It’s difficult to write a description of Dracula and why it deserves your viewing without spoiling things from the get-go. The series is brought to us by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat, the team behind the popular BBC series Sherlock – who are now putting their post-modern deconstructive spin on this age-old horror legend. Modern takes on Dracula and vampires are a dime a dozen and we have seen Dracula being re-imagined into everything, from the romantic to punk rocker to mythical to action and every genre in between. Dracula’s very name can trigger some kind of reaction, no matter what part of the world we live in.
Based on existing Slavic/central European legends, Dracula was never written by Bram Stoker to be some sort of bad-boy anti-hero or the pop-culture icons that vampires have become. He was the personification of the fear of “corruption” of the western civilized world by a mysterious “foreign” invader…who seduces your women and secretly sucks the life out of them and corrupts or kills anyone as his will. How much of the subtext was actual racism and how much of it was playing upon those very fears is still a debatable aspect but Dracula never was meant to be just a brooding mysterious charmer. He was a sadistic immortal dark being who brought death and destruction everywhere he went. While vulnerable people with their hidden darkness gave into him. The quintessential “call of the abyss” if you will. The book wasn’t some operatic gothic tale. It was the “found footage” story of its time. Most of the novel is told via various journals, recordings, diaries and letters to make it appear more realistic and frightening. The series takes us back to Dracula’s original horror roots.
Most attempts at retelling a popular story either grounds everything in solid reality like Batman Begins or sets everything in a modern context like Sherlock. Dracula walks that perfect line between realism, innovation and staying true to the spirit of the classic horror. It’s not afraid to scare us when the time comes but it isn’t just a spooky tale either. It concentrates on its characters and presents them to us in the most relatable way possible. Sometimes attempts at appealing to the modern, more diverse audience can be forgettable, like CBS’s Elementary which gender swaps Watson, Dracula however, makes those decisions really mean something. For example, instead of a regular Victorian British set of characters, there is a diverse cast, with a range of different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations onboard the Demeter – the ship on which Dracula comes to England in – however, they are all there for a specific reason which is very organic to the story.
Another interesting aspect of writing is the world-building. It certainly bases itself upon popular vampire myths yet adds a few innovations in there that are not just ‘cool’ for the sake of being innovative but also work well to further the story and our understanding of its characters. A major aspect of the series involves memories and emotions being transferred through blood and being ‘tasted’ by Dracula. Thus, allowing us to relate a lot to the victims and why Dracula chooses them. Also, the ability of Dracula to control his victims and their horrible fate is played very well suspense as well as character development purposes. Also, the movie walks the perfect line between science fiction and magic never really falling too much into either and letting us use our imagination more to colour this universe as we seem fit.
The show has a decent cast, most of whom do well but the story rests on the shoulders of Dracula (Claes Bang) and Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells). Their banter and interaction are the show’s most infectious aspect. Agatha is by far the most believable female bad-ass ever put to screen in my opinion. She is courageous yet has a chill run down her spine whenever she encounters count Dracula, she is a rebellious nun who has an actual arc that moves from absolute scepticism to temporary faith to believe in some sort of universal order and the power of heroic sacrifice. While Claes Band is an effortless Dracula, in a show that should’ve been carried away by its titular character, Wells’ performance manages to steal the show.
Revealing any of the show’s plot will take away from the surprises the series has to offer. The surprises work especially well if you’ve read the novel or are aware of the basic mythos of Dracula. The series is divided into three 1.5 hour episodes. It works like a cinematic trilogy of its own with each of the 1st and 2nd movies ending on a perfect cliff-hanger and the third one delivering a cracking finale. The 3rd episode is probably it’s weakest, focusing on perhaps the wrong set of characters compared to its predecessors. It’s a bit more graphic than it needs to be and does a time jump when the events in between would have been fascinating to watch, but is saved by the last 10 minutes. The finale may seem slightly rushed, works really well if you see it in the context of Dracula and his place in popular culture.
It manages to do what perhaps Zack Snyder was looking to do with Superman….answer the ‘why’ of Dracula. Why is he afraid of crosses and sunlight? What does an immortal, powerful dark lord want with centuries of life? Why is Dracula the way he is? Especially in a kind of meta-commentary where we are more or less aware of the mythos surrounding this fictional character. The series sheds a bright new light upon this fascinating creature of darkness yet it doesn’t make him a sympathetic character at all. He is still a monster but you get to see the monster’s heart.
While there are some questions to be answered and general success of the series may lead to an inevitable sequel, like the ultimate temptation of Dracula’s touch one is left wanting yet not wanting it at the same time.
As for the series, as it stands now, it is definitely well acted, well shot and well written except for some minor issues with the 3rd episode and has some of the best character work in recent times. Don’t be afraid to take a bite out of this one. (You knew a pun was overdue).