Wednesday 24 June 2015

Every chapter I stole from somewhere else

In Chapter 18 of Dracula, Bram Stoker offers a brief summary of the villain's identity: 'He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land. If it be so, then was he no common man, for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the "land beyond the forest".'

The vagueness allows Stoker to gloss over a detail: Vlad III was the Voivode of Wallachia, a mostly lowland principality to the north of the Danube in present-day southern Romania. Transylvania, where Stoker's count has his home, is an entirely different (albeit neighbouring) region, a part of medieval Hungary. Stoker rightly thought the legend of Vlad the Impaler was too good to pass up, so he fudged his history a bit. And we don't mind because he did it in the service of a novel that presents, despite awkward, overheated prose and reactionary politics, a good story.

You know what's pretty much the opposite of a good story, though? Dracula Untold. Seriously.

In the fifteenth century, Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans) rules the principality of Transylvania [sic] as a vassal of the Turkish Empire. When the Turkish envoy Hamza Bey (Ferdinand Kingsley) demands that 1,000 Transylvanian boys - including Vlad's own son (Art Parkinson) - be turned over to the Turks for training as Janissary soldiers, as Vlad himself was, the Prince is distraught. After his attempt to plead personally with Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) fails, Vlad refuses to budge, killing the Ottoman party tasked with bringing back the hostages and plunging Transylvania into war.

Realising he lacks the strength to fight off the Turkish army, Vlad visits the monstrous denizen of a mountain cave (Charles Dance), who lends him his vampiric powers. If Vlad manages to resist the craving for human blood for three days, he will return to his normal human self. If he gives in, however, he will become an immortal bloodsucking fiend forever. Realising he has little choice if he is to save his people, Vlad accepts the wager and turns into a superpowered, if increasingly sinister version of himself.

It would be difficult to argue that Dracula was exactly crying out for an origin story. (Not impossible: I for one would love to see a historical fantasy series set in the fifteenth-century Balkans on TV.) But dredging up the making of a hero has been the fashionable way to rekindle audience interest in washed-up properties since Batman Begins in 2005 (Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man was an origin story too, but saw no need to go on about it). Christopher Nolan's Batman films also gifted us the flawed, introspective hero that's spread like measles throughout corporate filmmaking. It's an approach that works fantastically for Batman, but for other characters - like, it turns out, Dracula - it's potentially lethal.

Combine a cookie-cutter origin story, a dark and brooding protagonist and the burden that Dracula Untold is the first film in the Marvel-aping rebooted Universal Monsters cinematic universe, and you have a recipe for disaster. The franchise angle forces the film to end on a bizarre and awful modern-day scene, while its slavish paint-by-numbers approach causes Dracula Untold to run into a serious problem: namely, that Dracula's appeal isn't as a hero, glum or otherwise. What people pay for when going to see a Dracula film is a charismatic immortal villain. Attempting to tell the story of how a virtuous aristocrat became an undead monster isn't impossible. But it would at the very least require the courage to make your protagonist, you know, evil by the end of the film. Instead Evans's Dracula stubbornly remains the same reasonably decent concerned dad, whether he's celebrating Easter with his adoring subjects or slaking his thirst on the blood of thousands of mooks. Worrying about audience sympathies causes writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless to simply give up on character development entirely.

But then, Dracula Untold isn't trying to tell the story of how a monster came to be because, apart from the most cursory of nods, it isn't a horror film. It's a superhero picture, if the shameless and uninspired cribbing from the conventions of the DC and Marvel films of the last decade didn't give that away, and a particularly asinine example of the form: cardboard villains, tedious powers and an adherence to formula so rigid that it chokes whatever life should be there right out of the film. There's even a scene in which silver fills in for kryptonite. In the face of so much formula, who could blame first-time director Gary Shore for falling asleep at the helm?

The film borrows extensively from what has come before. The opening scene, for example - in which voiceover narration explains to us scenes of boys being put through gruelling military training that includes a lot of whipping - is a bafflingly close retelling of the start of 300. Frank Miller's anti-Persian tirade provides the backbone for much of what follows, although Dracula Untold lacks the earlier film's full-throated fascist propagandising. Its Turks are mostly uninspired generic baddies, although the ominous crescents on their tents and repeated references to their menace to the capitals of Christian Europe are quite enough, in the age of Anders Behring Breivik, to qualify as grossly irresponsible. The film is, not to put too fine a point on it, racist trash, its obvious brainlessness aggravating rather than lessening its offensive pandering to fashionable prejudice.

Then there's Vlad's leading of the Transylvanian people to the safety of a monastery in the mountains, borrowed among other antecedents from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It's indicative of the film's gross lack of any sense of scale: the whole of Transylvania seems to consist of at most a couple of hundred people located in a single castle, and the entire war between Vlad and the Ottoman Empire is over in the required three days (in the real world, meanwhile, a medieval army would take well over a month to cover the distance between Istanbul and Vlad's historical capital of Târgoviște).

Nothing in Dracula Untold, in short, feels like it takes place in a plausible approximation of the real world. It looks fake, too: I left the film convinced its backgrounds were entirely computer-generated only to find out it was shot on location in Northern Ireland - a popular filming location in the age of Game of Thrones though not, alas, one famed for its scenic mountain ranges. The cold metallic colour palette chosen by cinematographer John Schwartzman seems an odd fit, too, for the backwoods medievalism the story would seem to require.

It's tired hackwork, is what it is, and the utterly uninspired performances reflect this. Evans tries, but he has literally nothing to work with; of all the people onscreen, only Charles Dance manages to have some fun with a scenery-chewing, genuinely effective performance. Say what you will about corporate filmmaking, but it guarantees at least a certain professionalism. Dracula Untold, alas, has literally nothing to offer beyond that base amount of competence. It's a product so soulless that it's difficult to be upset no-one involved in it managed to care.

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