Dracula review: Bold, inventive, captivating
Martyn Conterio | On 04, Jan 2020
At a glance, this new BBC-Netflix adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 bestseller is wildly unfaithful to the source material. If you can recover swiftly from initial shock, the wholesale chops and changes made by series co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, you’ll recognise their sacrilege is really the sincerest form of flattery. What they’ve done is treat the material – and vampire cinema history – with respect by updating things and making it relevant for the 21st century. In other words, they’ve provided a sense of lineage, found a way to communicate between the past and the present and cleverly zeroed in on passages of the book often quickly skimmed over by the movies (the damned voyage of the Demeter, for example). They haven’t driven a stake into the novel’s heart and cut off the head. It’s all certainly different, but we have to remember every screen adaptation, big and small, of the Victorian bestseller has revised, discarded or refashioned Stoker’s iconic work of horror to fit individual purposes. There are valid reasons for doing so and we shouldn’t be subject to cultural amnesia on this point.
Closer inspection reveals the novel’s themes and subtexts are all there bubbling away in Dracula A.D. 2020, only the details have been rearranged, a bit like moving around furniture or having a spring clean. It is clear Gatiss and Moffat know Dracula inside and out – far better than detractors reacting to what in their eyes is irritating, blasphemous revision – and their reimagining is largely a ripping yarn success.. with caveats. The beginning is strongest, the second part a black comedy treat, but the third, set in modern-day Whitby and London, is curiously scattershot, introducing perhaps too many elements, although it finishes strongly with profound insight into the enduring vampire figure and what makes Count Dracula – this version of Count Dracula, at least – tick. In doing so, the Romantic legacy (and agony) remains in place and its power renewed.
The three-part series is so dominated by the Claes Bang and Dolly Wells double-act, did the other actors ever stand a chance? The casting, besides the winning leads, is curiously bland and nobody else makes an impression. Almost everybody who isn’t Dracula or Van Helsing is instantly forgettable or merely bits of connecting plot caught in their orbit. Lucy Westenra, often portrayed as the doomed harlot, does make for a strong counterpoint to Dracula’s own tragic journey and the writers breathed life into her in reclaiming and rescuing her spirited sexual freedom from Victorian moralising. The execution in Part 3 is lacking, however, with individual pieces of story getting too tangled up in the race to the finish line. The feeling is one of disjointedness. Still, it rouses to a fascinating showdown and a beautiful, affecting parting image, heavily inspired by Coppola’s own sign-off.
Danish actor Claes Bang’s casting as the devilish aristocrat is inspired, but the revelation turned out to be Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha. Coming out of nowhere to essentially give us the best take on Professor Van Helsing since Peter Cushing’s days in the role for Hammer, switching sex and merging the character with the minor nun character from Stoker’s book, as well as Mina Murray-Harker, Wells became a social media sensation literally overnight and a firm fan-favourite during the course of the three-episode arc. In giving Van Helsing a revamp (pun totally intended), Gatiss and Moffat were also able to pay homage to Mina Murray’s New Woman status while dispensing almost entirely with the character. Again, bravura stuff serving a wider purpose.
The portrayal of women in the series chimes with Stoker’s own forward-thinking stance, without being achingly woke or wanting kudos for its achievement. It’s often forgotten that Mina is the smartest person in Dracula, so transferring her attributes to a newly devised character, really Van Helsing reborn, allows for the conversation between this new take on Dracula, the book and its themes to be delivered to audiences in a fresh way. Wells is such a barnstorming presence as Sister Agatha, the show tends to suffer when she isn’t around engaging in tête-à-têtes with her nemesis.
Dracula is here returned to his Byronic roots, with John Polidori’s short story, The Vampyre (1819), essentially the surtext for the popular Satanic Lord/vampire figure, getting several mentions during the course of the series. Forget Bela Lugosi holding a candelabra and intoning “Listen to them, children of the night! What music they make”, Christopher Lee’s creepy looming presence or Gary Oldman’s scenery-chewing in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 effort, this Count Dracula exemplifies Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of the scandalous poet as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Bang is raffish and hilarious as a vampire of diabolical menace and smug assuredness. Gatiss’ background as a member of The League of Gentlemen ensures the wicked count is armed to the teeth with deliciously fun dialogue. This Drac enjoys screwing around with people before he kills them, often making fourth-wall-style puns or observations before the attack. Once more, with feeling, it showcases Dracula’s famous magneticism in updated fashion, making him a sort of Hannibal Lector type in a black and crimson cape. It works a treat because Bang has charisma to spare and he immediately draws you in.
Gatiss and Moffat should be commended for heading off down lesser known or previously uncharted tributaries of the book, tapping fresh veins, for asking inspired questions regarding the nature of the vampire, and then giving us new perspectives. Dracula (2020), like 2019’s Watchmen or 2017’s Twin Peaks revival, gave us what we needed, not necessarily what we wanted. There’s some danger in that, as audiences might complain or find the taste of the new a bit like Marmite, but the results on the screen command respect and the creative gamble was more than worth it. Playing it safe and traditional neither interrogates the material nor challenges the viewership. Gory, highly entertaining, full of twists and surprises and all hinged upon that brilliant Bang-Wells double act, those accepting of the Gatiss and Moffat choices will have a fangtastic time.
Dracula is available on BBC iPlayer until 2nd January 2021. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.