Friday, October 10, 2014

Dracula Untold [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChiTrib/Variety (2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune/Variety (S. Foundas) review (S. Abrams) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Dracula Untold [2014] (directed by Gray Shore, screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpeless) tells the story in PG-13-ified "300" / "Game of Thornes" fashion of the 15th century Romanian (Wallachian) prince Vlad III whose legendary cruelty in the desperate fight against Ottoman Turk invaders gave him the moniker of Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad III's father had belonged to an ad hoc "coalition" of Christian kings calling itself "The Order of the Dragon" that had sworn itself to defend Christian Europe from the invading (Muslim) TurksDragon in Romanian is Drăculea from hence derives ... Dracula.  Whether or not local (Transylvanian) storytellers had already conflated Prince Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Dracula) with local (Transylvanian) vampire legends, I am not sure.  However, a centuries-old Transylvanian vampire named "Count Dracula" became the title character in Bram Stoker's (hailing from "the Isles") "gothic novel" by that name [wikip] [Amzn] [GR] inspiring countless further often Anglo / German literary and cinematic  explorations [IMDb] of the character "unearthed" and "dragged west" from his Transylvanian home, where "in the West" he's come to be considered (and perhaps dismissed ...) as a classic horror-story / monstrous archetype.

So in truth I'm kinda happy to see the Dracula legend be brought back in this film to its 15th century Balkan / Romanian / Wallachian roots even if most domestic (American) reviewers appear disappointed (see links above) that there's more "impaling" than "bloodsucking" going on.

Indeed, the central question of the current film DOES NOT INVOLVE in any way "exploring" the boundaries of repressed and uninhibited sexual desire, a theme that clearly preoccupied the famously sexually repressed 19th century English (Victorian) and German speaking worlds (IMHO it's no surprise at all that modern psychology - Freud, Jung, Adler, etc - was born in the German speaking world, which was SO TIGHTLY WOUND prior to WW II that it produced Hitler and the Nazis as well), so much so that explorations of sexual desire had to be moved EVEN IN LITERATURE "far away" to "exotic" locales LIKE TRANSYLVANIA (Stoker's Dracula), ARABIA (Sir Richard Francis Burton's famously awful and arguably pornographic English "translation" of the collection of centuries-old Middle Eastern _folktales_ known as The Thousand and One Nights), and INDIA (with Victorian England's arguably purient fascination with India's Kama Sutra).

Instead, the current film concerns itself with another very basic question and one that was probably closer to the concerns of the Balkan / Transylvanian storytellers originally telling the tale:  How far would you go to defend your People and even your Family from Harm (attackers / invaders / etc)? 

For the 15th-16th century Balkans were "Ground Zero" of Christian-Muslim Holy War that finally began to turn with the defeat of the Ottoman Turks AT THE GATES OF VIENNA.  Indeed, many of the conflicts in the Balkans during the 20th century (including the start of World War I and then the awful, indeed genocidal, conflicts that raged across former Yugoslavia in the 1990s) had their roots in the desperate fighting of the 14th-15th centuries that gave Vlad III his "Impaler" moniker to begin with. It was a desperate region that left its psychic scars arguably to this day.

So what would have made Prince Vlad an "impaler" and (by legend) even a vampire?   Well that's what the film is about.

In the frozen / stylized with voice-over sequence that begins of the film, we're told that when Prince Vlad was young, he had been part of a group of a 1,000 Romanian boys who been handed over to the Ottoman Turks by Vlad's father as tribute.  The boys, young as they were, were then trained to be fanatical warriors for the Sultan concerned neither for their own lives nor for the lives of those that they were asked to kill.  Surviving his term of service, Vlad (played by an ever somber, but what else could he be, Luke Evans) returns to his kingdom with a few fellow survivors to take his precarious place as a (Turkish) vassal King. 

When the Turks come on Easter to demand the annual tribute in silver "early" as well as another "tribute in boys" including Vlad's own son Ingeras (played by Art Parkinson), this proves too much to bear.  So Vlad promises his beautiful wife Mirena (played by Sarah Gadon), his son and his people that he will TRULY DO ANYTHING to protect his people from this continued unbearable enslavement.  TRULY ANYTHING comes to mean Vlad going off to climb the very foreboding / creepy looking "Broken Tooth Mountain" where in the cave, he once had a brush with an unspeakable Evil (vampire played by Charles Dance).

Basically like Faust of later centuries Vlad makes a "deal with the Devil" but UNLIKE FAUST he does it NOT for purient reasons of self-engrandisement but rather to try to save his people from the Turks.  Indeed, the perhaps millenia-old vampire living in the cave proves somewhat confused by Vlad's request and arguably tries to offer him a way to soften the deal.  But Vlad chooses what he does ... and the rest is (legendary) history.

I found the movie surprising but also probably pretty close to the original Transylvanian legend before it got abducted by "WASPS/Aryans" for other, IMHO far more trivial, purposes.

Was Vlad's choice "good"?  Were the more historical choices of the actual "Vlad the Impaler" "good"?  But what would _you_ do if some armed group was taking _your children_ away? 

I'd add here that while the crimes of the Ottoman Turks presented in the film are of historical record -- as are the "impaling" crimes of the historical Vlad -- Turkey today is NOT the same country that it was 3-4-5 centuries ago.  I've known about 20 people of Turkish descent in my life and to a person they've been among the most gentle people I've ever known.  But yes, tell that to an Armenian, Greek or Serb who remembers the stories of the horrors of yesteryear.  

This is a very tormented film about a very tormented character whose pain reaches into people of the region today.  Still Christians perhaps more than any group are asked from their very beginnings to let go and FORGIVE.  "Father forgive them for they do not know what they do." -- Luke 23:34.

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  1. great review: even this horror movie could be used for teaching a history lesson..

  2. Dracula with a totally different twist. Not what you expect, but entertaining, and plenty of action topped with a fair amount of Dracula.