By Naomi Roper
Dolly Wells shines in an underwhelming adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel.
This post contains spoilers.
Given pop cultures enduring fascination with vampires, it’s a surprise that Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t adapted more often by Hollywood. This latest big budget BBC/Netflix co-production is from Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss who were presumably hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle that they did with Sherlock. However, this 3 part series is a fitfully entertaining, surprisingly schlocky affair which will probably be best remembered as a star-making vehicle, not for its lead but Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha.
The first episode is perhaps the most faithful to the novel but rather hard work. Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) visits Count Dracula to finalise the details of the property Dracula is purchasing in England. We switch between the gothic splendour of Dracula’s home where the Count cheerfully spends his evenings sucking Harker dry & a room at a convent where a dying Harker (looking like an alien from the 80’s series Alien Nation) retells his adventures to a particularly sassy nun (Dolly Wells coming across like Dorothy Parker with a Dutch accent on speed).
The first 40 minutes are glacially slow and repetitive as Harker flails around a lot at Castle Dracula looking for Dracula’s wives while in the present he sits decrepit on the receiving end of a non-stop series of bon mots from Sister Agatha. Things pep up considerably with the arrival of a few undead souls & a demon baby before Dracula comes out to play with predictably gory results.
It’s all very, very camp indeed. Heffernan is a fine actor but in this adaptation, Harker is the very definition of a thankless role. Even Keanu Reeves (perhaps the most infamous Hollywood miscasting of all time) emerged with more dignity having played the role than Heffernan does here. He just gets to look terrible, flail a lot and then get brutally murdered by Dracula…twice. The main thing the episode has going for it is Moffat’s very strong script (“Why would the forces of darkness invade a convent?” “Perhaps they are sensitive to criticism?”) However Moffat’s bizarre desire to be “edgy” in terms of his characters sexualities (without of course actually depicting his leads as anything other than 100% straight) is just tiresome. Having Agatha ask Harker whether he slept with Dracula & Dracula calling him his bride just feels like baiting nonsense when the two barely have any sort of meaningful interaction. Certainly, they have zero chemistry and there is far less homoeroticism here than in other adaptations where Dracula’s sexual preferences are less explicit. It just comes across as annoying.
Episode 2 features Dracula’s voyage to England on the Demeter. For a brief moment, I hoped they might opt for an Agatha Christie-style And Then There Were None chiller with the boat’s inhabitants meeting gruesome deaths but alas no. Again it’s more high camp hijinks as Dracula swans around the boat scoffing people left right and centre while his especially dim shipmates fail to notice his highly suspicious behaviour. None of the cast makes much of an impact beside Sacha Dhawan as a tormented Doctor on board with his daughter & Jonathan Aris as the noble ship’s captain. Again the writing of the queer characters is dreadful. The gay couple are not only the most unpleasant characters in the episode but one of them is a snivelling coward who betrays his fellow man just for the prospect of being Dracula’s boyfriend. Lovely. It’s all a bit trying & redeemed by a bonkers final twist.
Bringing Dracula into the modern age is in hindsight, of course, the obvious course of action for Moffat & Gatiss considering they did it so well with Sherlock. However, in the third episode, things do rather come off the rails. One of the main things the series had going for it was its period setting. Setting it in the modern age means visually it has nothing to distinguish itself from any other show on television despite Paul McGuigan’s often masterful directing (a couple of the framing shots of Dracula in his new fancy home are exquisite – especially the one where the cross shadow falls on him). Visually the character is also somewhat diminished. Dracula in a nondescript black suit is more boring accountant than a debonair creature of the night.
The third episode feels like an entire season arc in 90 minutes. The Harker institute, its murky funding, Dracula being captured & released, Sister Agatha’s descendant, magic blood, whatever science experiment they were planning on doing -there are some interesting ideas here but none are developed. Gatiss as Renfield is rather good fun but again this felt like something that needed more screen time devoted to it. Instead, we get the majority of the episode’s screen time devoted to an exceptionally cruel re-telling of Lucy Westenra’s story. Lucy here isn’t recognisably an actual woman. No real woman is as vacuous, cruel and obsessed with her reflection as Lucy is portrayed. She has zero redeeming qualities being both a terrible friend and insensitive to her ex (Lucy also has a bonus gay best friend who has no personality other than saying supportive/catty things to Lucy in case you thought we’d go an episode without them including an LGBT character in a dismal way). Having Lucy explicitly call out slut-shaming doesn’t mean that the script is excused from treating her character like a tramp and her horrendous fate feels like a punishment for her promiscuous ways. It’s a horribly sexist portrayal. The only element that I liked was how incredibly nonplussed Dracula was at Lucy’s appearance at the end -looks really didn’t matter to him.
Interestingly the third episode does a tonal 180 from the two before by losing the camp entirely and making Dracula actually menacing. They even opt for a spot of sensuality in the final seconds which had been sorely lacking. But that ending is truly bizarre. At a moment when Dracula should be on top of the world realising that he is truly unstoppable he instead…commits suicide? How dreadfully anticlimactic.
Overall this adaptation of Dracula feels like something of a missed opportunity. It’s not especially faithful to the book (which is fine although the dismissive treatment of such a key character as Mina Harker was an odd choice) but nor does it bring anything especially new to the table. Ultraviolet featured a secret organisation hunting vampires (or Code V) in modern London a full 22 years ago. Compare the world-building in modern vampire series like What We Do in the Shadows or The Strain to the dearth of ideas on display here.
I’m also genuinely surprised with Gatiss being such a horror aficionado that tonally they opted for high camp over chills.
Claes Bang clearly had the time of his life playing Dracula but his is very much the Roger Moore of Dracula portrayals. In the first two episodes, he’s camp as Christmas and his performance is remarkably similar to Tom Ellis’ in the pilot episode of Lucifer. You know before they told him to tone it down a bit and he realised he could play a devilish, sexually carefree, all-powerful creature of darkness without going full panto. I wish that the tone had been a little bit more even giving Bang the opportunity to be both menacing and fun without him coming across as a panto villain. For the most part, this is a remarkably unscary Dracula. It’s only in his dealings with Zoe and Seward in the final episode that he’s portrayed as something to be feared.
Bang is also criminally unsexy in this. No, I don’t need my eyes tested. Yes, he’s obscenely handsome. But looks do not equate to sexiness and Moffat and Gatiss all but strip the character of his sex appeal. For all his talk of brides and awkward blood lust sex faces, this Dracula is weirdly sexless. Gary Oldman’s Dracula wasn’t a 1000th as good looking as Bang is in this but he oozed sensuality from every pore. One of the reasons people enjoy vampire myths is the power dynamics between vampire & victim. Whether it’s Dracula and Mina, Buffy and Angel or Louis and Lestat these relationships & their promise of eternal love are deeply fascinating to audiences. But this Dracula has zero chemistry with any of his victims. It’s an odd choice to make a modern-day Dracula that is so devoid of sensuality.
The real star of the piece is Dolly Wells as Agatha. Agatha is less a real woman than a vehicle to spout pithy one-liners but many a Hollywood action hero could be described in the same way. Wells invests Agatha with immense charm, a no-nonsense determination and real fire. She’s brilliant and steals every scene she’s in. She’s perfectly fine as Zoe in the final episode but it’s a waste -Agatha is the far superior character.
Overall Dracula is an odd beast -neither faithful adaptation nor novel retelling it’s a tonally odd, scare-free, mish-mash of ideas in need of better execution. Given the narrative dead ends of the third episode the prospects for this series seem dead and buried and perhaps that’s for the best. If they want to do the Sister Agatha battling the forces of darkness prequel show though I’d be all for it.
3 stars out of 5.