There’s nothing new under the moon in “Dracula Untold,” a decorous but dull origin story that attempts to turn history’s most famous vampire into a kind of male Maleficent — a misunderstood husband/father/ruler who turned to the dark side out of the noblest intentions. What next? “Freddy Krueger Meets Dr. Freud?” Lavishly mounted by first-time feature director Gary Shore, minus the cheeky good humor that propelled his 2006 creature-feature short “The Draft,” this Legendary-Universal co-production (which opens today overseas, 10 days ahead of its domestic bow) looks to scare up only modest Halloween-season biz amid competition from Warners’ “Annabelle” (out Oct. 3) and U’s own “Ouija” (out Oct. 24).
Like Bram Stoker before them, screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (the forthcoming “Gods of Egypt”) take their inspiration from the real historical figure of Vlad Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler), a 15th-century Transylvanian prince, taken hostage as a teenager by warring Ottoman Turks and trained in their military ways (events recounted here in a visually striking prologue comprised of three-dimensional static images). We then pick things up a couple of decades later, where an adult Vlad (Luke Evans, suitably glowering and downcast) has returned to his people, who maintain an uneasy peace with the ever-looming Turks. When the new Sultan, Vlad’s childhood frienemy Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), demands 1,000 Transylvanian youths as conscripts for his army — among them, Vlad’s own son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson, cementing a very conspicuous “Game of Thrones” vibe) — the war-weary prince sees no option but to defy the Sultan’s demands. And so the outnumbered, out-sworded Transylvanians prepare for battle.
But lo, all hope is not lost for ye who enter here — here being a mountain cave stumbled upon by Vlad and two adjutants, wherein lurks an ancient ur-vampire (a lip-smacking Charles Dance) who, after making mincemeat out of the prince’s traveling companions, offers him a special trial membership (who knew?) in the cult of the undead. Drink his blood, says the vampire, and for three days Vlad will possess the strength of 10 men, along with a voracious craving for human blood. If he succumbs to that temptation, then vampire he shall remain for eternity. If he can resist, then at dawn on the third day the curse will be lifted.
This being an origin story whose outcome is pretty well known, “Dracula Untold” doesn’t really have anywhere to go from there, save for a couple of frenetic, large-scale battle scenes designed around Vlad’s newfound ability to shape-shift from human form into a colony of bats — a special effect that wears out its novelty while Shore is still playing with it like a shiny new Christmas toy. (Most of the time, it looks like a flurry of dirt particles in front of the lens.) The only real suspense here isn’t so much whether as when Vlad is finally going to sink his pearly whites into the jugular of his devoted wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon, so pale, trusting and beautiful that one knows it can’t possibly end well for her). Well, that and how a creature with a marked aversion to wood can continue to spout Sazama and Sharpless’ dialogue.
Whereas Francis Coppola’s 1992 “Dracula” (a veritable golden oldie in today’s short-term cultural memory) was a baroque, high-fashion free-for-all, “Dracula Untold” opts for the stately, staid approach, and even at a mere 85 minutes (sans credits) it’s something of a bore — neither scary nor romantic nor exciting in any of the ways it seems to intend. The Irish-born Shore, who’s also logged a lot of hours as a commercials director, certainly knows how to frame an attractive shot, and cinematographer John Schwartzman has accommodated him lushly by shooting in 35mm anamorphic widescreen. But the movie never finds its own style, or feels like more than a mashup of outtakes from “Thrones” and the entire Peter Jackson catalog (with a nifty but fleeting infrared vision effect borrowed from the urban werewolf classic “Wolfen”).
“Dracula Untold” is too high-minded to let go into the kind of energetic, B-movie escapism a director like John Carpenter or Paul W.S. Anderson might have brought to the same material, while the material itself is too thin to support the heavy-handed Wagnerian approach. The result is finally something neither here nor there — a vampire movie with nothing at stake.