"Blood is testimony. The testimony of everyone I've ever destroyed flows in my veins."
One of the most oft-depicted fictional characters onscreen, Dracula has permeated the public cultural consciousness so deeply that one no longer needs to have read the original (and still highly recommended) novel to be cognizant of the rules and elements surrounding the dark lord and his children of the night.
In some ways, BBC's Dracula treads familiar good vs. evil ground. The Count's power is still limited by Christian symbols and norms: he must still be invited in to cross a threshold, is repelled by the Eucharist, etc. But this evolution of the timeless tale takes motifs -- mirrors, crucifixes, the shadows Dracula hides in -- and configures them into a timeless call-out and call to arms. Across three 90-minute episodes, showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss throw in textual reverberations to Hammer's bloodsucker tales, and tonal echoes of their own Sherlock adaptation.
Before the advent of cinema, Dracula's biggest hurdle in 19th century theatrical adaptations was its epistolary form. The legend unfolds through snail mail, Captain's logs, newspaper clippings, and so forth. How does one translate the storytelling that organically unfolds in the novel's handwritten correspondences to the stage? Early theatrical adaptations the same year of the book's publication stumbled around the problem with clunky info-dump monologues spoken by its main players. MoffGats circumvents the hitch with a simple switcheroo: they reconfigures the timeline.
Episode one, "The Rules of the Beast," still has 19th century solicitor Jonathan Harker (Jonathan Heffernan) dispatched to the Carpathian mountainside to arrange for one Count Dracula's purchase of some English real estate. The Count (Claes Bang) still manipulates him into staying longer than anticipated, and still siphons power from him before departing for England and leaving him to die. The difference is that the bulk of the episode takes place within a Budapest convent to which Harker escaped; he recounts his ordeal to a pair of nuns sitting before him, Dracula soon arrives, and the plot further deviates from there.
Some of the greatest deviations are in character metamorphosis: vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing is now cynical nun Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells), Harker's trauma is intensified and his ending not-so-happy, and his fiance Mina (Morfydd Clark) is relegated more to the sidelines in service of exploring the power dynamic between vampire and vampire slayer. Renfield, played by Mark Gatiss himself, is absent until the third episode. Despite the addition of a convent full of brave-but-wholly-unprepared nuns, the first episode condenses Stoker's tale down to a core group of players whose interactions consistently serve their arcs or the plot. As a result, the story moves along at a good clip while maintaining the intimacy needed to give a hoot about the protagonists involved.
A quick peek into the social media coffin in the past few days unearths complaints about the dry wit and sharp humor of Claes Bang's Count, which is an oddly placed gripe. Dracula has gone through more iterations than Godzilla. Part of the enduring legacy of the immortal monster is due to his evergreen adaptability. From F.W. Murnau's vermin-like Graf Orlok to the hip, anti-authoritarian Hammer interpretation, the Count has long been a refractive avatar for social ills. The form that refraction takes is so varied that the likes of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Udo Kier, and Adam Sandler can all provide divergent translations of the figure, each one memorable in its own right. Truly, if you don't at least smirk at the thought of Count Dracula, the vampire king, chucking a severed head like a bridal bouquet at a gaggle of cowering nuns in order to choose his next victim, I don't know what to tell you. The humor is exactly what such an endeavor needs to stand apart from its batty brethren of decades past.
We love our pouty sad boi Vorloks and Nosferatus, but the acerbic wit elevates Dracula to something more than atmosphere and shadowplay. A brooding Count is not going to sit across a chess game with his opponent, he'll flip the table and start chomping. But a dark lord arrogant enough to toy with his prey before closing in can make for some interesting moments, and the toe-to-toe sequences with Van Helsing take full advantage of this. This is where fans of the Sherlock series will pick up the scent of its blood; Bang and Wells are playing in Sherlock and Moriarty's sandbox, matching more wit than brute strength. Just when heroine and viewer believe that she's found a weak spot in the armor, the caped killer reveals that he's always been two steps ahead of her. This dynamic changes in later episodes, but The Count's confident cheekiness is a constant power move towards her and a consistent wink at the audience. Dracula waltzes toward self-realization, an acknowledgement of the myriad of retellings and mutations flowing through its undead veins.
Episode two, titled "Blood Vessel," tries to breathe more life into Stoker's chapter that details Dracula's voyage to England. The tight intimacy of the first episode expands slightly to include a doomed cast of redshirts who are unfortunate enough to catch the wrong bus. Again, the show's writers don't have much to work with as the source material is made up of logged entries aboard the ship -- an analog equivalent of found footage. But the creative leeway in those narrative gaps allows for a crew that will serve the story well. Sherlock regular Jonathan Aris shines as Captain Sokolov, and not just because he nailed the Russian accent. If one thinks of the isolated Demeter as a seafaring Outpost 31, Sokolov is our hearty MacReady, trying to tread water amid an infiltration, threatened passengers, and mistrust among his shipmates. While the And Then There Were None conceit wears thin and the rest of the characters are largely forgettable, his is the most compelling arc until the episode's end credits roll.
The most jarring chord "Blood Vessel" strikes is that in this, the year of Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street and the forthcoming Shudder documentary on queer horror, the kill-your-gays trope is still present and accounted for. A closeted-until-they-suddenly-aren't couple get a few moments to shine, but uneven writing keeps them flat and thus, their respective Big Moments are unearned before they become chum. While it's to be expected that nearly everyone dies outside of the evil immortal himself on the Demeter, and beggars can't be choosers when we're lucky to get a Last Voyage of the Demeter deep-dive in the first place...LGBTQ characters are far more present in TV now and, even in horror, it's something that can easily be sidestepped. Is screen representation enough? It's especially interesting to consider within the context of the vampire myth's homoerotic branch-offs. Carmilla, written decades before Stoker thought to add fangs to an aristocratic foreigner, is a straight-up Sapphic tale of bloodlust between two women.* It would be fascinating and crucial to see voices far less hetero-vanilla than mine sound off on the LGBTQ respresentation onscreen in this BBC series.
The third episode, "The Dark Compass", hurtles Dracula into the present day. Dracula logs into WiFi and watches TV, which has its novelty for a half hour or so. The epistolary form of the novel is condensed and changed into phone text overlay on the screen. Zoe, a descendant of Agatha Van Helsing (again played by Dolly Wells), is back in the ring for a few rounds with her nemesis, now with the fancy corporate backing of the Jonathan Harker Foundation. But ultimately, the third episode of Dracula is the weakest of the series. The 2020 cat-and-mouse game between old foes plays out more like a cop show, which doesn't jibe with the tone of the rest of the show. The vampire is a figure that transcends space and time. His yarns have been spun in Parisian settings (The Vampire Lestat) and Scottish (The Vampire, or, The Bride of the Isles) as well as the famous Hungarian. On paper, at least, the story isn't one to be hampered by such restrictions. And for what it's worth, Dion Boucicault's 1852 play The Vampire told the story in three acts whose plot spread over three centuries, one of which was in the future. It can be done and it has been done. So why doesn't the time jump of BBC's Dracula's third episode work? It seems that efforts at saying something about timelessness muddies the narrative waters, when the themes were classic and strong enough in their 1897 setting. But there are gems within, all of them character shifts.
The Christian nature of Stoker's novel frames sexuality as a deviation from Victorian norms. The Count and his brides have long been interpreted to represent sexual awakenings; their defeat requires all of the Christian and uppity society weaponry available. After she succumbs to Dracula, Lucy's transformation is all the more tragic because of her purity. But in the 2020 reimagining, Lucy (Lydia West) is not the paragon of white girl innocence as she was in the novel. She is highly sexualized; not in a male gaze-y kind of way, but she's clearly not a virgin, she's had one-night stands, she gyrates on dance floors and is comfortable with her sensuality and body. Even in a monogamous relationship with her Texan douchebag boyfriend Quincey, she lives for pleasure. This positions the young woman as a temptress to the Count himself, enthralling him with her devil-may-care attitude in the face of death.
But, like so much of Dracula and horror fiction, there's a duality at play. This time, Lucy gets a nice juicy piece of that duality; for all of her zest for death and graveyard romanticizing, Lucy is self-loving to the point of vanity. Moffat and Gatiss take selfie culture to new lows by presenting Lucy as an avatar of Narcissus admiring himself in the reflecting pool, all the way up until the moment of death. Dracula kills her, she reanimates midway through her cremation, and her beautiful body is mutilated beyond recognition. She remains unaware until she sees her reflection in a selfie, and has a complete breakdown. It could be argued that MoffGats are punishing a woman for her sexuality. But that argument would be as myopic as the one that values bean-counting spoken lines over engaging with the impact of screen presence (something that has occurred in regards to Moffat's writing of women characters on Doctor Who). The truth is that the nouveau Lucy is both symbol and flesh, given more tangibility and agency than her o.g. ancestor -- this is a horror show, and sometimes agency comes back to bite you in the...neck. If you think that all female characters must be aspirational and you view their death as a punishment for any positive qualities they had, then horror is not the genre for you. Here's the deal: Lucy's moment of buyer's remorse in episode three is a bitter triumph of makeup effects and West's tragic performance. As Louis Jordan's Drac laments in 1977's BBC adaptation Count Dracula, "The trouble with mirrors is that they don't quite reflect enough, do they?"
For all of the things that stay the same, one of the most fascinating elements of Stoker's novel that undergoes a drastic transformation in the new series is the arc of the eponymous character himself. Dracula has long been a fearless archetypal villain, one without contrition. Moffat and Gatiss don't quite go so far as to insert a full dramatic reversal, but they do provide a brutal moment of clarity. Van Helsing is given the honor of casting a metaphorical mirror on her adversary, exposing him for the pitiful monster he is. After some more verbal sparring, Agatha/Zoe drops the bomb: Dracula is nothing more than a pathetic loser who’s too cowardly to die. All of the rules that he follows -- and those of the vampire myth as we know it today -- are defense mechanisms, set in stone by a creature of habit and fear. The darkness was never his home, it was his refuge from his own shame that would be revealed in the light of the unforgiving sun. We live in an age when the echo chamber is a tweet away and fear validation rules the roost, so the point certainly hits home. As Van Helsing points out what her enemy truly fears in the season finale, she simultaneously takes the story, again, to a meta level that speaks to the true form of Dracula himself since 1897: a figurehead of repression and shame.
The gold star of the series goes to Claes Bang, whose portrayal of The Count is a long-overdue return to the most formidable form of the archetype: smart and vicious. A far cry from Klaus Kinski's lonely ghoul of Herzog's Nosferatu remake, this Dracula is slick, sneering, and savage. It's fine to make the fanged predator a thorough baddie; he is. If 1970s cinema has taught us anything, it's that an absolute prick of a protagonist is not antithetical to audience identification. His cause has always been a primal, universal one: to ensure survival by legacy. It's a lovely throwback to the primeval rapist of 1879, itself divorced from the sexed-up counter-Victorian mythos that preceded it. This Count is more about manipulation than seduction. Still, 2020's Dracula isn't sexless. The series still displays what feminist critic Andrea Dworkin calls "killing as a sex act, slow dying as sensuality."**
In his book Hollywood Gothic, scholar David J. Skal spends 300 pages speaking to the mutability of the horror icon (the book should be at the top of your to-read list if you haven't devoured it already). Transmutations have been sprouting from legends of Vlad the Impaler for centuries, treating characters as spectrums instead of binaries, to be shuffled and fused and reassigned to ride out the ebb and flow of social change with each new age. Every retelling prolongs the life of the myth itself; Dracula extracts vitality from propagation. This latest spin on the myth is a big, beautiful swing into violence and darkness, fully aware of all that came before it. To riff on Dracula's quote, the testimony of every vampire tale that came before it runs through its veins.
* A big-screen adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's tale premiered at the 2019 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and awaits distribution. Bonus: the adapted screenplay is written and brought to the big screen by a woman director, Emily Harris.
** Here's the thing: Dworkin rustled a lot of jimmies. She was really into gender/sexual biniaries, and attributed most forms of femme oppression to factors within that binary system. She consistently pulled the Classic White Feminist move of ignoring and downplaying racial oppression in order to advance the cause of women. Her crusade against pornography also marked her as an enemy of sex workers. However, her 1987 book Intercourse contains a read of Dracula as a gang-rape fantasy, and I highly recommend giving it a read if you want to broaden your view of the archetype a bit.
Anya Stanley is a lifelong horror fan and writer whose work has been seen at BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., Collider, Dread Central, Vague Visages, Diabolique Magazine, and F This Movie!. Besides FANGORIA, she’s also contributed in print to Rue Morgue and Britain’s Suspiria Magazine, and has appeared on such podcasts as Certified Forgotten, the /Filmcast, and SPLATHOUSE. Follow her staunch defenses of Halloween 6 and other shenanigans on Twitter and Instagram.