Holding the Guiness World Record for most frequently portrayed literary character, adaptations of Dracula don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. This latest iteration, brought to us by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (of Sherlock and Doctor Who fame), brings the titular vampire into modern day.
All while exploring his overall themes and philosophies of immortality, fear, dominance, and death itself. Gatiss and Moffat bring their usual sharp British wit, but while the miniseries boasts strong writing and cool ideas, it doesn’t add up or flow as well narratively as it could.
Spoilers Ahead – You’ve Been Warned!!!
“The Rules of the Beast”
We begin in 1897 at a convent in Budapest as a worn and weary Jonathan Harker (John Heffernon) recounts his traumatic experience with Dracula (Claes Bang) to Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells). Of the three episodes, this one is the closest we get to a faithful and direct adaptation of Bram Stoker’s source novel.
Everything from the Dracula’s appearance change from corpse-like to young, to Jonathan realizing that he is trapped and must escape all play out very much like 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only without Keanu Reeves’ laughable English accent. While (for most of the episode at least), it doesn’t bring much new to the Dracula story or mythos, its slow-burn approach and performances are extremely well done.
Particularly that of Harker as he grimly realizes he in fact died in the castle. Sister Van Helsing also sets herself apart as a fascinating character who was initially devoid of faith, but facing off against a devil like Dracula has renewed such belief in her. The premiere episode is at its absolute strongest in the final 20-30 minutes as Dracula (and his beasts) launch an attack upon the convent, but the sisters are ready, armed with wooden stakes.
Dracula’s inner beast emerges as climbs out of a wolf’s body, and even wears another person’s skin in disturbing Leatherface/Hannibal Lector fashion. However, he’s still subject to fearing sunlight, the sign of the cross, as well as the rule of invitation (which he tricked Harker into doing so he could enter the convent).
“The Blood Vessel”
While the second episode is mostly an original story that’s only loosely adapted from the novel, the result is the most compelling installment of the three, which a dark mysterious tone that feels tense from beginning to end. Bram Stoker wrote very little about the doomed voyage of the Demeter, relegating it to one single chapter, told via the Captain’s Log as he described how crew members kept disappearing.
But here, he we see in fascinating detail just how Dracula picked off the crew and passengers one by one, in what can only be described as a disturbing, nautical, vampiric version of “And Then There Were None”. Even though we know all along who’s behind everything, we never know who Dracula will strike next.
Plus, once Sister Agatha is revealed as the mysterious passenger in Cabin 9, she proves herself to a worthy adversary to Dracula, having faced off with him in the previous episode, which helped to lay the foundations for one of the greatest rivalries in literary history.
While it is technically the middle portion of a trilogy of 90 minute episodes, “The Blood Vessel” feels the most like a self-contained story that could have worked on its own as a single film. However, it’s cliffhanger ending with Dracula washing up on a beach in modern-day England is the first moment the miniseries begins to fall apart.
“The Dark Compass”
Gatiss and Moffat previously brought Sherlock Holmes into modern times and it was extremely well received as it capture the spirit and essence of the character, demonstrating that it didn’t matter when the story was set. Here, they attempt something similar, even featuring such famous characters as Renfield, Lucy, Quincy, and Dr. Seward as living in the 21st Century.
This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but this final episode seeks to wrap up and pay off story and character beats that started in the first, but the narrative flow comes to complete halt as we have to deal with culture shock of Dracula entering the modern world. It takes halfway through this episode for him to even be released (which admittedly was a fun scene, with Renfield citing that even an undead vampire still has rights).
And once he is out, it quickly crams hours and episodes’ worth of material into a mere 45 minutes. Lucy’s willful transformation and grotesque disfiguration are meant to have profound emotional stakes, but it’s hard to do when we only just met Lucy this episode and didn’t spend much time with her before all this happened.
It almost would have worked better had we gotten 4 episodes rather than 3, and the final two could have focused on modern day, thus giving enough time to accurately build those characters. And it was a bit disappointing that we get a cheap knockoff of Agatha, in the form of her descendent (who happens to look identical to her).
With Dracula having turned people before, it might have been more interesting have Agatha become a vampire during the Demeter voyage, and she’s been waiting all these years for Dracula to reemerge, having taken all that time to prepare for a final showdown with him.
Overall, Dracula boasts strong performances and succeeds in giving us fresh new ideas on a character and story that’s been retold countless times. The idea to set use the modern setting isn’t quite a failure, but the shift and subsequent ending aren’t quite pulled off well enough to make it effective.
Either way, we still have a compelling first episode, and an absolutely brilliant second one, both of which make this series worth watching!