Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Ghoul Versus Dracula Untold

Are you ready for ANOTHER reboot? Of course you are! Join us as we journey back to the beginning of the ORIGINAL Batman, Vlad the Impaler!”

I think it's safe to say I'm taking a break from the Andy Sidaris collection for a bit. Just a quick break though, if I can survive Bayformers, Twilight, and all NINE Hellraiser films, a bunch of Playboy Playmates armed with guns and implants sure aren't going to stop me! Today I thought we'd take a look at 2014's Dracula Untold, which was the directorial debut of Gary Shore. Shore made a name for himself directing commercials for companies such as Gatorade and Adidas, which I guess is all the qualifications you need to make a feature film in this day and age.

Dracula Untold had a case of Development Hell to make it to the silver screen, as it was originally set to be a big budget film by Alex “Dark City” Proyas and starring Sam Worthington. That didn't work out because the budget was getting sky high, so it was handed off to Shore and the writing team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. Sazama and Sharpless are currently hard at word writing the script to MISSILE COMMAND, which is based off the Atari video game where three lumps of pixels blasted pixels at incoming pixels. Should be riveting. They're also credited with the screenplay for the upcoming Clue remake, because THAT totally needed a remake. I'm telling you, reboots of the Princess Bride and the Godfather are right around the corner...

After production was finished, distributor Universal Pictures saw what Marvel was doing with their Cinematic Universe and said “Me too! Me too!” so ordered reshoots to make the film a springboard to their own version. This was to be a reboot/reimagining/remake of their Universal Monsters movies, featuring characters such as Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, etc etc etc. Oh goody, so that means ALL movie studios will be “borrowing” this format soon doesn't it? Four delayed releases later and the film was FINALLY released on October 10, 2014 where it was ravaged by the critics and only earned 56 million dollars versus its budget of 70 million. It did MUCH better overseas because these kind of movies always do, bringing its total to 215 million and all but guaranteeing the Universal Cinematic Universe will become a thing.

Let's see how the introductory chapter unfolds, so grab your garlic and your wooden stakes- or wait, forget that. I'm going to bet this vampire movie continues the Hollywood fad of eliminating all vampire tropes. Let's just pray Dracula doesn't sparkle as it's time for A Ghoul Versus Dracula Untold!

Narration (SIGH) informs us it's the year 1442 and the sultan of Turkey has enslaved one thousand Transylvanian boys to serve in his army. One of the boys grew up to be super badass, and entire armies would flee at the sight of him. He was, of course, Vlad the Impaler. As he grew up, he became weary of the bloodshed and regretted his violent acts so he... left the army to return to rule Transylvania? Well, I guess that sultan isn't such a bad guy after all! Enslaving and torturing boys sure, but he'll let you go if you feel bad enough.

Vlad is played by Luke Evans, a Welsh actor who is fast becoming a very hot property in Hollywood. After large parts in the CGIfests that were the Clash of the Titans remake and Immortals, he landed choice parts in CGIfests like Fast and Furious 6 and Peter Jackson's the Hobbit trilogy. Progress! We join Vlad as he and his squad are near a river, examining the helmet of a Turkish scout that was found nearby. Worried of a potential invasion, Vlad plans to hike up to Broken Tooth Mountain, where he suspects the Turks will be hiding. Somehow, during all of this, Vlad fails to notice the three massive claw marks on the back of the helmet.

The men scale the mountain and enter a cave after enduring a bat jump scare, Vlad pointing out something inside scared the bats. They find the floor is covered in crushed bones and that's when something attacks and takes out everyone but Vlad. He runs to the entrance of the cave, saved by the lighting shining through which wards off the creature. Hey, sunlight hurts vampires! I can't believe anyone remember that! Vlad returns to his home, Castle Dracula, and meets with a monk named Brother Lucian to find more about the mysterious being.

In this world a vampire is created when someone summons a demon from Hell and makes a trade for power, but usually gets screwed in the process. In this case, the vampire in the cave is confined there until it can find someone to set it free. Mulling this over, Vlad goes to visit his wife Mirena and his young son Ingeras, giving him a reminder of what's important in his world. Mirena is played by Sarah Gadon, an actress we'll be seeing a lot of in the upcoming year as I plan to review her numerous collaborations with both David Cronenberg and his son Richard. However, she's probably best known to mainstream audiences as K.A.R.I., the holographic AI that Oscorp Industries employed to direct traffic in the Not-At-All Amazing Spider-Man 2.

We see Vlad loves his family very much and would do anything for them, but I'm POSITIVE selling his soul to a vampire to protect them won't ever come into play. The next day is Easter, where the citizens of Transylvania are celebrating ten years of peace... which is cut short by the arrival of the Turks, led by the sultan's right hand man Hamza Bey. Talk about timing, I bet these assholes were probably waiting outside the door for the PERFECT moment to enter. It seems the sultan wants a thousand boys again, which does not go over well. Bey warns if Vlad does not go along with this, things will go VERY poorly for his kingdom. Vlad decides to go meet with the sultan to try to change his mind.

The sultan, Mehmed, is played by Dominic Cooper, another up and coming actor thanks to roles in Mamma Mia!, An Education, and Captain America. His next big role is going to be in 2016 with Duncan "Source Code" Jones' World of Warcraft film, which is really going to happen now. Mehmed laughs off Vlad's negotiations, upping the asshole ante by saying he now also wants Ingeras to serve under him. Later, Vlad brings his family out to a field to turn his son over to the Turks, but turns the tables and begins to FUCK THEM UP. Bey gets his arms cut off before getting his throat slit, and I am now officially about this movie. One of Vlad's allies angrily yells he's just declared war on the Turks and they don't have the numbers to defend themselves. Vlad ignores him, gazing at Broken Tooth Mountain thoughtfully...

The next scene is of him entering the cave again, confronting the vampire within. The vampire appears slightly more human this encounter, so we can see he's portrayed by Charles Dance. Dance is a thirty plus year veteran of cinema, amassing over one hundred roles in that time. Personally, I know him best as the doctor from the controversial Alien 3, a film I hope to get to sooner than later because it's always fascinated me. Dance, credited as Master Vampire, talks with Vlad over his situation in a scene that is the PERFECT amount of scene gnawing. This movie is extremely cliché so far, but it's being done EXACTLY like it should be, not too serious and not too dark.

Master Vampire bites open his wrist and spills his blood into part of an empty skull, telling Vlad if he drinks from it he'll gain all kinds of wondrous powers but at a cost: he'll thirst for human blood. If he can resist this temptation for three days he'll return to normal, but if he succumbs to the thirst he'll forever be a creature of the dark that will destroy everything he holds dear, including his wife and son. But wait, there's more! Master Vampire will be freed from the cave to seek revenge on the one who imprisoned him there, and he'll have the ability to use Vlad as a pawn in the sequel- I mean, quest to find said jailer.

Vlad thinks he has a handle on this, so is all “Bottoms up!” and chugs the blood. He promptly drops dead but reawakens in the river to find his silver wedding ring is burning his hand, as Master Vampire mentioned silver “offends” him. He stumbles around, finding he is now basically Superman with the super strength and enhanced senses. He starts to run like the Flash, but quickly discovers he can transform into a colony of bats. This movie fucking rules. He starts to fly back to his castle, which is currently under assault from the Turks. He briefly goes inside to make sure his family is okay, makes a motivational speech to his people, then steps outside to show the Turks what the fuck is up.

One GLORIOUSLY violent (well, as gloriously violent as PG-13 will allow) fight sequence later, including a brilliant shot where we see the action transpire in the reflection of a sword embedded in a man's chest, and Vlad is standing alone in a field of hundreds of slaughtered soldiers. This scene was so awesome I'm not even going to question why all the soldiers ganged up to fight Vlad instead of sneaking by him to ransack the castle while he was busy going full bat. I mean, at least fifty of them or so could have casually strolled by the vampire, they did have an objective after all.

Vlad's men walk out, baffled at what they're seeing. He declares they are no longer safe at the castle and must move to the Cozia Monastery, up high in the mountains of the land. I guess, or you could just fly to Mehmed and end this in the course of one night? Dead sultan equals no more problems for Transylvania, right? Vlad reasons this will personally draw out Mehmed so he can easily kill him, but YOU CAN TURN INTO BATS! It's not like this makes getting to Mehmed an issue! Course, this would make for a mighty short movie so it's onto the monastery. They make camp in the night, Vlad already starting to fell the effects of his thirst while trying to have sex with his wife.

He runs out into the woods before he loses control and bites her, encountering a gypsy named Shkelgim who admits he knows what Vlad has become. He cuts open his hand and offers Vlad a cup of his own blood, asking to serve him. Shkelgim is played by Zach McGowan, who is currently tearing it up as Captain Vane on Starz's EXCELLENT pirate drama Black Sails. McGowan almost looks like he's in his Vane costume here, so it's highly likely one day he got lost on his way to film a Black Sails scene and wandered onto the Dracula set. Vlad advises the gypsy to stay far away from him and returns to Mirena. He fesses up everything to her, promising her he'll resist the urge for the next two days and become human again.

The Turks catch up to the Transylvanians the next night and attack, but Vlad is able to hold them off until everyone can make it safely behind the monastery's walls. Things don't get much better as Lucian notices how Vlad is avoiding the sunlight like the plague and outs him as a vampire. The soldiers try to burn him alive, but this only succeeds in pissing him off. He threatens to attack them until Mirena talks sense into him by breaking out that old chestnut “this isn't who you are”. The Transylvanians kind of just shrug their shoulders and decide to roll with their new vampire overlord, fuck it, what else do they have to lose?

Time throws a spanner into the works by having dawn rise just as Mehmed's army arrives outside the monastery, rendering Vlad powerless. Or so he thinks, until he gets the idea to apparently summon every bat in the world to pummel the marching army. It gets a tad...BAT-shit crazy as we get a scene where Vlad shapes the bats into a gigantic fist to do a ground pound, which sends everyone flying. I mean, the biggest bat in the world is barely three pounds! I SUPPOSE a million of them working in tandem could- you know what, let's just keep enjoying the movie.

Vlad flies down to the ground to thin out the soldiers, which proves to be a costly mistake as Mirena and Ingeras are left unprotected with two Turks advancing on them. The Turks throw Mirena off a tower and take Ingeras to their sultan, Vlad trying in vain to save his wife from falling to her death. With Ingeras on the back of his horse, Mehmed calls for his army to retreat. Oh, but Mirena is still alive?! Oh come on, she fell like two hundred feet at least! Gwen Stacy fell like half that and didn't even have the strength to pull of a “dying in her beloved's arms” scene.

So... sigh... Mirena tells Vlad to drink her blood so he'll have the time to stop the Turks, as the three day limit is now up with the rising of the sun. Vlad refuses, but she begs him and we have Dracula. Repeat, we have Dracula! This is cut with shots of Master Vampire walking free from his cave and into a career of appearing in Universal Monster movies of rapidly varying quality. Vlad, after giving the Mandated by Law big “NOOOOO!”, sets down his wife's body and enters the monastery. He a small group of dying survivors, opening his wrists to them to create his own vampire squad. It's about to get real Mehmed!

Way too real, as the newborn vampires RAVAGE The Turkish camp and begin drinking blood like it's going out of style. Vlad storms into Mehmed's tent to find Ingeras, finding the Big Bad covered in silver armour and the floor coated with silver coins. Of course Vlad just doesn't turn into bats and decapitate his unhelmeted head, that would deny us of the final duel. Mehmed is somehow able to hang despite Vlad having the strength to crush boulders with his bare hands, maybe it's because the coins are emitting... silver gas? I have no idea, Vlad is wearing a suit of armour himself so just STEPPING on the coins shouldn't be affecting him in the slightest.

The battle rages on, with Mehmed about to drive a wooden stake through Vlad's heart when he decides this would be the PERFECT chance for a Bond villain soliloquy. Vlad suddenly remembers he can bat, so does this to reverse their positions and stab Mehmed instead, declaring his name is now Dracula. We aren't out of the woods just yet though, because Dracula's Impromptu Legion of the Night has killed EVERYONE and now wants Ingeras' blood. They surround the two, Brother Lucian suddenly popping out of nowhere with a gold cross that keeps them at bay. He asks Ingeras to come with him, Dracula reluctantly forced to let him go as it's the only way to save him. After they're gone, Dracula uses his powers to part the clouds over the camp and destroy all the vampires with the power of the sun. And himself too in the Mandated by Law heroic sacrifice.

This brings us full circle to our narrator, who was Ingeras reflecting back on these events. We see him crowned the new prince of Transylvania as he talks about how his father was a hero to his people. He speaks of how if the heart is strong enough, the soul will be reborn in life after life, age after age. While this goes on, back at the Turkish camp Shkelgim finds Dracula's remains and drips blood into his mouth, Dracula's eyes opening. Things shift to the modern day, where a suit wearing Dracula walks down the street and sees a woman that looks exactly like Mirena picking out flowers from a shop, possibly because she's played by the same actress. They chat, the woman introducing herself as Mina after Dracula wows her by reciting part of her favourite poem.

The camera pulls back to see Master Vampire, now looking very human, watching this touching scene unfold. He quips “let the games begin” as he begins to follow them, echoing words he said to Vlad at the very beginning of the story.

Cue the credits.

Did you catch the ending there? Not the obvious Mirena's soul being reborn into Mina bit, but the significance of Mina's name? In Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, Mina Harker was the hero of the story and her actions ultimately led to the defeat of Dracula, despite slowing turning into a vampire due to his curse. I'm guessing in the inevitable sequel they'll have some variation of this where Master Vampire bites her to force Dracula to help him, or something to that effect.

What did I think of the introduction to the next Cinematic Universe? If you couldn't tell, I rather liked it! Yes, there's barely an original scene in the entire thing but it was so refreshingly retro, it works in the film's favour. A real fucking vampire that kills people and has the good ol' fashioned weaknesses, when's the last time we saw something like this? I'm sure a lot of people were put off by Dracula being turned into an anti-hero because NO ONE can just be a regular villain anymore, but it really worked in the context of the story unlike a film such as Maleficient.

One glaring flaw the film made was Master Vampire warning Vlad he's ruin everything he held dear if he tasted human blood and then not following up on that when it went down. I wonder if the ending wasn't different before the film was sent back to reshoots to pave the way for a shared universe, because natural story progression should have led to that. This is forgivable, because everything else here was so straightforward with everything being crystal clear. Critics didn't agree with me and gave this a dreadful 23% on Rotten Tomatoes, lambasting it for all of the cliché elements and failure to distinguish itself in a grand fashion. All valid points, but I'd still take this any day of the week over the latest Spider-Man or any of the other countless Godawful remakes/reboots I've reviewed on here. Fun goes a long way folks, it can excuse A LOT.

Definite recommendation here, this movie does nothing to reinvent the wheel but cruises along about as smooth can be with a very good performance by Luke Evans. This is a very enjoyable action movie filled with simple character motivations and a concise script, making it quite the rarity in this day and age. Expect to see these characters in 2016 with the next Universal Monster movie, the Mummy. It's being written by Jon Spaihts, who was the co-writer for... Prometheus.  Oh, yay. Well, I'm sure they at least got a good director to make sure their budding franchise doesn't go belly up only two movies in, right? ALEX KURTZMAN?! DUN DUN DUUUUUUN!