There's a storm growing off the coast of Whitby, one that has its roots in Central Europe but which is now approaching the coast of England. In the middle of the night and as lightning flashes overhead, Abraham van Helsing (David Suchet) is preparing for bed but as he settles down, he hears something nearby. He does not, however, have time to act as the intruder quickly bundles him out of his home. The skies continue to crackle but van Helsing's home is now silent.
Elsewhere, there are happier times, with Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens) enjoying the fresh air at the home of his sweetheart Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles). He leaves that day but not before he proposes to Lucy and encouraged by her accepting his offer of marriage, he leaves for Whitby and the home of his father. There, he learns of something terrible, that his father has been driven mad by syphilis and is close to death. The doctor, on a brief walk through the woods, tells Holmwood that he suspects his mother, who drowned when he was only young, may have killed herself on realising that she too had the disease. The doctor wonders if Holmwood may have been infected while he was still in his mother's womb. Retreating to his bedroom, Holmwood opens his shirt and looks at the telltale symptoms of syphilis that are now appearing on his chest. He has but a short time before his marriage to Lucy.
Mere days later and at the behest of the mysterious Singleton (Donald Sumpter), London solicitor Hawkins (Ian Redford) asks that his young colleague Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall) travel to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Marc Warren) to arrange for the purchase of property in London. Harker travels through the Carpathian Mountains to the home of Count Dracula, who he finds living in a deserted castle in a remote part of the countryside. That first night, Harker suffers terrible dreams that are filled with bloodshed and of the curious but troubling figure of Dracula. Back at home, Mina Murray (Stephanie Leonidas), Harker's fiancee, misses him terribly but is unaware that a passenger named Harker is coming to England aboard a ship, one that has the body of a crew member strapped to the wheel and is being drawn to Whitby by a storm.
All of the major, and some of the minor, television channels did the decent thing this past Christmas and commissioned some welcome specials. BBC4 did best with an hour-long The Thick Of It, which found a poetry in its stream of obscenities, whilst BBC2 wallowed in nostalgia for Saturday morning television and caught up with the This Life crowd ten years on. Five decided that seasonal films scheduled in the afternoons the week before Christmas would be welcome - they weren't wrong! - and followed this up with The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in the week after the big day. ITV found success with a showing of Doc Martin whilst BBC1 had all manner of decent drama, including The Ruby In The Slipper, Doctor Who and, fulfilling one's longing for gothic thrills, a new adaptation of Dracula, Bram Stoker's chilling tale of love, superstition and a vampire.
It's fair to say that though there are faults with this version of Dracula, not least it looking like a gothic music video of the mid-eighties for much of its running time, it did work rather well on the days after Christmas when one could better appreciate its bloody chills. It was perhaps the marriage of material and the time of the year that did best for Dracula rather than the efforts of Marc Warren, Sophia Myles and director Bill Eagles. Unfortunately, one month on, Dracula doesn't look quite so impressive as it did but providing one's not expecting an outright classic, it works quite well.
What Dracula does very well is to portray the story's sense of gothic horror. Much like Hammer, it appears to use the Southern English countryside in place of Transylvania - there are precious few mountains in the distance and nothing but a Romany woman blessing herself to suggest that we're in Carpathia - but when the sun sets, out come the lighted braziers, the howling of wolves and the footsteps of Jonathan Harker through Count Dracula's castle. The journey of Count Dracula to England is just as good, with his resting in his coffin while his ship is guided by the storm that he calls. Later, it gets even better with the foggy streets of London giving away to all manner of black arts, all conducted under the watchful eye of Singleton, all with the purpose of calling Dracula to England to cure Lord Holmwood of syphilis. The sight of candles, books of magick, an inverted crucifix and Holmwood washing himself in blood was, curiously, very welcome over Christmas. Of course, what Singleton and Holmwood don't anticipate is that Dracula has little interest in their calling him other than to take up a residence in London but there's little pleasure in their shock as his plans become apparent.
However, it's unfortunate that Marc Warren appears to have decided that Count Dracula, rather than being a mix of sensuality and terror in the manner of a Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, would have opted for a look akin to a member of a minor late-sixties psychedelic pop band. The clothes are reasonably of the era but the combination of a starched white collar and grotty fingernails would have as much chance of charming Mina Murray as had he farted at her. The hair, uncomfortable as it looks to wear, appears to have been swiped from some hapless shop dummy, one that first left the factory to the sound of The Strawberry Alarm Clock. In spite of this, Warren actually does a decent job as regards Dracula, choosing to have him step easily between exuding charm and creepiness, shown by his lying in a frock coat amongst cockroaches or by the sight of blood on his pale skin. Similarly, Sophia Myles is very good as Lucy, making her a believable figure even as a vampire, her efforts to seduce her husband more successful in death than they were in life. But for these two, there are the dull Dan Stevens as Lord Holmwood, Tom Burke as Dr John Seward, Stephanie Leonidas as Mina Murray and Rafe Spall as Jonathan Harker. These four do little more than fill in the moments between seeing Warren and Myles on the screen, with the film's lowest moment being an early meeting between Burke and Stevens that has one looking to the contents of Burke's desk to find something of interest.
Still, it's enjoyable enough without ever being excellent, merely very good at times and quite ordinary at others. However, it isn't at all frightening, less so with director Bill Eagles choosing to illustrate the horror with glimpses of blood dripping down bare flesh. It would appear that these were included to suggest sex amid the horror but they're not at all effective, even with such a pair of attractive leads as Warren and Myles. That said, one doubts if the BBC1 audience, full on turkey, stuffing and Cadbury's Roses, really wanted the digestion of the dinner troubled by visceral horror, suggesting that Dracula was pitched just right for a Christmas audience. No classic, mind, but no worse than one might expect a BBC adaptation of Dracula to be.
Well, it does look, unsurprisingly, like a television show with there being a softness to the image, a slight blurring even, that will be familiar to viewers with satellite or terrestrial television. Checking the bitrate, it is a little better than one would expect from Freeview or Sky and because of this there isn't as much artefacting as there would have been on the film's original broadcast but it still doesn't compare to a made-for-cinema feature film. The DD2.0 audio track is quite a good one but tends, like the film itself, to go into flights of fancy that don't have much to do with the story, being the imaginings of Jonathan Harker and Lucy Westenra instead. However, the dialogue is generally clear - there are a couple of instances when it gets lost in the ambient effects - with the sound effects working well in the structure of the piece. Finally, there are English subtitles.
There are no extras on this DVD release.
Perhaps the greatest attraction that there is with Dracula is the air of comfort about the film. At the mention of the Carpathian Mountains or Transylvania, it's like the opening to one's favourite album, being that we know exactly, or thereabouts, what will follow. Similarly, this would also appear to let Marc Warren, John Suchet, Rafe Spall and Sophia Myles slip into familiar roles and generally, with Suchet being the exception, doing well with them. One doubts if this will be well-remembered a year or two from now but, equally, an audience for it will remain. It's all too rare that British television does horror and though this isn't great, they ought to be congratulated for even trying.