The camera arcs slowly as we watch a man dressed in a shiny suit, making his way along difficult terrain. His exorbitantly long red cape flaps in the wind, billowing out behind him like a sail. We see him smash his fist into the ground until the surface cracks, just before he leaps into the sky and flies away…surrounded by a flock of bats.
No, this isn’t a story about the love child of Superman and Batman. Rather it’s the trailer to the forthcoming film, Dracula Untold, which purports to tell the legend of Vlad Dracul, the 15th-century Prince of Wallachia (part of modern-day Romania) known as “Vlad the Impaler”, and his transformation into the legendary vampire “Dracula” of the eponymous Bram Stoker novel. The film will be premiering in U.S. theatres this October, and this is the first glimpse audiences have had of the project. As a friend commented in conversation about the trailer, “A LOT of bats. Bats everywhere. Far too many bats. You saw the bats?”
The film has been some time in the making, and did not finish as it began. Alex Proyas, creator of dark films which fall into the broad category of sci-fi/fantasy, such as “The Crow”, “Dark City”, and “I, Robot”, was originally set to direct. Proyas would have been a natural to explore how Dracul became Dracula, a subject which was presented but never fully explored in Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish but messy 1992 film version of Stoker’s novel. Sam Worthington, an actor well-known to many in geekdom for his roles in films like “Avatar”, was set to star as the bloodthirsty prince. In order to lower costs, Universal later ended up binning Proyas and Worthington, and sought out a new director and star.
Enter Gary Shore, an Irish director who has never filmed anything on this scale before, being known primarily as a director of indie film shorts and television commercials. And in place of Worthing we have another “Avatar” alum, Welsh actor Luke Evans. Although he has a far longer cinematic resume than Shore, Evans has never had to carry an entire film of this size, even though he has played a host of both lead and supporting roles in sci-fi/action/fantasy films like this over the years.
For both director and star the stakes on such a film are fairly high. Shore has no track record at the box office to draw upon, and no string of previous films that have been the subject of university lectures and fanzine articles, so he’s not going to ruin his reputation if he fails. On the other hand, if he does fail, he probably won’t get another shot: the fact that one instantly thought of Zack Snyder’s first trailer for “Man of Steel” on seeing this particular trailer is a bit worrying, even if many of the other scenes look interesting. Evans, who is a rising commodity in filmdom at the moment, certainly looks more like a dark and dangerous Slavic warrior than does the laddish and wide-eyed Worthington, who would have been woefully miscast in the role. Yet if he fails to draw the attention of sci-fi fans, he may not be offered another opportunity like this for a long time.
There’s also the rather prickly question of how you deal with the invasion of Christian Europe by a Muslim empire in a 21st century film. Are we going to see a watered-down, politically correct view of the West vs. the East, such as in recent films like “City of God”? Are the Ottomans going to be kept at arm’s length as a fairly faceless foe, talked about but not examined close up, so that the film doesn’t even have to address the issue of militant Islam? How is the underlying conceit of the story, that in becoming a vampire Vlad is making a pact with the Devil, going to be treated given the fact that historically speaking, the real Dracul was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who not only founded and endowed dozens of churches and monasteries, but enjoyed good relations with a number of Catholic rulers, including the popes?
With the superhero genre definitely in the ascendancy right now, it’s not surprising that a studio would greenlight a vampire movie that looks like a superhero film. Right now vampires are not as hot a commodity as they were a few years ago, during the “Twlight” era, but on the whole they are a reasonably safe bet at the multiplex. Of course, by trying to turn the story of Vlad Dracul into “Fangs of Steel” or “Bat/Man Begins”, one wonders what will we end up with.
It could be that we will have another roided-out, CGI version of a sword-and-sandal picture, rather than a historical examination of the life of a truly fascinating and complex figure tinged with some fairytale elements. Or it could be that we have a real development of some of the ideas about obsession and damnation from Bram Stoker’s hugely influential novel, albeit in a fantasy setting. Or it could be, which is probably more likely, that we get spoon-fed another dose of moral relativism, in which it turns out that a formerly squeaky-clean Kal-El and an undead creature in league with the infernal are both considered to be equally morally ambiguous.
That being said, will I still go see it? Probably – but I’m keeping my expectations fairly low on this one.