(SPOILERS AHOY FOR DRACULA UNTOLD!)
As I’m sure we’re all well aware, Friday, October 10th saw the release of Dracula Untold, Universal’s latest attempt to jump start their Universal Monsters franchise. Finally, audiences everywhere can learn the
true previously untold sorta historical origin story for the famous Count Dracula. Now, if you’re curious to hear just what incredible story the filmmakers have dug up (and haven’t rushed out to see for yourself), let’s start with Vlad the Impaler.
The historical Vlad III Dracula lived in Transylvania from 1431 to 1476. He was a Voivode (translated either “warlord” or “prince”) of Wallachia and was posthumously labeled Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”). His legacy includes an enduring reputation as a sadist and butcher, but he also remains something of a Romanian folk hero for his leadership in defending his lands and people from the Ottomans. Vlad was born the son of Vlad II Dracul, a voivode of Wallachia and member of the Order of the Dragon (an order of knights sworn to defend Christendom against the Islamic Ottoman Empire). He had two older half-brothers, Mircea II and Vlad Calugarul, and one younger brother, Radu III (known by his nickname, Radu the handsome). When Vlad II was overthrown as voivode in 1442, he secured Ottoman support for his return to the throne by paying tribute to the Sultan, including offering Vlad and Radu as political hostages. As sons of a voivode, the boys were already educated, but they received further education during his time with the Ottomans, including combat and warfare. During his four years of captivity, Vlad is said to have been resentful and defiant, as well as increasingly jealous of Radu, who had developed a friendship with Mehmed, the son of the Sultan.
Vlad was eventually returned as part of an effort to keep Wallachia from leaving Ottoman control, but when Pope Pius II called for a new crusade against the Ottomans in 1459, Vlad was one of the only rulers to endorse it. Later that year, Mehmed (now Sultan) sent envoys demanding tribute of 10,000 ducats and 500 recruits for the Ottoman military. Vlad refused and had the envoys killed (nailing their turbans to their heads, ostensibly because they’d not doffed their caps to him). Impatient with Vlad’s growing dominance of the region, Mehmed dispatched Hamza Bey, the Bey of Nicopolis, to sue for peace (and get rid of Vlad, if that proved impossible). Vlad set an ambush for Bey’s 1,000-strong cavalry and, after a surprise attack, left nearly the entire force impaled, with Bey on the highest spike. He proceeded to lead raids on Ottoman camps in Bulgaria, bragging in letters about killing more than twenty thousand Turkish peasants “men and women, old and young.” Mehmed sent a force of roughly 90,000 men against Vlad, but Vlad’s forces initially prevailed in a famous night attack that left thousands of Turks impaled on the fields around the city of Tirgoviste. Mehmed was so horrified by the sight that he considered withdrawing before being convinced to continue against Vlad. At the same time, Vlad’s personal crusade against the Ottomans was becoming unpopular enough among his own people that he was betrayed and attacked by the forces of his best friend, Stephen the Great, and Vlad was forced to retreat to the mountains. At Mehmed’s behest, Radu led a force against Vlad and laid seige to his refuge at Poenari Castle. After this success, Mehmed installed Radu as ruler of Wallachia. Vlad attempted to negotiate an alliance with Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, to continue his campaign, but Corvinus betrayed him and Vlad was captured and imprisoned in Hungary. After a period of captivity that may have lasted up to twelve years (during which time Radu had died), Vlad returned from Hungary and made plans to take back Wallachia. He declared his third reign as voivode of Wallachia in 1476, and was killed shortly thereafter. Accounts of his death vary, from being killed in battle with the Turks to being killed by one of his own men in a hunting accident.
Dracula Untold tells the story of Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans), a Transylvanian man who spent years as a political hostage among the Turks, developed a reputation as a brutal sadist with a penchant for impaling his enemies during war, and has returned home and been named prince of Transylvania. He has a beautiful wife named Mirena (Sarah Gadon), a son named Ingeras (Art Parkinson), and has left his violent ways behind him. Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), the Sultan of Turkey, sends a scout team into his lands and, while investigating their seeming disappearance, Vlad discovers that they were murdered by a mysterious creature in the Broken Tooth Mountains. The next day, Mehmed sends an envoy to Vlad demanding tribute of silver and boys for the army, including Ingeras. After preparing to send his son away, as he had been sent as a child, Vlad relents and kills the envoys. He then realizes that he will need something more powerful if he is to protect his people from the Turks. He ventures into the mountain and meets an old vampire (Charles Dance), who offers him a deal. If Vlad drinks the old creature’s blood, he will gain his powers for three days, but he will also gain a ravenous, insatiable appetite for blood. If Vlad does not partake for those three days, he’ll regain his humanity; if he does drink any blood, he will remain a vampire and the old Master Vampire will be freed from his mountain prison. Vlad takes the deal and returns to his castle in time to catch an approaching Turkish force and kill every last one of them. He orders his people to retreat to a monastery. While there, he meets a gypsy who recognizes Vlad’s condition, insists he is Vlad’s servant and offers him blood, which Vlad angrily refuses. When they are again attacked on the second night and he uses his powers to again destroy their attackers, Vlad’s people turn on him. The third night, an enormous Turkish force attacks and Vlad uses his vampiric bat magic to pummel the army with gigantic bat fists. While he battles on the field, a small force sneaks into the monastery, murders Mirena and abducts Ingeras. With her dying breath, and with the sun rising, Mirena asks Vlad to drink her blood and save their son. He not only submits to her request, but he also offers his own blood to a handful of mortally wounded survivors at the monastery, leading his new vampire army against the Turks. He kills Mehmed and rescues Ingeras before the other vampires turn on him and demand the boy for themselves. A cross wielding monk arrives to rescue Ingeras, and Vlad uses his magic to clear the clouds and let the sunlight destroy all of the vampires, including himself. Or it appears that way, until a montage following Ingeras’s ascendance to the Transylvanian throne also shows the mad gypsy feeding his own blood to Vlad’s charred corpse, reviving him. We then leap forward more than six hundred years to find Vlad wandering city streets and meeting a woman named Mina (also Sarah Gadon). They are watched from a nearby cafe by the old Master Vampire, who clearly has plans for them.
As I mentioned up top, the real Vlad’s reputation can vary depending on who you’re talking to. Certainly the charges of cruelty and barbarism are very much warranted by actions that he freely admitted to in his own letters, and his nickname certainly seems supported by the many accounts of his predilection for impaling his enemies. But it also appears that his notoriety was fostered by his enemies circulating stories, true, exaggerated or invented, attributing a wide variety of atrocities to him. Dracula Untold, then, is in a weird position of humanizing and building audience sympathies for the historical Vlad (He’s not such a bad guy! He regrets all the impaling and he worries what it means that it didn’t bother him. And he is willing to do anything for his family and his people.) while also literally portraying him as a monster.
The movie does take a semi-novel approach in the way it functions as a Dracula origin story and a heavily fictionalized telling of the real Vlad III’s story (presupposing that the real Vlad was a vampire, of course). The connection between Stoker’s Dracula and the historical figure have been popular since at least the 1970s (the 1972 book In Search of Dracula popularized the idea), but while it’s part of the popular consciousness, it hasn’t been overused in pop culture adaptations of the character. Though if you want a shorter version of Dracula Untold, I can recommend you just watch the prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While both movies attempt to generate sympathy (and romance) for their Draculas, and add elements of destiny and reincarnation to their love stories, Coppola’s Dracula retains much more of the character’s insidious evil. Dracula Untold‘s depiction relies more on superhero origin story elements and Vlad is very clearly a tragic hero instead of a monster. In fact, if they actually make the sequel that this movie’s epilogue hints at, they’ve already established a villain for our heroic Dracula to deal with in Charles Dance’s mysterious old vampire.
Of course, the epilogue was reportedly an element added late in the day to allow for the possibility that, in success, this movie will be folded into Universal’s proposed Universal Monsters shared universe (seemingly inspired by Marvel’s success, though Universal did it themselves seventy years ago). If this is going to be our cinematic Dracula for the near future…I guess that’s okay? Could be worse. The movie is handsomely produced, without ever being particularly scary or inspiring. And Evans is fine in the role, sympathetic and credible, if not as crazily charismatic as one might hope for in a Dracula.
Now it’s your turn. Did you see Dracula Untold? Were you stunned by what you learned? Are you excited by this direction for the character? Does anybody remember I, Frankenstein?