Dracula (2020) – Interesting But Confused

The prospect of a new version of Dracula (2020) from the team responsible for Sherlock (2010-2017) was exciting – and yet, after finally watching the first episode, it took me months to watch the second episode and another month or two to finally finish it. I didn’t dislike it – I’ve seen much worse versions of the story, and there were many things about it I enjoyed – but it’s difficult to determine just why I’m so ambivalent about it. (Spoiler warning: I will need to reveal a significant plot development bridging the second and final episodes.)

The writing team would seem ideally suited to a revamp (no I’m not sorry) of Dracula. Mark Gatiss is a lifelong horror fan who collaborated with like-minded friends to manifest this sensibility in the darkly comic world of The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 2005, 2017). He brought his love for horror to the world of Doctor Who in his novel Nightshade (1992) and episodes of the revived TV series such as The Unquiet Dead (2005), Night Terrors (2011), The Crimson Horror (2013) and Sleep No More (2015). He created the supernatural drama Crooked House (2008) for the BBC and revived their Christmas ghost story tradition with three new M.R. James adaptations which he also directed: The Tractate Middoth (2013), The Dead Room (2018) and Martin’s Close (2019). He wrote and directed two documentaries about the history of horror films, the three-part A History of Horror (2010) and Horror Europa (2012). He even adapted an unused Hammer Horror Dracula script from 1970 for BBC Radio as The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (2017).

Steven Moffat’s career at first showed little sign of his penchant for horror, focusing instead on comedy, relationships and clever story structure. His skill with horror tropes emerged with his first televised story for Doctor Who, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005), and made its biggest impact with his creation of the Weeping Angels in Blink (2007). This love of Who‘s Gothic strand would infuse his time as the show’s executive producer (2010-2017) and is a significant part of why it remains one of my favourite eras in Doctor Who. But far more relevant to this new version of Dracula is his reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella in a modern setting as the 6-part series Jekyll (2007). Cleverly constructed and with top-notch performances from actors such as James Nesbitt (Cold Feet), Gina Bellman (Coupling), Michelle Ryan (Mansfield Park), Meera Syal (The Kumars at No. 42) and Fenella Woolgar (Bright Young Things), Jekyll was a fascinating reinterpretation which works well despite some weird ideas about the nature of Jekyll revealed in the final episode, and I still regret that the plot threads left dangling for a second series are unlikely to be resolved.

Fresh off their reinvention of Sherlock Holmes in the modern day as a series of 90 minute movies which can stand alone but form a larger character narrative, Gatiss and Moffat adapted their approach by breaking Stoker’s 1897 novel into three sections: Jonathan Harker’s visit to Dracula’s castle; the sea voyage from Europe to England; and Dracula’s insertion into the lives of Harker’s friends in England. Each of the sections forms its own 90-minute movie, and although there is a much stronger narrative drive between these three movies than in Sherlock, I’d argue from my own viewing experience that they can (to an extent) stand on their own.

Episode 1: The Rules of the Beast

The first section of the story is broadly faithful to the novel – Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) travels to Count Dracula’s castle to conclude a real estate deal, is fed upon by Dracula (Claes Bang), falls from the walls of the castle while escaping and is revived in a convent, to which his fiancee Mina is summoned to collect him. This Harker, however, had already been turned into a vampire and his fall was an attempted suicide. This is teased out in a series of interrogations by Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells), making a gender-flipped appearance in the story much earlier than the novel’s Van Helsing. Dracula turns up outside the convent looking for Harker and makes the jaw-dropping decision to shift his performance from “subtle charm” to “chewing not just the scenery but the whole of space and time”, prancing around naked in the snow before the final bloody climax.

Episode 2: Blood Vessel

They must have been so bummed out when the horror movie Blood Vessel (2019) beat them to the punch, reaching cinemas only two months before this episode aired (unless they didn’t notice, since it barely made a splash). Unfortunate timing aside, this was my favourite episode of the series. The story of Dracula’s voyage by sea from Europe to England benefits immensely from being allowed to stretch out to feature length, deviating from the novel in allowing Dracula to travel as one of the passengers rather than skulking in the hold in his coffin, allowing for a neat bait-and-switch regarding the identity of the unseen inhabitant of a locked cabin. The voyage takes on the model of a classic murder mystery, teasing the hidden secrets of a diverse set of passengers as they and the ship’s crew are gradually bumped off. There’s quite the ensemble cast on display: Sacha Dhawan (Sherlock, Iron Fist, Doctor Who) and Catherine Schell (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Space: 1999, Doctor Who) stand out among the passengers, while Jonathan Aris (Sherlock, The End of the F***ing World) is particularly strong as the Demeter’s captain. Although the Demeter of the novel was not a passenger ship, the addition of the passengers – and the reason for their selection – forms an important part of the story. This episode has the greatest ability to work on its own, and even though its final moments link directly into the beginning of episode 3, I’d still enjoy them as the cliffhangerish conclusion of a stand-alone horror movie.

Episode 3: The Dark Compass

Emerging from the waters into 2020 England, Dracula discovers that he has been asleep at the bottom of the ocean for longer than expected and is taken into the custody of a private medical research foundation run by Dr Zoe Helsing (Dolly Wells again) before being released due to the intervention of his legal representative Renfield (Mark Gatiss). Stealing the phone of junior Dr Jack Seward (Matthew Beard), he meets and becomes obsessed with Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), a hedonistic narcissist and Instagram influencer. (In a rather wonderful brief scene, the flood of hearts in response to her latest photo evokes the feel of drops of blood.) Lucy actively pursues an ongoing relationship with Dracula despite her recent engagement to vacuous American Quincey Harker (Phil Dunster), leading to a graveyard conversation containing a fascinating recontextualisation of the classic line: “Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” The climax pays homage to the original Hammer Horror Dracula (1958), but the actual resolution of the story involves a bit of cod psychoanalysis which is more convincing than that in Moffat’s earlier Jekyll.

Moffat and Gatiss have assembled a strong team behind the camera, resulting in a final production which looks great and plays effectively (whatever one’s individual response to the story). Episode 1 director Jonny Campbell paid homage to the Hammer Horror style in Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice (2010) before directing the first series of the zombie-apocalypse-aftermath drama In the Flesh (2013). Damon Thomas, responsible for the second episode, directed the generational ghost story Lightfields (2013) before working on the second series of In the Flesh (2014) and contributing six episodes to supernatural grab-bag Penny Dreadful (2015-2016). The final episode’s director Paul McGuigan created the look of Sherlock and directed four of its first six episodes (2010-2012) before directing Victor Frankenstein (2015), which explored the titular scientist from the perspective of Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor.

The star of this version of Dracula, and the strongest argument for watching it, is Dolly Wells in the dual roles of Sister Agatha Van Helsing and Dr Zoe Helsing. Her characters have the best lines and Wells brings them to life with zest, ensuring that she dominates any scene in which she appears, whether displaying the full dazzling range of her intellect or exuding quiet authority in the background. I was astonished to discover that I had previously encountered her as one of the regular characters in Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy (2012-2014), a bizarre comedy which never made the same impact as The Mighty Boosh (2003-2007) – perhaps because it is, if anything, even stranger and harder to get a grasp on.

But it’s about time I finally addressed Danish actor/musician Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula, a performance which is appropriate to the material he’s given in a way which serves its strengths while massively underlining its flaws. While I’ve been trying to work through why I feel so ambivalent about the series in the course of writing this piece, I think the imbalance inherent in that last statement provides the key. At his best, Bang’s Dracula is decent but not exceptional – he serves the material he’s given but doesn’t imprint himself on the mind as one of the great screen Draculas. This is reflected in the story which, despite going to great lengths in the first part to amp up his supernatural capabilities, containing some clever storytelling tricks which I can admire on a technical basis and including plenty of witty dialogue, doesn’t fully commit to its material. After building Dracula up as a monster in the first episode, the shamefully overwritten sequence outside the convent with a naked overacting Dracula is so OTT farcical that it undermines the whole episode in a way which can’t really be overcome by the subsequent grand guignol conclusion. The middle episode is a tightly constructed and effective classic horror/murder mystery set in an isolated location which doesn’t need to do anything more than transport Dracula from one location to another, allowing it to work as a contained genre exercise. The final episode doesn’t allow enough time to adequately explore either Dracula’s experiences in modern London or the character of Dr Zoe Helsing, and while she is crucial to the story’s resolution, the shadow of her ancestor Sister Agatha dominates proceedings. I badly want to like this series more than I do, but while there are plenty of individual pieces I loved (and I have no reservations about quality of the second episode), overall it’s a difficult thing to recommend wholeheartedly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s