Dracula: Untold is a teachable moment for film criticism. The critic scores are abysmal across review sites, and most audiences will say it was terrible. Problem is, it wasn’t terrible. It was just really, Really, REALLY mediocre.
The formal elements were all there. Strong acting, beautiful mis en scene, exceptional cinematography bordering on experimental, visceral action, etc., etc.
Simply put, the movie had an abysmal script. It told when it should’ve shown; it used hamfisted gimmicks to raise the stakes; it was, at times, unintentionally funny; it rendered the origin mundane; it didn’t know which characters were important; it failed its Universal Monster Continuity end tag; and worst of all, it failed to highlight why Dracula remains such an interesting and complex character, despite that being the whole point of the movie.
So how could the script have been improved AND kickstarted the Universal Monster Continuity?
1. MAJOR ELEMENTS
The origin story in Dracula: Untold had comparison working against it. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 featured Dracula as Judas Iscariot -the man who betrayed Jesus Christ- which accounted for his weaknesses to holy objects and to silver. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula depicted Dracula as a Holy Crusader who committed the ultimate blasphemy when his fiancée committed suicide. Dracula Untold, however, just has some cave-dwelling vampire turn Vlad into a vampire. Wasted opportunity if there ever was one. Dracula may not be the first vampire in Stoker’s novel, but in the movies, that’s a MASSIVE part of his allure.
Dracula’s motivation, flirting with the powers of darkness to save loved ones, is an inherently sympathetic angle, and the former warrior backstory works in a big way, but the rest isn’t as interesting or as singular as it could be. We don’t need him to have a complex relationship with the villain, but we certainly need him to have one with his people, his family, God, and himself. This isn’t about the villain; this is about the icon that Vlad will become.
Finally, this isn’t a superhero story. In the movie, Dracula discovers that he can become a swarm of bats with more joy than Man of Steel’s Superman has in learning he can fly. The end tag suggests a very regal and well-adjusted Dracula when this isn’t where the story goes. We have to believe, right from the start, that this is a person who could become a monster and all that entails. The capacity for evil has to be a central part of their identity and their decline –not ascent- into damnation. This has to end in a dark place.
Going from there…
2. THE PAGE ONE REWRITE
Vlad Tepes is a former crusader of Roman Catholic Church with a dark history of war crimes (LOTS of impalement). Having been given a Papal Indulgence (assurance from the Pope that he’s pardoned for all past sins and WILL be going to Heaven), he lives a peaceful life as the beneficent ruler of medieval Transylvania. He attempts to be saintly and just, but it’s clear, especially when he metes justice, he’s harsh. Almost cruel. When the Turkish army threatens to invade his lands and enslave his people, he first turns to the Roman Catholic Church for answers. The Vatican proves useless, preferring to stay out of military affairs now that the Crusades have proven costly and ineffective. Vlad prays to God for answers, but God doesn’t answer. Terrible things continue to happen to Vlad’s people.
Enraged and desperate, Vlad turns to the only power left: those of darkness. Vlad summons Satan, begging for the power to wipe out his foes. Satan offers him infinite power at a cost: he’ll have obscure weaknesses, and he’ll have insatiable thirst. If by the time three days passes, he has supped on human blood, he’ll gain more power, but the curse will be permanent and Satan will have leave to unleash darkness will upon the world. This last part is important for later.
Vlad accepts and is soon kicking ass like the best of him. He attempts to do so with honor, as a man of God, but the dark impulse and his true nature win out, leading him to commit one horrific atrocity after another on the battlefield until his family and his people –those he sold his soul for- are utterly terrified of him and begin to plot his death.
Naturally, Vlad’s enemies also react in kind, summoning Satan to help win their battles. Satan, however, doesn’t even want to bargain with them. He doesn’t need to. Instead, he simply tells them to mock Vlad with signs of his own faith (Crosses, crucifixes, etc.), and he will be brought to heel. As will his people.
Suddenly Vlad, unstoppable force of darkness, is exiled from his own people and helpless against the tide of Turks invading his land. To add insult to injury, the God he loyally served in the crusades is now a tangible presence against him –sapping his strength and giving leave for his enemy to kill, torture, rape, and pillage as they see fit. In a moment of unspeakable rage and indignation, Vlad gives into the thirst, slaughtering and drinking the Turk leader.
Satan bellows in triumph, escaping from Hell to walk the Earth, bringing with him the forces of darkness. Deep in Egypt, a tomb begins to stir. On the English Moors, a prince bitten by a wolf begins to convulse. In South America, fishermen are dragged to their deaths by a scaly creature with human arms… you get the idea.
And Vlad’s power? Increases exponentially. He summons a storm to that wipes out whatever of the Turkish horde he isn’t at that moment massacring. When the rains stop, and he’s alone on the gore-drenched battlefield, all he really wants is to return to his people— but they’re not having him. They want him dead. Now. Dracula begs his wife and child to accept him, but they refuse, terrified by what he’s become… by what he’s always been. Enraged, Dracula promises the people of Transylvania an eternity of fear and sorrow, that he is of the House of the Devil and that he shall feast forever on their blood. With that, he escapes into the night, leaving only carnage in his wake.
The people of Transylvania attempt to rebuild and go on with their lives, using crosses and the like to protect themselves, but night after night, someone inevitably dies by Dracula’s crimson kiss. His wife and son, though, go untouched, and are eventually put to the stake, presumed to be in collusion with him. Further enraged, Dracula creates other vampire slaves, making Transylvania itself and its nearby lands a realm of the dead, locking in its dwindling populace. Learning of his crimes and his blight upon existence, the Roman Catholic Church revokes Dracula’s Papal Indulgence, removing his final shred of hope for any kind of happy ending.
Dracula sits in his Gothic castle, surrounded by his three vampire Brides, his loathing for God and humanity keeping him alive all these years… but so does love for his long-lost wife, evidenced by a tattered tapestry of his family hanging from a lonely wall. He swears that he’ll rebuild his family and reclaim his lost love … at any cost.
That’s when an hideous old man shambles into Dracula’s throne room. He’s well-dressed enough… but there’s something off about the wrinkles in his face… they’re all horizontal. He demands Dracula aid him in the fight against the coming darkness, but Dracula wants none of this –he wants the solitude of his castle. He’s waged enough war and enough misery on the human race. Refusing to leave, the Ancient Stranger attacks Dracula, and the two tumble out of Dracula’s stained glass window –into the streets of modern London. The Ancient Stranger’s clothes and skin have wafted away, revealing a skeleton draped in papyrus –that’s right, the Mummy. He fights Dracula to a standstill, saying that if they mean to continue controlling the world, they need to contact “the others.” They’re not strong enough to combat this force individually, but together… together they might stand a ghost of a chance.
2.5 FULL DISCLOSURE
I stole my proposed end tag from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Plagiarism, naughty, I know, but this is purely hypothetical. I’m not using this for personal gain, but to highlight that it’s possible to make an exciting, multi-purposed end tag –one that’s better than just Dracula hitting on a chick and being stalked by Charles Dance smirking about letting “the games begin.”
Because that tag is stupid and pointless.
3. SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
My proposed counter-outline addresses several flaws in Dracula: Untold.
It strips away the pointless medieval politics and strategizing that were, if we’re honest, a half-assed rip of Game of Thrones.
It frames Vlad the Impaler as a person who is guided by deep-seated beliefs that extend beyond the prototypical love of one’s family, and also deepens his character as his beliefs are systematically shattered. This, in turn, enhances the Faustian element of the script which was, in the original movie, a quarter-assed. Naturally, this helps make the story more solidly action/horror. In the same turn, it allows the villain to have a real way of combating Dracula instead of laughably blindfolding his troops to zero effect or –even more laughably- fighting Dracula in a pointlessly elaborate room of silver coins.
It establishes Dracula’s relationship with his people and gives some time for him to be seen as the classical ruler of Transylvania, neither of which were attempted in the original movie.
It organically establishes Dracula’s strengths and weaknesses, as he would naturally discover his abilities, not be painstakingly told them through tedious exposition.
Finally, it establishes a shared continuity using an organic unifying element that creates a seamless world, invites future stories, and suggests the kind of characters we might expect to see. The end tag with the Mummy works on a few levels: it hints a longstanding rivalry between the two, which could be a plot point in a supposed Mummy movie; it shows that time has passed, and that future movies could take in the modern age, as is Universal’s agenda; it suggests a major adversary, which has already tangibly been revealed in the form of Satan; and it’s a greater call to action –Dracula enlisting the other Universal Movie Monsters is WAAAAAY more interesting than being told “Dracula’s living in 2014 now, and he’s just trying to get laid.”
4. WHY DIDN’T THAT HAPPEN?
Rumor is, the Dracula Year Zero (Dracula: Untold’s working title) script had been floating around for years, and Universal finally decided to pull the pin on it. Problematically, half-way through production, they decided they wanted to launch their own shared universe to grab some of that sweet Marvel money, but without scrapping anything they’d already shot. Even more problematically, not everything in Dracula: Untold was as gen. audience friendly as they wanted, leading previously shot less-than-thoroughly-safe on the editing room’s floor. Some hasty reshoots later, it was still a story, but very rickety and devoid of soul or purpose. I guess you could say the “shared universe” gambit paid off; Dracula: Untold recouped its budget on its second worldwide weekend. Still, it’s unlikely to ever be more than a forgotten modest success.
As always, the big takeaways are that you absolutely need watertight script before going to production, and you absolutely need to have passion behind the material. Audiences can sniff it out in a second when you don’t.
Better luck on the 2016 Mummy reboot, I guess.