“Sherlock”s Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat team up for an adaptation of the horror classic that starts out strong & falls down hard.
With the world on fire (literally and figuratively) and neighbors suspiciously eyeing each other, the time is ripe for a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a story that dives deep into our fear of death and sexuality, as well as good old fashioned xenophobia. The brilliance (and tragedy) of Stoker’s narrative is that it could be adapted to take place in any time period or place, and the themes would still be relevant. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have heeded the call with an extravagant Netflix/BBC miniseries that comes out swinging in the first episode, and then regrettably collapses with all the grace of a thrift store card table by the third.
Though it starts out as a traditional retelling, with several nods in style and production design to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation, Dracula quickly becomes its own fascinating beast. Maintaining a delicate balance between horror and humor (a balance that’s quickly lost by the second episode), the first episode takes place almost entirely in Transylvania, focusing on the curious relationship between Count Dracula (the fantastically named Claes Bang) and Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan). Mina (Morfydd Clark), Jonathan’s betrothed who quickly falls under Dracula’s spell, is at best a peripheral character here, and all but disappears after the first episode. It ends up being one of several examples of Gatiss and Moffat knowing they should include certain characters, as fan service if nothing else, but not having any idea what to do with them.
It’s fine, though, at least at first, because there’s plenty to chew on with the Jonathan-Dracula storyline. A withered, horribly scarred Jonathan tells cynical, no-nonsense nun Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) about his ordeal as Dracula’s captive, as the Count prepares for a journey to England. Though often portrayed as an ineffective drip who stands by and watches a suave foreigner steal his girl, here Jonathan is a victim, tormented, seduced, and gaslit by Dracula. What happens to his character is such a clever and shocking twist that it makes the decline of the rest of the miniseries all the more disappointing. If the entire series had maintained the sense of humor and gruesomeness of the first episode, during which Dracula tosses a severed head at a group of nuns like a bridal bouquet, it might have been among the best adaptations of the source material.
Alas, things start to slip in the second episode, which isn’t bad, necessarily, but somewhat of a comedown from the first. Framed as a murder mystery, it takes place entirely on the Demeter, the ship that takes Count Dracula from Transylvania to England. Less gruesome and more pun-heavy now, it’s a bit of a drag as Dracula quickly dispatches of the other passengers and most of the crew. Things pick up when Sister Agatha, who isn’t quite what she seems, shows up again. Though this eventually goes off the rails as well, the interaction between Dracula and the peppery, steel-spined Agatha is the miniseries highlight, particularly a terrific scene in which they taunt each other at the gates of a convent (the fact that Dracula is naked and covered in blood just makes it all the more weird and wonderful). All that goodwill is expended, however, when Dracula, after his coffin sinks to the bottom of the ocean, stumbles out of the water to find himself…
In the present, in a concluding episode that feels half-written, and has none of the compelling weirdness of the previous two episodes. Hell, there’s barely any action, with much of the time devoted to Dracula adjusting to modern life (with the requisite jokes about the internet and feminism) and interminable conversations about the nature and science of vampirism. Traditional supporting characters Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), Quincey P. Morris (Phil Dunster), and Jack Seward (Matthew Beard) finally show up, with Lucy portrayed as a selfie-obsessed, body glitter covered party girl, Quincey a callow lug who admits he wouldn’t be interested in Lucy if she wasn’t beautiful, and Jack a pasty-faced, lovelorn creep who stalks around like he might be a murderer himself.
If the entire series had maintained the sense of humor and gruesomeness of the first episode, it might have been among the best adaptations of the source material.
Turning these iconic characters, some of whom are the heroes of the original story, into shallow, boring rich kids is one of several tactical errors made in this episode, as is portraying Renfield (Mark Gatiss) as a bumbling lawyer whose sole purpose is to add some comic relief in an episode that, after three hours of winking at the audience, suddenly decides to start taking itself seriously. Lucy, a character often given short shrift in film adaptations of Dracula, is written particularly poorly here, a tiresome “jaded princess who’s tired of only being valued for her looks” stereotype who’s inexplicably unruffled when Dracula tells her he’s a vampire, or when she encounters a dead child shambling around in a cemetery. The explanation for why Dracula designates her to be his perfect bride is half-baked at best, and might have had more of a dramatic impact if Lucy had been given more to do than gyrate in a nightclub and bite her bottom lip.
Not as half-baked, however, as the tragic-romantic ending that in no way flows with anything that happens up to that point, and feels completely unearned. It suddenly gives Dracula a soul where no evidence of one existed before, and effectively negates the most entertaining part of the miniseries. Bang’s take on Dracula is witty and philosophical, but he’s no misunderstood antihero crossing oceans of time to find his lost love. He’s a monster, who really seems to enjoy what he does, and that’s so rare in these uncertain economic times.
Luckily, each episode of Dracula can stand alone as an individual story, so the first episode can be enjoyed on its own merits. And honestly, there is a lot to be enjoyed about Dracula, particularly Bang and Wells’ performances, and Youssef Kerkour as the jolly, hook-handed ship’s cook in episode two. The production design is top-shelf, and the special effects solid for a TV budget, save for a vampire baby that looks so cheesy that it seems almost deliberate. There’s plenty of appropriately nightmarish imagery, like fingernails peeling off, rotting hands appearing around door frames, and a fly crawling across, then behind someone’s eyeball. Flies light off of everything here, even the opening credits, really emphasizing the “undead” aspect of vampirism.
Though Bang brings a lot of “this Dracula fucks” energy to his performance, it’s surprisingly restrained in that regard. Oh sure, here Dracula doesn’t discriminate between men and women when it comes to victims (and if that bothers you, I suggest you read up on the life of Bram Stoker), but it feels as though Gatiss and Moffat drew a very distinct line they were unwilling to cross. Dracula is a four and a half hour long bait and switch, in which we were promised a devilishly seductive unholy creature wreaking havoc on unwitting mortals, and ended up with a dull, disappointing slog.
Dracula has crawled out of the grave and is available on Netflix starting today.