In the 1930’s, when Bela Lugosi made history in Universal’s first Dracula movie, teenagers were not a market segment. Dracula was based on a successful play and was a mainstream box office hit. Today’s proliferation of the usually awful PG-13 supernatural action property is due to men who were the indie filmmakers of their day—Roger Corman and Samuel Zarkoff. Their American International Pictures had an internal strategy called The Peter Pan Syndrome. It had five pillars:
1. A younger child will watch anything an older child will watch.
2. An older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch.
3. A girl will watch anything a boy will watch.
4. A boy will not watch anything a girl will watch.
5. Therefore, to catch your greatest audience you zero in on the 19-year old male.
Hollywood, once it caught on, was able to bid for and annex the teenager pretty effectively with BBBs (Big Budget B-movies). That’s partly why the 1955 The Fast and the Furious cost $50,000 (less than half a million in 2014 dollars), and the 2001 The Fast and the Furious cost $38 million.
The Peter Pan Syndrome, however problematic (and unable to predict Twilight), is part of the key to understanding the way things are now.
Which brings us to Dracula: Untold, from the virgin team of director Gary Shore and writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. Given the very low expectations of its sub-genre, the film is surprisingly entertaining compared to similar movies I’ve seen and written about.
Dracula Untold is the dark and religious origin story of Prince Vlad (Luke Evans), a Man With A Troubled Past. Vlad, a former child conscript of The Turks, has left impaling for a nice life with wife Mirena (Sarah Gordon). However, he upsets The Turks when he refuses to send his own son to Sultan Mehmed as an insurance policy.
Such insolence can only be met with overwhelming force. “They’ve killed a thousand of our men, sir,” says an underling. “Then send a hundred thousand!” responds the Sultan.
Well, Vlad can’t handle that. So, it’s off to Broken Tooth Mountain (of course) we go, where he makes a dark pact with an ancient vampire played by the numinous Charles Dance. Drink my blood, says the vamp, and you will have unspeakable powers for three days. The forces of the night will bend to your will, wounds will heal in the blink of an eye. Women will want you, men will want to be you! But you mustn’t drink anyone’s blood during that time, or else you’ll be cursed for eternity.
Welshman Luke Evans has a classic Hollywood look, and could probably play Orlando Bloom’s evil nemesis (there’s an idea, executives). He’s adequately stoic and stormy. And the film doesn’t look all that bad, either. There are some parts that look 3-D (without the benefit of glasses), but occasionally the camera takes a break from tight close-ups and shaky action scenes to give the audience landscapes and choreographed fights. There’s even a downright bold use of first person—from the eyes of a doomed Turkish soldier, Dracula mostly glimpsed only in the reflection of a sword.
The set design gives a less cursory nod than usual to the Eastern setting—Orthodox viewers will appreciate iconography that tries to stay faithful to the period. The dominant special effects motif, Dracula’s ability to turn into a horde of bats, is masterfully done. There are some nostalgic moves, too; in one great scene, where Dance emerges from his tomb sporting his best evil grin, to the sound of a choir belting out histrionics for all they’re worth.
The story, like Hercules and The Lone Ranger and I, Frankenstein and countless others, is revisionist. But it succeeds where they fail, because it has mythic spirit. Vampires are still a warning about lust—Vlad, like Twilight’s Edward Cullen, has to spend most of the movie struggling with temptation. Charles Dance is a stand in for the sinister eroticism of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee: villainous, ravenous.
And the questions of damnation and repentance are all here, too, like in Hellboy and Constantine. Vlad is prone to sacrifice himself for the good of his family. And they remembered to make it scary! The movie pairs sound with its special effects to deliver more than a few jolts of adrenaline to the audience.
Lest I sound too breathless, let me be clear: Dracula: Untold hits utterly formulaic, melodramatic beats. It is lowest-common-denominator, Peter Pan filmmaking. But recognizing that “Better than I, Frankenstein!” isn’t much of a rallying cry, the movie still works for hardy, less stereotype-jaded viewers, and those looking for an amusing diversion.
Watch out. This movie is a master class in clichéd dialogue.
“Sometimes the world doesn’t need another hero. Sometimes what it needs…is a monster.”
“You came back!”
“This is not who you are.”
“All the world’s fate hangs in the balance.”
“Time is short. Love lasts forever.”
“Even after the darkest night, the sun returns.”
So, beware. Also, it’s pretty intense for a PG-13 picture. A man’s hands get chopped off. There are a few shots of hundreds of bodies impaled on pikes. A lot of people die. There’s some blood sucking and some scary moments. The overtures of a (clothed) marital sex scene are interrupted because Vlad is too tempted. In Britain, movies can get a “15” rating or a “12” rating—my guess is that this one hovers closer to 15.
Tim Wainwright's writing has been featured in The Atlantic, CT, and RealClearMarkets. He tweets hereand blogs here.
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