The Rundown: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss adapt another classic work, this time Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While many of the story beats are similar to the original work, this is less a slowly building horror, and more a supernatural mystery, with the titular blood-sucker at its core. Unfortunately, the solution to the mystery is not only lackluster, but undermines earlier points in the narrative which makes me feel like the writers couldn’t actually find a satisfactory answer.

I love vampires. Despite being terrified of them at an early age, in my tweens I read through Stoker’s Dracula and then later Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and something about the mythos just caught my young imagination. While Dracula gave a lot of the groundwork for the modern vampire myth, by the time I read it vampires had become much more codified in our mythos. It was the Rice vampire books that brought me a new angle on the vampire, not just as monster in the shadows to be defeated, but tragic immortals. The depth of the vampire characters in those books opened up what vampires could be. The struggle to remain somewhat human, despite wanting to feast on human blood. Whether to just throw all remaining humanity away and revel in carnage. The many emotional pitfalls of immortality. While I haven’t enjoyed every evolution of the vampire, it says something about the basic structure of the monster that humanity has remained enthralled with them for so long.

Enter Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, after successfully adapting another classic literary work with Sherlock, I was excited to see that they were developing Dracula for Netflix. Bringing a modern flair to the ancient monster, I was curious to see what they’d do with it. As I started the series, I was at once thrilled and disappointed, as it started in the 1800s, following the bones of the original narrative. A harried and emaciated Jonathan Harker stares at us as he recounts his first meeting with the count to a pushy nun. A nun who is knowledgeable about the monsters of the night. What follows is a bloody and fascinating retelling of the original story. Harker is trapped within Dracula’s castle, seemingly there just to arrange passage to London, but also feeding the Count’s dark appetite so that he will be strong enough for the journey. The dramatic pacing is beautiful here and every performance drew me further and further into the familiar narrative. While there are a few additions, and some stuff moved around, it felt very faithful to the original, giving us glimpses of Dracula himself, played charmingly menacing by Claes Bang, but with only the pieces that Harker himself experienced.

Bang’s every word drips with false politeness, a predator playing with his food. If there is one thing that sets this work apart from other adaptations is I think this is my favorite portrayal of Dracula set to screen. He moves stealthily, giving half-excuses for the inexplicable things that happen around him. Delighting in fooling the less-superstitious mortals around him who don’t know about, or believe in, vampires. From the castle and Harker’s harrowing experience, we are hinted at some of Dracula’s motives for going to London, something never really outlined in the book beyond a new hunting ground. Hinting at a deeper level to what the original vampire is, and their limitations. Giving us ‘the rules’. In addition to maniacal glee and clever repartee, there is a melancholy that hangs over Dracula. Very early on there is established a desire to once again see the sun, a hunger similar to his for blood. He lives a charmed life, but desires one of the few things denied him. This is a character I want to follow, even as he does unspeakable and ghoulish acts, I found myself as charmed by Bang’s Dracula as many of his victims are in his hungry embrace.

The counterpart to Bang’s Dracula is the feisty nun that is recording Jonathan Harker’s story as he sits emaciated in the convent. Sister Agatha is played by Dolly Wells, and she gives an amazing performance. A begrudging believer, but a realist, who is looking for proof of G-d just as she thinks He’s mostly useless. People must help themselves, as she’s seen no evidence that G-d helps anyone. Her fascination with vampires, and Dracula in particular, is infectious. While Dracula’s performance is triggered by empathy, Agatha’s pursuit of knowledge about the nature and limitations of vampires triggered my intellect. I too wanted to know why Dracula was limited in the ways he was, and why he did what he did. Willing to witness as much death as was needed to get my answer.

Every work that seeks to use the vampire usually need to explain in some way how vampires ‘work’. Are they the victims of a contagious virus? Are they inhabited by hungry demons? Are they something mystical, but not quite ‘religious’? Dracula (2020) holds onto a lot of the mysticism rather than the scientific. A vampire must be invited into a domicile to enter, the cross holds power over them, they can turn into mist, a flock of bats, or animals. Yet within the ‘magical’ trappings of these powers, Dracula makes it clear that these powers aren’t ‘fantastic’ but quite brutal. When Dracula transforms back from an animal, he rips his human body out of the animal’s corpse, dripping in viscera, completely naked. We see his victims, emaciated and rotting after he drains them. They lean into the horror and gore of this classic monster, contrasting it with Dracula’s innate charm and noble demeanor. Another thing they attach to the vampire that, while unholy, it is also contagious. Any person touched by Dracula’s dark power has a chance to become ‘undead’, only the lucky few become actual vampires. This sets the groundwork for what is to come next.

Now we get into the weaker part of Gatiss & Moffat’s latest work. While I did like the direction of the retelling, I was a little disappointed that they hadn’t made an attempt to bring Dracula into modern times. No sooner had I made my peace with that, the show shifts gears dramatically. While I was settling into one of my favorite parts of the Dracula narrative, it veers dramatically from the original’s conclusion. Dracula does arrive in London, but over 100 years later than planned. While I was excited by this turn, as the show meanders towards its end I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. There are a lot of pieces they introduce that could have led towards something a bit more meaty. We are told that some people remain conscious after death, regardless of whether a vampire attacks them. We are given an organization founded by the Harkers that has dedicated itself to researching vampires and Dracula. It is clear that despite this research, having Dracula at hand opens up a number of possibilities. However, they drop all this and go back to the back and forth between Agatha and Dracula.

While the battle of wits between Agatha and Dracula is fascinating, they did not need to move the story 100 years into the future to give us more of that. I would have settled for the original story adapted to be more of this mystery than building horror, Agatha and Dracula playing off each other as battling intellects. Framing the battle as both a quest for knowledge and the eventual destruction of the other. Instead we go heavily into a weird pseudo-science explanation of Dracula. We are hinted that there must be some simple answer to Dracula’s unique weaknesses, his quirks. Science tells us there shouldn’t be a reason he can’t enter somewhere without an invitation, so there must be a ‘real’ reason. This twist towards giving us a scientific ‘reason’ or framework for vampires just falls flat, as we’ve already seen Dracula do things and act in a way that suggest a mysticism at the heart. His aversion to the cross keeps him from killing some people, while we see he has a near-insatiable hunger for violence. His pride is hurt by the nuns early on, yet his lack of invitation is able to keep him out, yet when he does get his hands on the nuns he brutalizes them in a variety of entertainingly gory ways. This scientific approach leads towards a revelation that undermines and somehow weakens significantly what had been a fascinating dive into the parts of the Dracula story, and also undermines Dracula’s monstrous nature.

I did like Dracula overall. I think there’s enough good in there to be worth a watch. Yet the way it ended just felt so hollow and unsatisfactory that I would almost suggest stopping once they leave the 1800s. For fans of horror I think this delivers on the gore in spades, with some beautiful practical effects, and great kill scenes. As a fan of Dracula I can see this being a corruption of the narrative in a way I don’t like personally, and other fans may agree, but I think it’s worth a look to make your own assessment.

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