Dracula (2020) Review
With Sherlock seemingly at an end (at least in relation to the actors' schedules), the show's creators and writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gattiss have turned to another much loved Nineteenth Century literary classic. In the same three ninety minute episode format, their latest adaptation for the BBC is Bram Stoker's Dracula.
There have been numerous takes on the infamous vampire before and in Claes Bang, there are hints of several iconic performances - most notably shades of Gary Oldman and Christopher Lee - mixed with the slightly wittier, almost clever repertoire you might come to expect from Moffat and Gattiss's creations. Largely unknown to British audiences, Bang brings charm and menace to Dracula in spades and is masssively entertaining in the role. And he's backed by an impressive cast over the three episodes, most notably John Heffernan's tragic Jonathan Harker, who like in the novel, becomes the audience's introduction to the monstrous vampire in a remote Transylvanian castle, while the doomed ship The Demeter in episode two is packed with a class act in British acting, from Clive Russell to Jonathan Aris, Sacha Dahawan and Hungarian cult actress Catherine Schell as Duchess Valeria.
But there is one performance in Dracula that is head and shoulder above every else - yes, including Claes Bang. In one of the most vivid, entertaining and often funny performances in years, Dolly Wells is simply sensational as Sister Agatha. She carries off every line of Moffat and Gatiss's electric script with droll skill, proving herself to be the perfect interrogator of a deathly ill Jonathan Harker as he escapes from Dracula's castle and finds sanctuary in a Hungarian convent. Later revealed as the Van Helsing of the story (a twist that works extremely well), she provides sharp banter and courage as she faces off against Dracula himself, both in the convent and later on board The Demeter. Already, Wells is the standard by which all other TV performances should be measured this year and it's only the start of January.
It's clear from the start that this version of Dracula is going to push boundaries and Moffat and Gatiss aren't afraid to play with the source material while still holding true to the core story. From references to sexuality to the rather over reframing of the Van Helsing character, this has all the flavourings of a wry modern adaptation within its period setting.
Episode one The Rules of the Beast is framed though Harker's interrogation by Sister Agatha, retelling the circumstances that led him to Dracula' s castle and his harrowing escape. The make up and performance by Heffernan makes for a harrowing, doomed figure; in this version of Dracula, those fed upon for a slow and wasting death and Harker's appearance is particularly disturbing. The scenes in Dracula's castle are most chilling. The post-watershed viewing allows for some terrifying moments of horror that feel more at home in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead than a BBC period drama. The labyrinthine castle looks amazing, truly a hellscape in spiralling staircase and dark, gothic tunnels, while the sequence in the tombs is utterly terrifying as Harker comes face to face with the non-living inhabitants of the castle. Equally as disturbing is the sequence where he discover the bride in the box. If the sight of a vampire baby isn't enough to give you nightmares, I don't know what will.
Harker's deterioration as Dracula goes from a frail white-haired man to the fully restored count makes for a gripping first hour, with Class Bang finally coming into his own when a younger looking Dracula starts to have fun with his prey. All of which leads go the final disturbing set piece as Agatha discovers that Dracula has come to the convent and Mina's role in the story is revealed in another fun twist. The scene at the gates is another-blood soaked highlight; the sight of Dracula ripping himself out of the wolf is perhaps the most horrifying and fun sequence in the entire show. Moffat and Gators manage to make it both tense and humorous; Agatha and Dracula's first confrontation is electric and the sight of nuns with stakes, armed for battle is so much fun. Which makes the final head-ripping, face-wearing, slaughter fest and cliffhanger all the more tragic.
The voyage of the Demeter, a brief interlude in the classic Dracula story, is fleshed out over ninety minutes in the wonderfully titled second episode Blood Vessel. It's an Agatha Christie murder mystery in twisted reverse, where we know who the killer is because he keeps drinking their blood. That isn't to say there isn't plenty of mystery either; the reason why each member of the doomed Demeter has been selected leads to a terrific reveal as to Dracula's plans for England. Taking on the memories and traits of those he drinks is a wonderful enhancer of vampire lore, something this version of Dracula does so well in it's exploration of sunlight, the cross, reflection and faith. There's a rather enjoyable play on another dark comic series Inside No.9. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who saw this in the mystery behind the sick inhabitant if room nine. The pay off of Agatha and Dracula's chess game that ties into this mystery is Moffat and Gatiss at their very best.
The cast are all on top form, though some like Clive Russell don't quite get enough to do. Dracula's encounter with Duchess Valeria fleshed out his past and starts off the blood soaked rampage that will see almost everyone meet their demise come the journey's end. Bang is at his best in this episode, shifting from charming guest to murder sleuth to violent killer. He has a real geezer swagger in his performance, mixed with plenty of seductive charm. Shifting from murder mystery to a battle against the beast, the final part of episode two is truly centred around Agatha's fight with Dracula as she tries to save what she can of the crew and stop the ship from reaching the shores of England. It's a fun, intense and atmospheric episode that builds on the horror and surprises of episode one, delivering a genuinely bold cliffhanger, though one you might come to expect from Moffat and Gatiss.
The first two episodes are the perfect blend of mystery, horror, dark comedy and drama with some superb characterisation. Unfortunately, while the twist of Dracula emerging from the sea bed to discover it is now 123 years later is adds another intriguing element, it looses some of the atmosphere and menace of the period setting. It also isn't given quite enough room to breathe. The third and final episode, The Dark Compass, has a lot to pack in. The Jonathan Harker Institute, the descendent of Agatha Van Helsing, Dracula aclimatising to the new time period and the Lucy Westenra sub plot. While some of these elements are addressed extremely interesting ways, there isn't enough time paid to any of these plots to give them the exploration they deserved. Perhaps making episode three two ninety minute episodes would have worked better.
The sudden shift to 2020 was always sure to be something of a marmite reaction. While I would have been very happy with a continued period setting for the final chapter, the modern day era does open up some interesting ideas that start to give a fresh perspective on the classic Dracula tale. Most notably the retelling of poor Lucy's tale. Making her a young, party-going Instagram-obsessed woman, she is the perfect lens through which Dracula can seduce and subvert. It also lends to the final episode's real moments of horror as she is slowly indoctrinated into the supernatural world. The zombie child at her best is equally as disturbing as the vampire baby from the first episode while her cremation is sickeningly horrifying. Fully awake, she finds her good looks burned away, fully realised in the moment she selfies herself and discovers what she has become. Lydia West's performance, even under all that horrific make up, was deeply harrowing.
Dracula breaking free and terrorising the frightened, abused woman in her home made the most of the monster and his fish out of water narrative. The abusive husband in the fridge was somewhat satisfying in a twisted kind if way. The Jonathan Harker Institute is another intriguing element, founded by Mina after the incident in Hungary. The idea of Dracula as a test subject from Doctor Van Helsing is a fascinating idea; it allowing for continued relationship between Van Helsing and Dracula chat made the first two episodes so captivating. But all of this is washed away by the (admittedly brilliant) appearance of Mark Gatiss's lawyer Renfield, as Dracula is freed and the episode jumps forward three months.
Lucy's story line jumps from initial contact with Dracula to being completely enthralled while the Institute story line vanishes just as it was getting interesting. Again, a whole episode devoted to Dracula's incarceration and a Hannibal Lecter-style relationship with the new Van Helsing would have perhaps been a more interesting way to explore the psychology of his beliefs. On the other side, it feels as if Lucy's corruption and Dracula having fun with plans for 'world domination' are largely glossed over in what could have been a fun first half of the finale. But the snippets we get are good, Lucy's journey to becoming Dracula's bride absorbing and when we finally get to it, Doctor Van Helsing conversing with Sister Agatha is superb.
And we do get to the meat of the story - Dracula's beliefs - in a strong final sequence that sees Lucy destroyed and Dracula faced with the fact that it isn't the sunlight which will kill him. This is where Moffat and Gatiss shine, getting into the mindset of the vampire and offering something a little different to the well-trodden, often cliche tropes of the Dracula mythos. Even more surprising is the definitive ending they deliver. On first appearances, it appears this version of Dracula is a one-off tale. However, as with all things supernatural there is room for resurrection and that chance to explore many facets of his past, something we glimpsed briefly in his relationship with Duchess Valeria.
The narrative dead ends of the final part prevent Dracula - for me - from achieving top marks. But there is no denying that Moffat and Gatiss have given us something rather special, playing with a mix of traditional Dracula tropes and giving it a fresh lick of paint. Claes Bang joins the ranks of great Draculas, while Dolly Wells emerges as the stand out performance. This has kicked another year of television off to a terrific start, with some moments of true stand out horror, mixed with rich charaterisation and a dash of dark humour. I'm quite happy if this is all we get. But I certainly wouldn't be averse to Claes Bang resurrecting Dracula at least one more time...