Dracula Untold (2014)
by Mark Wallace
Sherlock Holmes, who I’ve written on in this blog numerous times, is not the most often depicted character in screen history. The most often depicted, by a long way, is Holmes’ near contemporary Count Dracula. Sherlock Holmes has 172 IMDb screen appearances; Dracula has 520!* Both are, essentially, products of the 1890s (Holmes first appeared in a 1887 novel, but his mass popularity began with the short stories published from 1891 onwards). It is interesting to seek common characteristics in these characters that make them so enduringly appealing. Well, they’re both tall, certainly; they’re both urbane and suave; they both wear capes; uh… that’s all I got.
The Dracula I have watched most recently is Dracula Untold, an origin story from 2014. The origin story, I am convinced, is the defining narrative of our time. The contemporary audience’s need for an origin story for all characters who display any oddity at all is really characteristic of this epoch. Such a story centres around a primal scene, a single happening that explains why the character is the way he/she is. This is the key difference between Arthur Conan Doyle’s conception of Sherlock Holmes and that found in Sherlock or Elementary, as I have written about before. It doesn’t occur to Doyle that he has to explain his character’s personality, whereas modern narrative needs an explanation for any eccentricity of character.
And this we get in this retelling of Dracula. But what, first, is the great difference between Dracula and Holmes? Dracula is evil, of course. The need for an origin story for an evil character is even more pressing. Bram Stoker didn’t provide an emotional background to Dracula’s bloodlust and amorality, but that’s not how we do vampires in the 21st century. Twilight and True Blood amongst others have habituated us to empathize with vampires: sure, they’re murderous, but it’s not their fault. They are deeply sensitive and moral beings with an urge within them which they can’t control, and which is independent from the rest of their personalities. They have become the perfect subject for modern narrative, then, both psychotic and innocent. And, of course, vampires have always been sexy (well, except Nosferatu). As Darryl Jones writes in Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film: “vampirism has always been used as a vehicle for more-or-less encoded articulations of sexuality and desire (as a way of writing about sex without writing about sex)” (Hodder Arnold, 2002, p.85).
Sex, psychopathy, and innocence: these are the core elements of the recent trend in vampire narratives. Stoker’s Dracula was an evil to be stamped out. In 2014’s Dracula Untold, we can guess this will not be the case.
The title already hints at hidden depths in the character. Dracula is “more” than the traditional conception both in terms of his history and in terms of his psyche. The history of Dracula in this film is given as that of 15th-century Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler, Stoker’s supposed model for Dracula. Vlad was a famously brutal ruler with a penchant for the type of execution after which he was eventually named. So the film has not only to redeem Dracula, but Vlad as well. And it begins this from the opening moments. The opening montage shows young boys being whipped:
In the year of Our Lord 1442, the Turkish sultan enslaved 1000 Transylvanian boys to fill the ranks of his army. These child slaves were beaten without mercy…
Vlad was one of these boys, forced into soldiery and violence, and forever after trying to atone for these acts and to rule in peace. This opening scene of child abuse is Vlad’s primal scene, what makes him the person he is and explains the things he has done. The film is just interested enough in historical accuracy to acknowledge that Vlad was responsible for some atrocities, but he has a rationale: “Men do not fear swords; they fear monsters. They run from them. By putting one village to the sword I spared ten more.” Thus Vlad’s massacres were utilitarian, securing the greatest happiness of the greatest number: killing some to save more.
Vlad’s historical record thus complicates slightly the conversion of Dracula into a tragic hero, but not unduly. To watch this Dracula in conjunction with older versions is a study in modern ontologies of the self. From outside threat, the vampire figure has come to represent something in our selves, something that we are encouraged to find in ourselves by modern culture. We are dark, disturbed, damaged, and even evil, according to theses depictions; but we have to embrace this, and find reasons for it, in our past and our relations with others. Thus the vision of humanity here is Christiano-Freudian: the original sin of Christianity has returned in the sense that we are all consumed by dark urges; but these, though inevitable, are not innate, but result from something in our past, some dark childhood happening for which we can take no responsibility, rendering us, like vampires, guilty but still innocent.
*And the number of screen Draculas is increasing at a ridiculous rate: over 80 since 2104! There have been 15 Holmeses in the same period.