Bram Stoker most likely titled his novel Dracula because he liked the sound of the name. In his outline, the villain was called Count Wampyr. Stoker gives the Count a speech which suggests the undead vampire was in life a Romanian prince who fought against the Ottoman Empire. In 1972, the academics Radu Florescu and Robert T. McNally published In Search of Dracula, which influentially identified Dracula character with the historical Vlad III, though Stoker probably knew or cared less about Vlad than Dumas or Rostand did about the historical D’Artagnan or Cyrano de Bergerac. It has become almost obligatory for Dracula adaptations to play up the Vlad connection. The first writer to give Dracula a Vlad-related origin story seems to have been radio playwright Brian Hayles, whose 1974 drama Lord Dracula was developed by Hammer Films as an unproduced project, Vlad the Impaler, for much of the 1970s. Subsequent novels (Peter Tremayne’s Dracula Unborn, Elizabeth Kosteva’s The Historian) and movies (Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the TV movie Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula) have gone over this ground so often that this ‘untold’ version should more truthfully be labelled the same old story.
Like everything from the Star Wars prequels to Maleficent, this follows the pattern of giving a famous villain a comic book-style origin story which shows a thorny character arc from naïve decency to total monster. Luke Evans’ brooding, chiselled, ripped Transylvanian Prince is a loving family man who only impaled an entire village ‘to save ten more’ and has put away his Gary Oldman-style dragon armour hoping never to use it again … until his family is threatened. Vlad strikes a bargain with Charles Dance’s Nosferatu-look Old Man of the Mountains (who seems to be Patient Zero of vampirism) and gets superpowers (mainly turning into a swarm of CGI bats but also Wolverine-like rapid healing). Like Superman, he needs a weakness to allow for a suspenseful finale, so silver is his kryptonite: the wicked Sultan fights him on a carpet of coins and tries to drown him in money. The superhero connection is furthered as Vlad’s bland, saintly wife takes a long, slow Gwen Stacy-like death plunge to motivate the next stage in the hero’s transformation.
With its studded leather outfits, Northern Irish locations, swooping shots through busy battlefields, and relentlessly thudding dialogue, this isn’t much of a mediaeval epic – but it’s not much of a horror movie either, with weightless CGI monsters that could have come from an Underworld prequel and a peculiar nervousness about its own premise. Having set out to show how stern but fair Vlad becomes the monstrous Dracula, the film cops out in a coda that connects with no known version of the story – presenting Evans as an eternal romantic who so far as we know hasn’t bitten anyone innocent while Dance stalks in his footsteps as a nameless fiend who seems more like Stoker’s Dracula than the protagonist. A weakness of Coppola’s film is that in rethinking Dracula as an eternal romantic, his stature as a monster is reduced. Here, he’s not even a tragically flawed good guy. Backstory doesn’t necessarily make for stronger characterisation, and the outcome here isn’t the untold story of any of the Draculas worthy of the name — Bram Stoker’s, Bela Lugosi’s, Christopher Lee’s, Klaus Kinski’s, even Udo Kier’s- but the all-too-familiar story of someone we’ve never met before and are unlikely to see again.
First published in Sight & Sound.