Almost every modern Dracula retelling includes some kind of flashback to the vampire's origin, which is more or less tragic depending on whether he's the hero of the story. Now, with Dracula Untold, we've finally got an entire movie devoted to the undeath of Transylvanian prince Vlad Tepes — and it's cheesy as hell.
Probably the most intriguing part of this reboot, for fans of the original novel and all its myriad remakes throughout the past century, is the way this film turns its evil, fanged impostor into a hero. Not to put too fine a point on it, the answer is a racism update. Bram Stoker's original Victorian novel was a swashbuckling anti-immigrant tale. It was explicitly about how those creepy Eastern Europeans were buying up British real estate and turning all the nice Western women into blood whores. Most early Dracula movies, including the classic 1931 version with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, conflate the monster's foreignness with his undeadness. Even the classic "I vant to suck your blud" joke is about Dracula's accent, not his taste for eating people.
But the hatred of Eastern European immigrants became less relevant as time wore on. Eventually, as actors like young Frank Langella and Gary Oldman inhabited the role, the monster was rehabilitated as a handsome stranger whose foreign origins added to his gothic appeal. Still, if you're going to reinvent the monster as a full-blown hero, star of what the studio is claiming will be a new Universal monster franchise, he can't just be a sexy outsider with a charmingly dilapidated castle. We need to bring back the original racist frisson of Stoker's novel. That's why Vlad Tepes in Dracula Untold has to be fighting Muslims. Because of course.
In this version of the story, Transylvania is under attack by Mehmet, the Turkish Sultan's military leader. And nothing could be more upsetting to old Vlad than to find Turks on his land. That's because when Vlad was a child, the Sultan demanded tribute in the form of strapping young boys to fill out his troops — and Vlad's father handed his son over to the Turkish, to be raised alongside Mehmet in the Ottoman Empire's army. Of course, Vlad was the biggest badass the Turks had ever seen, which is how he became known as "the Impaler."
Now he's been allowed to return home to his family, his military service over. Unfortunately, the Sultan is looking for troops again, and he's demanding 1,000 boys (including Vlad's son). Which is why Vlad decides he needs a supernatural power-up from a mythical blood-sucker living in the mountains above his castle. Turns out that Tywin Lannister is up there, vamping it up in every sense of the word, and he offers Vlad a bargain. He'll give Vlad some vampire juice so he can be superpowered for three days, and Vlad will return to being human if he can resist drinking somebody else's warm, tasty blood.
And thus begins the fun of the film, which is ultimately all about how a nice Christian prince turns himself into a demon to destroy a Muslim army. There are lots of fancy crosses hanging from every surface, many scenes of "one superguy against 1,000 men" and — best of all — Dracula really knows how to work his power of transforming into a mass of screaming bats. As film critic Cheryl Eddy observed, you don't normally get to see a Dracula movie where the monster takes full advantage of his bat powers. But in Dracula Untold? Hell yes. There are bat transformation fights, bat chases, and even what can only be described as a bat nuclear option.
Plus, the bloodlust! Will Vlad be able to control it, even when he's wearing his awesome dragon armor and seeing little pulsing veins in everybody's throats?
By the film's end, Dracula is living in the modern world and has been thoroughly rehabilitated as the good guy of his story. We know that he vamped out to save his people from the evil Muslims, not to satisfy some sadistic urge. Plus, when Vlad has a conversation with Mehmet, he's got the British accent and the Turk has an accent that sounds ridiculously similar to Lugosi's in Dracula 83 years ago. Oh Hollywood, you are so sneaky with your racialized monster switcheroo!
That said, you can't really have a better B-movie experience than Dracula Untold. Like the very best bad movies, it's full of nonsensical action, funny one-liners, and unreflectively reproduces the prejudices of its time. You may be snorting at the whole "actually the Turks were the bad guys" thing, but you'll never be bored.