By now, The Mummy 2017 is its own cautionary tale. Universal spent at least $125 million – and probably more like $200 million – trying to start up their Universe of Classic Monster Movies and barely made twice as much back, ensuring their efforts would be branded a failure. (Theaters usually get to keep half the box office anyway.) After The Mummy flopped, everyone pointed the finger at Tom Cruise, allowing everyone else to fail upward toward higher paying, future jobs. I expect them try again in give-or-take three years since that’s exactly what happened the last time, with Dracula Untold.
Much as it’s a punchline now, Universal’s repeated attempts to jump on the Expanded Universe train do actually make some sense. They are arguably the Richard Trevithick of all this shit. Larry Talbot died at the end of The Wolfman, but that didn’t stop him from tripping over his own dick into Dracula’s castle, or Frankenstein’s castle, or some other dipshit mad scientist’s castle, for four more movies. People used to write dissertation-level essays attempting to explain those flicks’ nonexistent continuity – the ancestors of all those modern “How This Bit of the Marvel Universe Actually Fits In With the Rest, In Spite of All Evidence to the Contrary” articles.
So let’s say you’ve chosen – or been chosen – to trap yourself inside the Universal Studios machine. You consider yourself heir to this legacy that defined the American Horror Movie(tm)(c)(r), since it’s either that or being heir to the legacy of Comcast Cable. Then, after five years of watching those jumped-up scrubs at Disney steal your thunder with films you hold in complete contempt, a green-eyed monster whose name isn’t “Hulk” starts to take hold of your mind. You start to wonder,
Evil Me: Why not us? After all, we did it first. With less. Why can’t we do it again?
Sure, why not? Especially when you’ve already got a project you shelved seven years prior because you thought it would be too expensive. It was called Dracula: Year Zero and was supposed to be directed by Alex (The Crow, Dark City) Proyas and star Sam (Terminator: No Salvation No Forgiveness) Worthington. But who needs talented and/or successful people to start your film franchise? Why not hire a first-time director with no clout or Producer-level protection, micromanage all his efforts, and cast the guy everyone mistakes for Orlando Bloom in the Pirates movies? (Even when I was watching The Hobbit Trilogy and Orlando Bloom was literally right over there, I had to do a double-take every time Bard popped back up.)
By then, it was called Dracula: Untold. And Jesus Gods, pour one out for director Gary Shore. Here’s a guy, plucked from the relative obscurity of Dublin, where his short films won awards and his commercials almost won awards at Cannes. (Yes, Cannes has its own version of the Cleos – I was as surprised as you). Universal calls him up, and dude thinks he’s won the fucking lottery, so he puts all kinds of plans in motion, hoping his rising tide will lift everyone else’s boats. And then…shit happens. The most high profile thing he’s done since this was a commercial for the video game Game of War: Fire Age, which only got its five minutes of fame because it starred Kate Upton as The Bustiest Athena since the one in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
So you wanna make a Dracula movie in a post-Twilight world? Fine. You could tell the tragic tale a young prince’s attempt to save his people from the Evil Empire Next Door by unleashing a much greater evil…which they kind of tried to do…But make no mistake – just like like The Mummy ’17, this first attempt at a first entry in the Dark Universe is a superhero origin story in disguise.
So you wanna make Dracula a superhero. Fine. You’re going to have to make some serious compromises, especially if you want to sell this sucker as a PG-13, 90-minute-long fantasy action movie. All the signs are here: action that’s filmed too close and cut too quick. Supporting characters who come and go – live an die and rise again – without us even learning their names. Relationships that are told to us rather than shown. An opening voice-over in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man Trilogy tradition, existing only to set-up a closing voice-over and to tell us some damned lies. And a startling lack of blood, even by post-Twilight standards. Makes me think there’s an R-rated cut of this somewhere, with more impaling and more severed limbs, though I can’t find any evidence to back this up. We don’t even have an “Unrated” DVD. Christ, even 2010’s Wolfman remake got one of those.
About those damned lies: the opening voice-over – delivered by Dracula’s totally-made-up-for-this-movie son, Ingeras – put Vlad Dracul’s prowess in battle, and legendary appetite for slaughter, down to his being kidnapped by the Ottoman Empire and raised as a child solider. This is some ahistorical bullshit right off the…ahem…right after the opening credits.
Evil Me: You almost said “right off the bat,” didn’t you?
Yes, but I stopped myself. Unlike some people, I have self control. “Neither awful enough to suck nor sharp enough to bite.” Fuck you, Rotten Tomatoes. Nobody likes you.
In our world, Vlad III, Son of the Dragon, was (along with his brother Radu, who’d eventually usurp him) actually held hostage in by the Ottoman Empire during the 1440s, in order to secure his dad’s continued cooperation. But he wasn’t a child soldier who repented of his former war crimes when he returned home…quite the opposite. We don’t know much about his life for sure – most of what we know comes from his various political enemies – but what we have paints a picture of his early life that looks a lot more like Theon Greyjoy than Raiden-from-Metal Gear. If you’d like to know more, check out my man Chad Denton’s series Hollywood Hates History – Episode 3’s all about Vlad, through the lens of a 1970s Romanian bio-pic that tries to cast Vlad as a national hero. And hey – if you could cast Dracula as the founder of your nation, you’d probably do it too.
But then again, who cares about history? Certainly not America in 2018…or 2014, for that matter. So Vlad here is a beloved prince who rules over an idyllic-looking kingdom with the respect (seemingly born out of sincere love rather than impalement-induced-fear) of his fellow nobles, an incredibly hot wife (the real Vlad had at least two) and one towheaded son (the real Vlad had at least three). I do like the scattered references to how “Dracula” can translate to either “son of the Dragon” or “son of the Devil.” I just wish there could’ve been more made of that distinction. Vlad was a “son of the Dragon” because his father joined the Order of the Dragon – a group of knights founded by the King of Hungary in 1408, specifically to fight the Ottoman Empire’s western expansion. He probably didn’t become a “son of the Devil” until the modern Romanian language solidified, but here, he owns the name once climactic circumstances force him to chow down on his wife, go Full Vampire, and save his son from the clutches of Sultan Mehmed II.
It’s impossible to avoid reading 2014’s socio-political anxieties into this depiction of 1470-whatever. At least the Ottomans aren’t as outright-evil, or relentlessly queer-coded as, say, 300‘s Persians…but they are just as callous and cruel in the face of their poor, humble, nuclear-family-having Western neighbors. So when Mehmed II demands a thousand child conscripts to beef up the ranks of his army, including Vlad’s narrator-son, Our Hero climbs the local haunted landmark of Broken Tooth Mountain and strikes a deal with the vampire inside.
And gods fucking damnit, this movie got Charles Dance, put him in full Nosferatu make-up, used him for all of five minutes, and then decided to save him for the sequel. This is criminal mismanagement of an otherwise perfect casting choice, right up there (or down there) with 2015’s Jem and the Holograms casting Ke$ha as Pizazz and then “saving” her (and the rest of the Misfits-no-not-those-Misfits) for an after-the-credits teaser.
Regardless, Tywin Vampister offers the “Lord Impaler” (and I do like how that’s his nickname, and the contempt Charlie Dance manages to put into those two words) a shattered skull-full of blood, giving Vlad the full slate of vampire powers…for three nights. If he resists the urge to feed until the dawning of Day Four, he’ll revert back to normal, no problem. But if he drinks human blood, not only will he become the Dracula we put this movie on to see, he’ll release Clemens from Broken Tooth mountain…but don’t get too excited. Even the worst Twilight movie – New Moon – has more vampire-on-vampire combat, and better-staged at that. I want to sterilize my own mouth now. This is still a better love story than Twilight, but we must always give credit where it’s due.
As for vampire-on-human combat…well, I’m spoiled by all the actual horror movies I’ve watched, many of which stared a Dracula. There’s one scene, where Vlad repels a Turkish attack on his castle, mowing down a whole thousand-man army all by himself, and it should be the coolest thing ever. Our Director does comes up with one genuinely good idea: having half the battle play out in the reflective surface of a scimitar Vlad intermittently uses throughout. But it’s like finding twenty bucks in your pocket while you’re doing the laundry – a minor reward for a mundane chore that was already yours in the first place.
Luke Evans is…well, what can you really say about him? He reminds me a lot of Taylor Kitsch: never the real problem in anything he’s in, just a dude with shit luck picking his roles. I feel bad comparing him to other Draculas because he gets so little Dracula shit to do. He’s much more like Louis, from Interview with a Vampire: newly born into the night and adjusting to his un-life. Except Interview was good because it took its time to explore what that adjustment looks like, and it looked like stepping into a crazy, surrealist nightmare world where you have to learn a whole new set of instincts, because your old instincts are all human. The most positive reviews of this film all contain some line that translates from critic-to-English as “at least it’s short.” No one seems to suspect that’s the root of all its problems.
Vlad gets three nights to try vampirism before he buys it. On Night One, he kills a thousand men by himself and puts them all on spikes for Mehmed to see. (Classic Vlad, that scamp.) On Night Two, he moves his people up to a local abbey at the head of Borgo Pass, losing some friends along the way. On Night Three, Mehmed’s 10,000-man army shows up so this movie’s climax can at least pretend to look like the Battle of Helms Deep, but Vlad ultimately fails, his son gets kidnapped, and his wife lies dying in his arms, begging him to bite her and use his vampire powers to save their son.
Since Vlad’s wife…shit, I forgot her name again…Mirena! Since Mirena has nothing else to do, she gets to sacrifice herself for Vlad and their kid. How else can she get re-incarnated as a Mina in the epilogue/teaser for the sequel we’ll never see. And it just occurred to me: they named Vlad’s wife Mirena to make sure we’d remember it, since it kinda, sorta sounds like an old-timey version of “Mina.” But since she’s such a nothing character – the wife-y-est Protagonist’s Wife I’ve see in quite some time – I still had to look up her name. After I write this paragraph, I’m gonna go right back to calling her “Vlad’s wife” and not feel a shred of guilt about it. There was one scene – a continuation of the “Vlad’s wife discovers his vampirism” scene – where Mirena gets him some goat blood to quench his Thirst during the day…but someone, somewhere, decided to cut that for some stupid reason. Oh, no big deal – it’s only the scene where Our Hero’s Significant Other overcomes an entire lifetime of received wisdom and accepts him for who and what he is…why would anyone want to see that?
Another example: there’s this monk. Early on, he delivers the vampire exposition and then disappears until everyone gets to the abbey. There, he starts noticing how far Prince Vlad’s going to avoid direct sunlight and stirs up a genuine, bonafide torch-wielding mob in an attempt to kill the Vlad before Vlad can fulfill his destiny. What does Vlad do? He yells at the mob for a bit about how much he’s sacrificed for them, and how little they appreciate him…aww, poor baby. Poor movie, wanting me to feel bad for Dracula.
But who the hell wants to feel bad for Dracula? Most people want to be Dracula. That’s part of why I’m doing this, since it fights right in with my “we all want to be monsters now” thesis. Something the Lord Impaler himself articulates. “Men do not fear swords – they fear monsters,” because, while any jackass can pick up a sword, monsters have power and agency, the two rarest and most special weapons in Earth’s loot-table.
Point is, this monk is the proto-Van Helsing…but since he barely appears in this film, I can’t even remember his name. It doesn’t matter. We know Dracula’s gonna survive because he’s Dracula, and we know his son’s going to survive because some damn fool made his son the introductory narrator. Yet I’m supposed to wonder, “Will Dracula rescue his son from the death trap Mehmet’s set up for him?” Leaving this film’s conclusion hollow and dull. I’m left admiring the death trap (a tent full of all the silver coins that Vlad gave the Sultan as tribute back in Act One, now rendered toxic to Vlad) since it’s this movie’s one last original and creative thought…Though I gotta admit, far as Mehmet II goes, getting staked through the heart by the vampire you were trying to stake is a better way to go than getting (probably) poisoned by (probably) your own son. Right up there with Wonder Woman shanking Erich Ludendorff years before he can die alone from liver cancer in some private clinic for rich people.
This is another one of those movies where the deleted scenes are more interesting than any of the actual scenes. There’s this one, when Vlad’s just gotten his vampire powers, and he gets led to a village the Turks have destroyed by what turns out to be a ghost. Then he think he’s found a survivor, but it turns out she’s a full-on, no-shit, Hansel and Gretel witch, complete with her own gingerbread house full of child-sized skeletons in cages. She reads his palm, tells his future (saying he has seven days of borrowed monster mojo instead of three, hinting at this film’s original structure) and laughs at him while her house walks away into the woods.
All of which is awesome. Why isn’t this in the movie? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because Universal tested this in front of random, LA-area mall-going audiences, got bad notices, and panicked. Instead of missing their coveted early-October release window, they chopped it down to its skeleton, did some Additional Dialog Recording to shorten Vlad’s arc, and shipped it out. Because, according to executive producer logic, 90 minutes of movie times however many showings per day times however many theaters in the world should still equals x amount of profit…
Except when it doesn’t. Like, say, when your movie plays like it’s on fast-forward, even in the theater. People can and will recognize that, even if only on a subconscious level. We all know we’re trapped in a system that doesn’t care about art or artists or art’s patrons…viewers, watchers, players, listeners…whatever you want to call yourselves. A system that seeks to mechanize and algorithmically generate everything, secure that we, the audience, will lap up whatever old slop they put in front of us. A system that is always hilariously surprised when we don’t – when we say, “Nah, fam – fuck this. I’m watching a Christopher Lee Dracula again. At least those have some heart.”
Evil Me: That sounds like foreshadowing for another topic you should’ve discussed already.
Congrats: you’ve been paying attention.