Charles Dance

It is a bad sign that only about 10 minutes of “Dracula Untold” are actually entertaining. For a movie that promises a gritty remake of a landmark horror film, “Dracula Untold” is disheartening — it becomes a cynical ploy to market off of the original’s name rather than a meaningful reimagining. The film tries desperately to pass itself off as the reincarnation of one of the most iconic monster movies in film history, but it is nothing but a tedious backdrop of set pieces and bland acting.

Instead of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, the audience is introduced to Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), the historical inspiration for Stoker’s creature, who tries to rule his kingdom in peace with his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) after living an atrocious life as a brutal killer for the Turkish army. The Turks, led by Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), suddenly demand that Vlad relinquish 1,000 boys from his kingdom to serve in the Turk’s army, including Vlad’s son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson). 

Determined to defeat Mehmed and his vast army, Vlad encounters an ancient vampire (Charles Dance), who gives him incredible powers at the cost of an insatiable thirst for human blood. With his new abilities, Vlad seeks to decimate the impeding forces while trying to control his urge to slaughter everyone he holds dear.

It’s a wonder why director Gary Shore decided to replace the original tale of Dracula with a mixture of history and fantasy. The result sounds intriguing on paper, but Shore fails to properly translate the concept to the screen. A tedious, clichéd screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless serves as the final deathblow to the film. The writing attempts to find a balance between serious and campy but fails due horrid pacing.

The acting remains completely uninspired. Only Evans, as the grim and serious Vlad, offers any kind of presence. He at least tries to make the new interpretation work, but is limited to either frowning, growling or giving the occasional smile in a half-baked attempt at comic relief. The main issue with his performance, and a problem with the majority of the acting, is a lack of passion.

The rest of the supporting cast is wooden and entirely forgettable. The only exception is Dance as the ancient vampire. He is humorously over-the-top in his role as a creepy, man-eating fiend.

Special effects and the action itself are the only positive aspects in the film. While shot haphazardly and frantically, the incredible speed and intensity of Dracula decimating scores of soldiers is enjoyable. The films’ only crescendo shows Dracula using his powers to the best of his abilities.  

This is a welcome change, as the audience is treated to only subdued, selective instances where Dracula acts like a vampire instead of just a super-soldier.  Watching him finally summon millions of swarming bats to crush the advancing army almost makes the film worth sitting through.

One concern about the action, however, is how tame the violence appears on the screen. Even though “Dracula Untold” is a PG-13 movie, it’s quite disconcerting that a film about vampires sucking blood directly from people’s necks has no realistic wounds. If the filmmakers had broached the possibility of going all out with the bloodiness people expect from vampire movies, the gritty return of Dracula would have been more justified.

There’s no doubt that this film is a mess. Action sequences that are somewhat daring and special effects that make the creatures under Dracula’s command pop out can’t save “Dracula Untold”’s lack of charisma. An uninspired screenplay supported by hollow acting disrupts any possible charm that could have enamored audiences with the idea that Dracula has made a triumphant return to cinema.

Fantastic Fest Day 1: Remakes, aliens and CGI blood

Joe Begos, writer and director of "Almost Human," introduces the horror film at the opening night of this year's Fantastic Fest. Photo courtesy of Fantastic Fest. 
Joe Begos, writer and director of "Almost Human," introduces the horror film at the opening night of this year's Fantastic Fest. Photo courtesy of Fantastic Fest. 

Remakes are tricky, walking a thin line between honoring the original and desecrating its grave. “Patrick”, which premiered last night at Fantastic Fest, obviously comes from a place of genuine affection. The director, Mark Hartley, touched on the original “Patrick” in his documentary about Australian cinema, “Not Quite Hollywood”, and remade the film for his feature debut. The result is a heavily atmospheric thriller that drags through its first act before picking up speed as it barrels towards an endearingly bonkers climax.

“You’re Next”’s Sharni Vinson stars as Kathy, a nurse at a hospice for long-term coma patients. Dr. Roget (Charles Dance) is the maniacal head of the facility, using brutally unconventional methods to awaken brain activity in his patients. Kathy is the first to notice unusual behavior from Patrick (Jackson Gallagher), and once he starts openly communicating with her, the film turns from misguided love story to telekinetic slasher flick.

As Patrick’s developing powers become more and more pronounced, they also become increasingly inconsistent, with Patrick taking control of some people’s minds and merely tossing objects at others. “Patrick” is full of jump scares, some more inspired than others, and for the first half of the film, they exist mostly to give breaks in the exposition. However, the film ratchets up the intensity as it heads towards its finale, and the crackling climax, full of creative demises and genuine tension, is hugely entertaining.

Unfortunately, despite its good momentum, the film never seems to fully engage its actors to the fullest of their potential. Sharni Vinson is charming and compassionate as the nurse-turned-victim, but doesn’t match the charisma she displayed in “You’re Next,” and the film’s attempts to give her character a backstory are hasty and uninteresting. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see Charles Dance show up in the credits, and he plays strict and authoritarian with his usual haughty elegance, but fails to bring any discernible personality to the role. Given the much shorter end of the stick, Rachel Griffiths, Peta Sergeant, and Martin Crewes all function purely as plot mechanism, with the script losing interest in them as soon as they deliver their requisite exposition.

“Patrick”’s greatest sin is being merely capable throughout, distracting enough to hold your attention but too lightweight to leave much of an impression, and is far from the best film I saw at Fantastic Fest last night.

That honor goes to “Almost Human,” a gratuitously gory alien riff with its heart squarely in the 1980’s. Writer/director Joe Begos tells the story of a man abducted by aliens returning two years later to lead an invasion with a charming DIY style, and finds some suitably gross moments to earn the film its midnight slot at Fantastic Fest.

The opening night film, “Machete Kills,” is similarly retro, with fun moments throughout (often punctuated with unconvincing splashes of CGI blood) that would be right at home in a goofy 80’s flick. The massive cast provides lots of fun surprises, with Mel Gibson and Demian Bichir giving admirably manic performances as the film’s tag-team villains, and Danny Trejo’s unruffled charisma as the titular character is always welcome. Unfortunately, the film details itself halfway through, setting its eyes on a third installment without wrapping itself up.