Dracula is a story that has been told and retold time and time again since Bram Stoker’s novel in 1897. We’ve seen Bella Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella, and even Gerard Butler take up the role of the Count in various adaptations of Stoker’s work. Now, Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat have adapted the story of the vampire for Netflix and BBC One. When the limited series was first announced, my horror heart sang. Fan of their adaptation of another classic work of literature, Sherlock, I trusted them to update the material, but I wasn’t ready for how much they would honor it and embrace the horror of it all.
A Netflix Original in the United States, the three-episode story, each at an hour-and-a-half runtime, chronicles Dracula from his Bram Stoker beginnings, with Jonathon Harker and Mina tracking his trail of blood from his castle to London. Each episode tells a singular story that while connecting to the others are all able to exist on their own, and with a runtime, their filmic quality is not to be understated.
Dracula’s first episode, “The Rules of the Beast,” begins with English solicitor Jonathan Harker (Jon Heffernan) visiting the Count (Claes Bang) to negotiate a real estate deal only to find himself the vampire’s prisoner. Told retrospectively as Jonathon sits in a nunnery, we learn about Dracula, the curse, what he fears, and of course, the brides. But the first episode goes a step further, setting up how the series will surpass the novel by taking time to dive into the Count’s identity and specifically how it facilitates the legends around him.
The second episode, “Blood Vessel,” details Count Dracula’s sea voyage on the Demeter and the chaos the vampire’s hunger causes on the ship. This episode bounces between traditional Dracula storytelling and using the intriguing guests on the ship and its crew to create a murder-mystery that is exciting to unravel. While we know that Dracula is at the center. there are hidden moments that build a story around not only his abilities but just who is in cabin nine and why they aren’t seen with the rest of the people on the ship.
Finally in episode three, “The Dark Compass,” Dracula arrives in England, just not at the time he anticipated. As a finale, we not only get a close look at his story but a better understanding of who the character is. Throughout the series, Gatiss and Moffat use Stoker’s text as a guide. They hit the right notes that make Dracula’s legend and character iconic in horror but they continually take it further. Across each episode, the duo adds nuances and new twists to the mythology. They make Dracula their own but, at the same time, the pair offer up delicious nods to Christopher Lee’s iteration of the character, recreating small moments from the Hammer classic films.
Light spoilers for Dracula below
But Dracula doesn’t only embody the best of the classics in its storytelling and imagery. Bang’s portrayal of the legendary figure is both extremely familiar to fans of the genre but also entirely new. Through each episode, Bang brings the energy of those that came before him. While many of us love sexy Draculas, the Transylvanian Count wasn’t always the suave beautiful monster that is cemented in our collective pop-culture consciousness. And Dracula leads with the monstrous, allowing Bang to deliver a performance that begins as Nosferatu’s Count Olork before embodying Lee’s Hammer vamp after he feeds on Harker. Bang’s Dracula is a love letter to all of the iconic ones who came before him. As the titular character, he shows an understanding of why horror fans are so in love with the vampire and all the reasons we should fear him.
As the Count, Bang is truly phenomenal. He’s aggressively pragmatic and exudes levels of sensuality. The latter, while present throughout all three episodes, was seen best in the first episode. Right from the start we’re told of the potential intimate and sexual relationship between Jonathan Harker and the centuries-old vampire. From sexual dreams to being called his bride, the intimate relationship between Dracula and Harker is less subtext and more acknowledging what many have commented on in the past. Additionally, it continues a long history of queer vampires.
But Bang’s sensuality isn’t the only thing to make you love him in this iteration of the story. His curiosity about the world and more specifically with himself is all-consuming, not just for his character but for the audience as well. As we explore him, Gatiss and Moffat peel back layers of who the Count is and how it is impacted deeply by those who he consumes. In Dracula, “blood is lives.” Blood is our stories, our knowledge, a force that once consumed by the Count allows him to assume who we are. Blood is a colonizing force for him, it allows him to take language, to take what he sees as exotic and consume it for his own power, which is accentuated by his push to England.
But blood also plays another role outside of rejuvenating Dracula and allowing him to be a master of languages and memories. It is also a set dressing that Gatiss and Moffat use to showcase the Count’s inability to live up to the control he wishes. Blood, even for a show about a vampire, is used exclusively to showcase the Count’s decadence, his gluttony which he believes is just taste. That being said, the many, many, many shots of the Count letting a fountain of blood come out of his mouth while he dines is too much. The first time it happens, we understand why: it adds to the scene. He’s hungry. But every time after that it becomes a gimmick.
But outside of blood, the other horror elements of the series are well executed. Rotting, burned bodies, skin falling off a familiar face, are all done artfully and practically. In fact, the use of practical effects is done so well that it pushes the story forward and keeps you engaged. The most stunning moments for these practical effects come in episodes one and three of the series. From a suit made to cover a once beautiful character in head to toe burns and a man erupting from the belly of a wolf, this is the way to kick off 2020 for horror television.
The only fault in the series is that the last episode, which puts Dracula in our present time, is too detached from the first two in the series. While tonally it fits, I have so many unanswered questions about the newly added characters that it was near impossible to focus on the leads. That being said, the first two episodes work perfectly together and at their lengths, and the third even with its detachment, answer the question at the heart of the series: Who is Dracula?
With all of this being said, there is one character who shines above them all: Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells). Originally a minuscule part in the book, Agatha is the nun who nurses Harker after his escape from Dracula’s castle. Here, Agatha plays that role, interested in nursing Harker back to health. But she isn’t just that. She’s also calm, curious, and more fascinated in finding out the truth that sits at the foundation of the legends than the God she serves in her convent. This curiosity and the search for truth fuels Agatha as Van Helsing; her fearlessness in fighting the Devil himself is an embodiment of Abraham, the originally male character in the book.
Agatha’s identity as an atheist nun and her confidence in her knowledge make her a wonderful rival and a character for us to attach ourselves to. This works because we know the legends the way that she knows the legends. As she tests her theories, she holds to the proven ones to leverage and outwit the bloodthirsty count. She rivals him and he values her for this. When it comes to iterations on Van Helsing, Agatha stands out and I can see her continue to as the story inevitably continues to be retold.
Overall, Dracula is wonderful. It’s a series that’s fun to watch, filled with moments that will make your vampire senses tingle while also providing new insight into the Count and the lore around him. There are interesting twists and moments of subverted expectations that keep the viewer engaged. While the last episode is far from perfect, it ends the series well enough. That being said, for fans of the character and of horror, there is a lot to gain from this series, even if it once again misses the opportunity to make Mina a character who isn’t just the laughable woman of hope in the room.
Dracula is currently streaming on Netflix.
DraculaÂ is wonderful. It’s a series that’s fun to watch, filled with moments that will make your vampire senses tingle while also providing new insight into the Count and the lore around him… While the last episode is far from perfect, it ends the series well enough.