horror

It Was the Best of Draculas, It Was the Worst of Draculas.

Spoilers! Not just for the BBC’s Dracula, but also any Dracula, and the BBC’s Doctor Who, going all the way back to the Steven Moffat-penned 2008 episode “Silence in the Library,” and weirdly enough, Dune Messiah. 

If I can say one wholly positive thing about the BBC-Netflix Dracula limited series, what should have been, and indeed was, a cache of shopworn genre conventions: it made everything old new again. But that’s increasingly the specialty of series co-creators and co-writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Their Sherlock series, while often uneven, was a sensational hit that modernized Dracula’s fellow Victorian with many a wink and a nod and a nudge nudge and catapulted Benedict Cumberbatch’s star into the Hollywood firmament. Moffat’s earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Jekyll, similarly pulled a Victorian horror legend into the modern world and made his subtext text. And now the king of vampires, never wanting for adaptation, but still a natural choice, and over three 90ish minute episodes, I will give them credit for finding new things for him to do. The love of the pair for the material, and everything the novel has birthed in little over a century of continuous popularity, is obvious. There is a wealth of fan service in their Dracula, and that’s not counting all the times Steven Moffat (presumably) plagiarized his own work on Doctor Who.* And yet.  

Let’s talk about what I really liked here, because there’s a lot. There’s great, icky, squicky gore and grossness you rarely get in a Dracula adaptation, like the way a fly lands on, crawls into, then walks behind, the glassy white eyeball of an oblivious undead victim. Indeed, all of the undead, save Drac, look really fetid and repulsive. I like the vampire’s bite as an opiate, kind of like in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling series, and I like that the blood of victims conveys not just sustenance to Dracula, but knowledge, much as iZombie’s walking dead absorb memories and personalities through tasty hot-sauced brains. I like Dracula’s basement piled with starving failed experiments, packed away in boxes like Miriam Blaylock’s former lovers in The Hunger. I like the idea that undead just…exist, that it can happen to anyone probably, and that Dracula is kind of a freak in his non-zombieness, and he is trying to make another freak like him out of his Brides. I am engaged with a depiction of undeath that is as unfair, troubling, and messy as real world mortality. When you take something supernatural and try to ground it in the natural, it’s always risky, and you often shed something ineffable and essential in the attempt. That makes it the more remarkable to me that Dracula — not a suicide at the crossroads, not a man who pledged his soul to Satan, but a deathless freak — trying to Frankenstein himself up a mate bores me so little. 

I like that they follow the novel, but don’t stay in the same well-worn tracks of previous adaptations. There is no Brides scene where Jonathan Harker is visited by lovely vampires and he pretends to be asleep, the better to be kissed on, right up until he sees their fangs, super titillating business most adaptations take care to preserve. Here, Jonathan is the Bride and Dracula names him as such, powerful subtext that the world — well, some of it anyway — is ready to have out in the open. Conversely, the part of the novel where Dracula stows himself aboard the doomed Demeter is usually passed over in adaptations. Ship leaves port, ship arrives at port with all the crew dead, the captain lashed to the wheel, done. But in this version, the Demeter is the setting for the crucial middle act, and it might be the best part, introducing tons of new characters we are advised not to get too attached to, with a twist they arguably could have ended on. (Not that one. The one before it.)

I like that Dracula is fully, powerfully pansexual (or omnivorous?), but also that the battle against him isn’t waged by men on behalf of women for the sake of preserving their patriarchy. You could argue that there are way too many dicks on the dancefloor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and most adaptations razor out all the men who risked much for Mina but Harker, Seward, and Van Helsing. Sometimes Lucy’s eventual fiance Arthur Holmwood gets to stay. But in this Dracula, instead of Dracula versus the combined forces of upper class white Englishmen, a very foreign professor, and a Texan who is mainly there to shoot bats, it’s Dracula versus an Atheist Super Nun,** and then a research institute founded by the enterprising, bereaved Mina Murray and led by Dr. Great-Great Grand Niece of the Atheist Super Nun. Everything is equalized. Dracula chomps on men and women without favor, and women lead the charge against him at every turn.

Speaking of women, Agatha Van Helsing is the best part. She’s the conflation of two characters from the novel: Sister Agatha, a minor character who writes to Mina about Jonathan in his post-Castle Dracula recovery, and Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, the funny little professor/vampire expert who was very much not badass Hugh Jackman. Dolly Wells took the job of this gender-flipped Van Helsing, which turns out to be a dual role, and I will be bitterly disappointed if it doesn’t make her a star, because she nailed it. She is tough. She is brilliant. She is witty. She is unsentimental. She has the best characteristics of the Doctor and Sherlock and their respective nemeses, the Master and Moriarty, and she’s my favorite Moffat/Gatiss creation ever. No matter how bleak or terrifying the circumstances, she cedes nothing to Dracula. She’s just too good for him in every sense, without a whiff of saccharine sainthood about her.

So what’s the problem with this version? Why are you acting like this sucks, Angela? Two things: Dracula himself and the third episode, both of which are cursed by cleverness.

The choice of Danish actor Claes Bang was, superficially, a good one. He’s tall and dark and rugged. He looks like a good Scotch tastes. In the rare moments he is given to simply impose or be vicious, he works. His chemistry with Dolly Wells is wonderful. There’s a later scene where he submits quietly to draw his own blood for an experiment while she watches and it’s all kinds of sexy tense. But for all his Lee and Lugosi-esque masculinity, this Dracula can’t stop being a total dick. He sneers and capers and jokes, much like Moffat’s version of Hyde, and if Agatha is all the best parts of Moffat’s lead characters, Dracula is all the worst bits, and that’s not entirely Bang’s smarmy Cockney performance. He was written to be a worst-bit loaf. While that might be fun if you only see, say, Missy a couple scenes a couple times a season, this version of Dracula really is all about Dracula, with the titular vampire never off-screen for long, and there is little relief from his self-satisfied, campy dickishness. I have longed for a Dracula who was truly evil and unromanticized, and I guess he is that, but I didn’t want him to be, well…this. It is absolutely a valid artistic stance to show evil as being petty and ignoble, and I like it much better than depicting stalking or abuse as a sign of love. But the thing is I don’t think it was an artistic stance. I think it was just bad taste.

The other bad bit is the time jump. The first two episodes occur in the novel’s contemporary Victorian setting, in Sister Agatha’s convent and onboard the cursed ship Demeter, but for the third, after an emotional battle in blood and water to close out the second act, Dracula emerges from the salty ocean onto a beach, only to be blinded by a helicopter’s light and surrounded by a small paramilitary force. A doppleganger of Agatha in modern dress smirks, “Count Dracula. What took you so long?” And then everyone at home throws their remotes. 

It’s not all bad though. In truth, and I depart from most people I know here, it’s not even mostly bad after the time jump. I liked that Dracula is simultaneously adaptable to new technology (“You get used to things changing.”) and as fascinated by it as a later season Columbo. His entire spiel to a shocked would-be victim in her very modest house about her unfathomable luxury — “All this food!” — was wonderful and, in contrast to much of his behavior in the first two parts, felt like a genuine character moment. Likewise his brutal dismissal of the idea of innate rights to Dr. Zoe Helsing, Agatha’s dead ringer descendant, once he’s taken into secret custody by the Jonathan Harker Institute. At this point, Gatiss shows up as Dracula’s lawyer Renfield, a bit of comedy relief that should have been annoying, but was actually charming. Maybe I was more used to Bang’s Drac at this point, but his mordant humor is less offputting in the third installment, or maybe it is tempered with the little texture his character is finally given here. 

But in the third episode, Dracula also finds Lucy Westenra, a relationship that tends to become central to other Dracula interpretations, notably the super-romanticized 1979 Dracula starring Frank Langella. I can almost see Moffat and Gatiss arranging the acts according to Dracula’s orbit around a central victim: Jonathan, Agatha, Lucy. But part of where the third installment goes awry is suddenly dwelling overmuch on Lucy after filling two masterful episodes with Dracula-Agatha UST. Lucy here is a modern Florence Stoker, a frivolous beauty with a full complement of suitors who dances the night away and probably influences many people on Instagram. Depending on how it is staged, Lucy is usually either a harbinger of Dracula’s threat to Mina (and by extension all women) or a model for women to come to grips with their own sexuality, but either way, Lucy spends most of any Dracula adaptation having metaphorical sex or being metaphorically raped via bloodletting and blood transfusions. I think Moffat and Gatiss tried to do more with her here, her depressive fatalism nominating her as Dracula’s “finest bride,” and her new fate is an inspired freshet of nightmare fuel that has nothing to do with patriarchy or consent. But it is also terribly unbalanced and unsatisfying as dramatized. I am grateful that by dallying with Lucy, they don’t spend a lot of time on the Torchwood Institute Talamasca Watchers Council Jonathan Harker Foundation, other than to explain indeed what did take Dracula so long? And of course, to give us Dr. Zoe Helsing, who we then spend only a little time with. Even less time than one might think actually, since she is partially hijacked by Sister Agnes, like Alia Atreides and Baron Harkonnen in Dune Messiah, only in a good way. But that is also unbalanced and rushed and unfair to Zoe as a character in her own right. She ends up being treated a little like the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver. “Same software; different case.” The actual end of Dracula and Zoe/Agatha’s relationship, and in fact Dracula, isn’t so bad on paper, but where they land just spends too much time on too little and too little time on too much.

I don’t believe the BBC Dracula will be remembered much. Without being a big, easily digestible movie or a limited series doled out in parts that make it real appointment television, like Sherlock was, it’s both too big and too small to find purchase in a competitive marketplace of genre masterpieces in this, the Golden Age of Streaming. With the whole thing dumped on American screens all at once, I think it’s quite likely some people will pick it up and put it right back down, especially after its time jump shark jump. And while the first two parts are superior, I think you have to see the payoff in order to really care. The frustrating part is it was so close to being one of the best Dracula interpretations of all time, and I really want to give it credit for taking all the conventions that have grown out Dracula, conventions that have been loved to death, really thinking about them, and trying to bring them back to life. So close. Hopefully its best parts will still find their way into the bloodstream of more disciplined works yet to come.

* [flexes] Aside from the Rose & Crown barmaid comment in Mina’s letter to Jonathan, a wink at  Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor companion Clara in “The Snowmen,” Dracula returns to several motifs from the Twelfth Doctor’s run in particular. There’s the forgotten face, where Jonathan Harker relates his experiences to Agatha, not recognizing the young nun at her side is his beloved Mina. After a pretty fraught relationship in series 8 and 9, culminating in Clara’s death, Twelve is only able to let go of Clara once his memory is wiped of her existence; it is a heartbreaking realization and classic Moffat turnaround in “Hell Bent” that he doesn’t recognize Clara even as he relates his story about losing her to Clara’s face, just as your heart breaks for Harker when Agatha reveals Mina’s identity. There is the overall similarity of Castle Dracula, with its labyrinthine interior and fly problem, to Twelve’s personal hell in “Heaven Sent,” and the “Passenger in Cabin 9” mystery in the second episode of Dracula is reminiscent of the “I am in number twelve” clue in “Heaven Sent,” too, as the Doctor searches for the room marked 12 and an exit from his own castle of the damned. The way that Dracula accepts Lucy’s post-crematorium appearance is much like the high Whouffaldi moment of “Last Christmas,” where Twelve told an aged Clara she would never look different to him, building on a whole series undergirded by her discomfort with the Doctor’s regeneration into a brusque, grey old man. When Dracula speaks of blood as the “testimony” of his victims, this is extremely evocative of Moffat’s final Doctor Who episode as showrunner, the Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time,” in which the Doctor faces the New Earth ship actually called Testimony extracting people from their personal timelines right before the point of death and storing their memories. Twelve debates with the avatar of his companion Bill whether she is really Bill in a way that foretells ghost Agatha’s discussion with her modern descendant Zoe. (Note that when the Doctor speaks sadly about the breadth of his own testimony — “It would shatter you.” — to avatars of his companions, including Clara, I think he sounds like many a post-Anne Rice vampire, the romantic subtext this Dracula largely avoids, but it’s interesting Moffat had it in his head as the Dracula project was percolating. “A life this long, do you understand what it is? It’s a battlefield, like this one, and it’s empty. Because everyone else has fallen.”) And all of this also calls back to the ultimate fate, so far, of the Doctor’s wife, River Song, whose memories are uploaded at the point of her death, allowing her to return as a ghost of sorts, not unlike Agatha Van Helsing is summoned into her descendant’s brain via Dracula’s blood.

Honestly, I bet I’m glossing over a lot, too.

** description courtesy K.A. Laity.

Despite the content of this review, Angela still loves Moffat’s work, generally, so please don’t tempt her into a flame war on Doctor Who. Angela’s favorite vampire of all time, of course, is still Prince Mamuwalde. 

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