Drained of Life, by Tyler Smith
The real story of Vlad the Impaler is fascinating and horrific. It’s a wonder that more movies haven’t been made out of his life. But, perhaps the reason that this hasn’t happened is that, as has become common knowledge, Vlad was apparently the inspiration for the character of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel. Once Hollywood connected those dots, the possibility of a sincere and honest account of Vlad’s story was quickly dismissed. Instead, we get movies like Dracula Untold, which utilizes the real story of Vlad and his impact on the Dracula mythos to put a slight twist on what feels like a very familiar story.
In the film, Vlad is the ruler of Transylvania, a small kingdom under constant threat from the Turkish Army. When a thousand boys (including Vlad’s own son) are required to join the Turks, Vlad takes a stand. Unfortunately, he has no army to stand with. So, he does the only thing he can think of: he ventures into the cave of a vampire and asks to be given the power to defend his people. The vampire is only too happy to oblige, and Vlad becomes a veritable superhero, able to wipe out entire legions himself. Soon, though, the desire for blood begins to take hold and Vlad starts to become a danger to those around him, including his wife and son.
What can be said for the film is that it steers right into the inherent melodrama of a story like this. I counted four separate occasions in which Vlad screamed to the heavens. Add to that Vlad’s complicated brotherly relationship with the Turkish leader, the monstrously charismatic vampire, and the over-the-top battle scenes, and we have ourselves what could have been a campy, lurid romp. There were moments when I half expected Jon Lovitz to show up and giggle about all the ribaldry going on. In many ways, Dracula Untold is a tonally fun movie.
Unfortunately, little of that fun is reflected in the acting and dialogue. While there’s no question that the events of the film are delightfully ridiculous, the actors all play it straight. I can appreciate the level of commitment it takes to sell these types of characters, but part of me would have preferred if everybody involved chose to embrace the soap opera qualities of the story and played each emotion to the hilt. Instead, we watch as good-looking actors smolder and whisper, seemingly unaware of the silliness around them.
I also wish the film had taken on a more tragic tone. If Vlad is, in fact, meant to be a hero, then his story is ultimately a sad one. While he may have done what he did for love, we all know where he eventually ends up; in a castle, all alone, waiting for unsuspecting travelers and salesmen to pass by. Given that the character so badly wants to preserve his people and civilization, his inevitable isolation would have made for a particularly moving and heartbreaking story beat. But, the film skips over that, opting instead to make him a sort of lone wolf, cool and detached more than broken and desperate.
Though not directly addressed in the story itself, this character arc is very well represented in the visual style of the film. As the story begins, we are treated to lush, open landscapes. There is a sweeping quality to Transylvania. It is a land of prosperity and happiness. The colors are vivid and vibrant, reflecting the optimism of the people. However, as Vlad descends further into his vampirism, the color slowly starts to drain away, and the camera moves closer and closer, until the vistas are no more. Instead, we get drab, gray, rainy close-ups. This is as it should be, as Vlad’s world quickly becomes one of darkness and limitation. He must hide from the sun when he’s not draining the life out of his victims; it’s only natural that the film would begin to take on the emotional state of the character.
When we look at the visual style of the film, and the melodramatic tone, we realize that Dracula Untold truly could have been a fun and pulpy tragedy. All the elements are there. It could have been a modern cousin of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which exploited every ounce of sexuality and juvenile angst found in the novel. That was a film that understood the sadness of Dracula, while reveling in the gothic excess of his world. Dracula Untold, however, makes the fatal mistake of squandering its ridiculousness by taking everything so seriously. When depicting an historical figure as a man that can literally turn into a cloud of bats if he runs fast enough, the very last thing a film should be is painfully earnest.