Some of you younger readers may not believe me when I type this, but there was a time, in the not so distant past, when the Universal Monsters were… monsters.
But the times they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan once said. And the lines they are a-blurrin,’ as the son of the dad from Growing Pains more recently said.
Somewhere along the line, comic books and movies joined forces and became one mega box office power, the smash hit success of Marvel’s various adaptations, reboots, re-reboots, spin-offs and sequels ushering us all into the age of the superhero.
At this present moment in time, as I sit here typing what’s sure to be a review so long that most of you will give up 2/3 of the way through, superheroes are the reigning kings of the box office, and all the big studios are predictably hungry for their slice of that heroic pie.
The latest studio to jump on the superhero bandwagon is Universal, who recently announced they’ll be creating a Marvel-style universe for their iconic monsters. What that essentially means is that each monster will get his own film and then they’ll all eventually come together for one big ole monster mash, and whether you or I want that or not is as irrelevant to their agenda as what color underwear I’m rocking right now.
They’re black. I always wear black. Because it hides accidents.
According to recent reports, Dracula Untold is the beginning of this shared Universal Monsters universe, the first of many monster reboots to come. A prequel that delves into the origin story of cinema’s most iconic vampire, this new take on the classic tale is set in 15th century Transylvania, ruled over by the once monstrous but now peaceful Prince Vlad (…the Impaler).
When the Turks threaten to destroy his land and murder his people, if he doesn’t agree to let his young son be taken and raised by them (F that noise), Prince Vlad (Luke Evans) finds hope in an ancient vampire who lives in darkness atop a creepy mountain with a cool-sounding name. Looking for the power to destroy his enemies and save his family, Vlad forces the vampire to turn him, drinking his blood from a crushed human skull.
If he doesn’t give in to his carnal desires to drink human blood in the next three days, Vlad will return to his normal life, after three days of being a super-powered badass. But if he can’t resist the urge, he will forever remain an immortal vampire. And that’s a problem and stuff. Especially when you’re really, really, really, ridiculously good looking.
Personally speaking, I’m not a fan of this trend of monsters being turned into wickedly handsome action heroes, and Dracula Untold is very much THAT movie. More than anything else, it plays out like the origin story of a superhero whose superpower happens to be that he has fangs and can turn into a shitload of CG bats. The name Dracula is in the title, this is true, but this aint the Dracula you know and love.
Hell, the only scene that made me feel like I was even watching a Universal monster movie was one where mob-like villagers pick up torches, and even that was more Frankenstein than Dracula.
But my issue with the film isn’t simply that it’s a bastardization of one of horror cinema’s most iconic monsters. No, my issue with the film is that it’s dull to the point of being almost entirely forgettable. Lacking a set of balls and devoid of any discernible personality, Dracula Untold is a vampire film that’s seriously lacking in the bite department, like a vamp whose fangs have been filed down so that he’ll be safe and palatable to the masses.
By portraying ole Vlad as a hero, rather than a monster, Dracula Untold loses a good portion of the inherent appeal that will surely draw many horror fans to the theater this weekend. The interesting thing about Dracula is that he’s a vicious, blood-drinking monster, and so it’s just not very interesting to watch a movie about a version of Dracula that’s not that. I simply don’t care about human Dracula, nor do I want to watch him while he’s awkwardly developing his flying skills.
I realize that this is an origin story we’re talking about, but something is seriously wrong when all that a franchise-starter is able to accomplish is making you wish you were instead watching the sequel. Since it’s immediately clear that Dracula is being painted as the handsome hero, you just know he’s not going to do anything villainous in this particular movie, which mostly sucks away any and all of the fun.
Just as this depiction of Vlad wishes to forget his dark side, so too does the movie wish to forget its titular monster’s, rendering Dracula Untold just another totally generic action spectacle. It’s safe at almost every turn, painfully so, and though some moderate entertainment is provided in the short 90 minute runtime, it’s simply not enough to make the movie anything more than utterly forgettable. It’s not a terrible movie. I just never really… cared.
It’s a shame, really, because there seemingly is a decent horror movie lying underneath all the CG action and hard-to-tell-what’s-happening battle scenes. And that horror movie is sitting atop that aforementioned creepy mountain. The vampire that turns Vlad (above) is much more Dracula-like than Dracula himself, and the two main scenes the character is in are among the best in the film. Charles Dance is terrific in the role, and I frequently wished that I was watching a movie about his character, rather than Evans’.
Sadly, I was not.
Ironically enough, it’s Prince Vlad, in this very movie, who says at one point that the world doesn’t always need a hero – sometimes, it needs a monster. That line stuck out to me as I exited the theater last night, as it perfectly summed up the way I feel about Dracula Untold. We didn’t need a hero with this one, Universal. We needed a monster. And the fact that we didn’t get one leaves me with serious concerns about the future of this bold new universe.
At the end of the day, Dracula Untold is a decent enough set-up for what I imagine Universal is trying to do with that universe. In other words, it gets done what they were trying to get done. The problem is that I just don’t care for that universe that’s being established, which is a problem because I should by all means fall into the target audience of anything Universal Monsters-related… right?
Alas, it seems those iconic monsters just aren’t for me anymore, and that’s a realization that I can’t help but feel sad about.