Universal Studios has relaunched one of the great supernatural villains, apparently as an initial reboot for a new crossover monster universe, picking up (more or less) where Stephen Sommer's "Van Helsing" left off. Whether such a monster rally actually comes to be is yet to be seen, but as an otherwise solo effort, Gary Shore's "Dracula Untold" is a fine prequel, detailing Vlad Tepes' descent into monsterdom.
As scripted by Matt Sazmia and Burk Sharpless, "Untold" is obviously derived from Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula", the film's prelude precisely, and expanded accordingly.
On this basis, Dracula, portrayed by Luke "The Hobbit" Evans, doesn't necessarily start off bad. If anything, like the real-life Tepes/Drac, his intent is solely to protect his people from the invading Turks, lead by the merciless Mehmed, played by Dominic Cooper of "First Avenger" and "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" fame. One surely can't blame Vlad for taking the fight to the enemy, but as with his historical counterpart, the fictional Count takes matters radically too far. Indeed, as Nietzsche so aptly put it, if one looks into the abyss long enough, the abyss will look back, or in this particular instance, if one emulates evil to ward off evil, one will mirror the evil one combats. Arguable, yes, but a notion many do embrace, as this film effectively reflects.
Philosophy aside, it's only when Drac sells his soul, so to speak, by aligning himself with the legendary fiend, Caligula (Charles "Phantom of the Opera" Dance), that he transforms not only mentally, but physically. It's then through some sweeping CGI'd effects that the film adapts its otherworldly charm: so apt for the title character and his Transylvania backdrop.
Surrounding characters pacify the story's tensions, but none is more supportive than his spouse, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), who acts as a surrogate to Winona Ryder's pre-Mina in the Coppola film. Her presence allows Evans to grant his character that tormented, Gary Oldman-inspired charm, making him often oddly empathetic. In essence, though he selflessly risks his virtue to become something vile to save his people; he fails to realize (despite a promise that he may return to normal if he doesn't taste blood within three days), he's irreversibly destined to become more ruthless than his Turk adversary.
Visually, "Drac Untold" is jammed with impressive, sprawling backdrops and "300"-ish battles. These attributes additionally give the movie a borderline Sommers "Mummy" feel, though sans the camp. The bat sequences, in particular, are very well done, as are Drac's physical changes. To empower the effects, Evans does an excellent job of invoking a Jekyll/Hyde variance as he phases from stalwart leader to parasitic man-bat.
Dance is equally effective: a hideous counterpart to the generally dashing Vlad: his face ghostly pale, his eyes gleaming of sadistic delight. Even more than Evan's monstrous version of Drac, Dance's Caligula gives "Untold" its horror core, bringing to mind the beastly "Nosferatu" blood-suckers of past.
It should also be noted that, though "Untold'"s epic extravagance can't help but entertain, for those foolishly craving a new parlor-room rendering (or who were quick to reject NBC's now defunct steampunk version), it might be wise to wait for a sequel, or if that doesn't come about, another remake of the actual Stoker novel. On the other hand, just revisit one of the existing film adaptations to experience something more traditional.
Nonetheless, traditionalists shouldn't disservice themselves by scorning "Untold". In the inexhaustible string of Drac/vampire entries, it deserves an honorable place as a bold variation on the horror legend, presented as an extended, dark-magical prequel: a story only previously touched upon in other films, but never before adequately explored. That certainly doesn't make the film utterly unique, but its zest to be different (and yet respectful to its source) is admirable. Those who particularly hold Stoker's creation near and dear to their hearts should surely find cause to embrace this version: another illustrious chapter in the famous monster's ever enduring legacy.