Bros. until contract negotiations brought them over to Universal. Second, the movie was directed by Gary Shore with a screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, all three of whom are complete newcomers.
Anyway, Dracula Untold. Our protagonist is a good and noble monarch with a distinguished military history, loved and respected by all his subjects, played by a white guy who looks impossibly good with his shirt off (Luke Evans). Our villain is a power-mad lunatic dressed entirely in gold, played by some brown man of ambiguous ethnicity (Dominic Cooper). Our story begins when the lunatic emperor sends a messenger to our protagonist, asking for a tribute as a sign of allegiance. Rather than give up his freedom, our brave and noble monarch instead kills the messenger in brutal fashion before engaging in combat against a vast army that greatly outnumbers his own.
I mean… wow. Legendary couldn’t possibly rip themselves off any harder if they tried. What makes it even worse is that Dracula shows all the two-dimensional morality and straight-faced line deliveries of 300, but without any of the over-the-top machismo or breathtaking visuals that gave 300 its campy charm. The result is a movie that’s not scary enough to be a horror film, isn’t fun or energetic enough to be an action blockbuster, and it’s too damn ridiculous to work as a character drama. But of course, we’re just getting started.
See, Mehmed (the power-mad emperor) demands a tribute of a thousand boys who will be trained into soldiers for his army. Never mind that his Turkish Empire quite clearly has enough faceless disposable goons to man the fucking Death Star, he needs a thousand more soldiers. But Vlad (our protagonist, natch) refuses because he has a son who would be eligible for the draft, so to speak. Never mind that there are hundreds of Transylvanian families who would lose their children to the slaughter, Vlad has to save his son. Unfortunately, since Vlad was very clear in his intention of raising a peaceful kingdom, his army is laughably incapable of fighting back the Turks.
Luckily, as fate would have it, there’s an undead creature of unspeakable power living in the big scary mountain right next door.
Vlad goes to visit the unnamed Master Vampire, played by Charles Dance. The creature agrees to give Vlad a small sampling of full vampiric power — still more than enough to singlehandedly wipe out an entire army, as we see later on — though it comes with an insatiable thirst for human blood. If Vlad can resist his bloodlust for three days, the curse will wear off and he’ll go back to being a mortal. Hopefully after driving the Turks back for good. But if he gives in and uses his powers to imbibe blood (as we know he must, because franchise), Vlad turns into a full-on vampire for all eternity.
The premise is a nifty way of bringing the classic vampire themes of temptation and man’s primal nature into play. The film even throws in Stoker’s classic religious themes of salvation and sin without getting too blunt about it. Even if those concepts do lead the characters to act in impossibly stupid and/or ridiculously contrived ways, the effort is nonetheless appreciated. But of course, the primary reason for the premise was to give Dracula a more sympathetic origin story and turn him into a kind of superpowered antihero. Because Universal wants in on the superhero business and — as established above — they can’t be bothered to do anything with Namor.
On the one hand, I don’t mind this so much. No, really. The idea has some merit. The superhero genre is getting wildly oversaturated and we could always use something that stands out from the pack. Plus, I’ve been saying for years that the superhero boom should be considered a golden opportunity to introduce new characters and franchises, not just ones from pre-existing comic books. Hell, Marvel is doing something like that right now with “Agents of SHIELD,” as Coulson, Ward, May, Skye, and FitzSimmons are getting incorporated into the comics after their introduction and development on TV. We very badly need more of that.
On the other hand, Dracula isn’t some brand new superhero property. He’s goddamn Dracula (if you’ll pardon the pun). Not only is he a public domain character, but he’s easily one of the most adapted characters in one of the most reprinted stories in the history of fiction. This character is quite firmly established. More to the point, he’s established as a monster. And not just any monster, but the king of all vampires. Trying to reimagine Dracula as a hero — even a conflicted antihero — is putting the character in a role he was never meant to play, and that trick will only go so far.
It kind of worked in this movie, even though we know his development arc here will end with him becoming a bloodsucking demon, but then what can the filmmakers do for the sequel? They can either turn Dracula into a villain — thereby negating an entire movie’s worth of character development and rendering this movie a complete waste of everyone’s time — or they can find a contrived way of putting him against some improbably greater evil and just kick the can further down the street. Based on what I’ve seen from this movie’s ending, I’d put money on the latter.
I’ve already said that this movie was written and directed by complete unknowns. I’d wager that these newcomers were chosen specifically for their lack of leverage, so they wouldn’t be able to push back against the studio execs who were really making the movie. Universal already did something similar with Snow White and the Huntsman, and Disney used the tactic to sufficiently mediocre effect with Tron: Legacy and Maleficent. All of these movies shared a similar problem with Dracula: It’s clear that nobody behind the scenes had any idea what they were trying to do, other than make money. I think about this watered-down and misguided film, and I weep at the thought of what might have been under a visionary like Alex Proyas.
Take the action scenes, for example. The fights in this movie are shot and edited in a way that looks terribly weak, and the vampires attack in a way that shows remarkably little blood. Instead of biting his victims, you see, Vlad prefers to attack by way of turning into a swarm of bats and flying into soldiers at top speed. The camera shows this by way of movements and angles that look like an even less dignified knockoff of the forest swooping shots from The Evil Dead. I’m so glad I decided to see this on a normal screen, because I can’t imagine how nauseating those shots would be on IMAX.
Even when the visuals work in a clever way, it seems almost by accident. For example, there are a lot of truly awful day-for-night shots, but they work in this movie because… well, our main character can see in the dark. Also, vampires have an aversion to silver and crosses, and their effect on Vlad is shown by way of shots that are bright and blurry enough to give J.J. Abrams a seizure. It’s a simple effect, but it works quite well. Aside from that, it’s mostly bad CGI, battles reflected on swords, and other ideas that are so pitifully lame for how hard they’re trying to be cool.
I said yesterday that I’ve never seen Luke Evans or Dominic Cooper give a bad performance, even in the crappiest of movies. Well, now I have. I don’t blame the actors themselves, since they visibly look angry for having to work with this script and this direction. Even so, it’s painful to watch. As for Sarah Gadon, I’m sorry to say that her casting was totally misguided. She’s an underrated actress, don’t get me wrong, but she doesn’t have anywhere near the maturity or gravitas to play Vlad’s wife. She is, however, absolutely perfect for the role that the filmmakers cast her to play in the next film.
Incidentally, Gadon’s character is named “Mirena.” If you know anything about the character and story of Dracula, you’ll immediately take this as a flagrant sign that the filmmakers are insulting our intelligence.
Finally, there’s Ramin Djawadi, who composed the score for this movie. The same guy who wrote kickass theme songs for Iron Man, Pacific Rim, and “Game of Thrones” is the same guy who wrote this mess. That absolutely breaks my heart. At best, the score is completely unremarkable background noise. At worse, it’s loaded with vocal tracks that are tacky and annoying as hell. Then again, it’s not like the film deserved much better.
Everything about Dracula Untold feels forced. It feels like a stand-alone movie that was twisted into the start of a franchise. It’s an R-rated concept that got mutilated to fit a PG-13 rating. The potentially interesting original concept is buried under sequel requirements and ideas pulled from other, more successful movies. Just like most superficial four-quadrant films, this one tries to have everything and walks away with nothing.
Of course, I don’t begrudge a studio for trying to make money, and I don’t blame Universal for trying what made Marvel so successful. Unfortunately, this is a battle they’ve already lost, because Universal clearly missed a few key lessons from Marvel’s success. The most important of which is that Marvel created a cinematic universe that’s genuinely fun to revisit once or twice a year, rewarding the viewers for immersing themselves in this world and exploring it from all angles. I sat through Dracula Untold and saw a world that is not in any way worth revisiting.