Thursday, 9 January 2020

Thoughts on "Dracula" (2020)

Move over Howard Stern because besides being the King of Vampires, Count Dracula may very well be the true King of all Media. The vampire has appeared in more films than nearly every other fictional character (second only to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) and has gained mythic status which goes far beyond the original 1897 novel written by Bram Stoker. The name Dracula has become synonymous with nearly all vampires and every fictional bloodsucker is held up against his blood-red-lined cape in comparison.

The latest iteration of the vampire count to take the world by storm and breathe new life into his undead being is the BBC miniseries; the brainchild of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the head-writers and creative team behind that other juggernaut which sought to reinvent a beloved figure of Victorian literature, Sherlock. That series, which started life as an homage to the original stories, sadly devolved into self-congratulatory mini-movies which highlighted not the works of Doyle, but the cleverness of the Moffat and Gatiss writing duo. Those same characteristics are spread across the three episodes of their Dracula miniseries and are its ultimate undoing.

I admit that my reverence for the Dracula story and characters may have initially colored by impression of this series, but I hoped for the best, championing Moffat and Gatiss to deliver like they did with those early episodes of Sherlock. Instead, Dracula emerges as a series which cannot make up its mind whether it wishes to be an honest-to-goodness horror series or a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the character. One minute, the crew of a doomed ship are prepared to lynch a helpless nun, and the next Claes Bang’s Count is spewing ill-time quips (and blood). The result is a jarringly uneven tone across the series’ three episodes and do nothing but elicit the most uncomfortable of reactions from the audience.

The writing also undoes the plot throughout. In their effort to portray Count Dracula as a witty bon vivant from beyond the grave, they craft a characterization that is nearly identical to that of their modern-day Moriarty in Sherlock. Like Andrew Scott in the earlier show, Claes Bang delivers the lines with relish and is constantly watchable, but it feels oh so wrong for the character and simply screams of the writers’ knowing looks and winks to the audience. The quips are hardly the weakest element of the script, however. Plot lines that originated in Moffat’s earlier Doctor Who scripts are recycled in their entirety, and even the third episode’s narrative conceit of (literally) bringing Dracula into the modern world feels like it was nabbed from the writers’ earlier works.

Despite the weaknesses of the scripts, the cast and crew of Dracula acquit themselves admirably. Though you could never accuse Claes Bang’s Dracula of being a faithful representation of the Stoker original, as mentioned above, he is constantly watchable in this series and it is clear that he, at least, is having a blast. The real highlight, however, is Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha, the nun who commits herself to destroying Dracula. The revelation that she is, in fact, the series’ own iteration of the Van Helsing character was a genuine surprise, and Wells’ performance never made the gender-swap feel like a gimmick and got this most ornery of Dracula enthusiasts on board with the change immediately.

As usual for a BBC series, production values were stellar; the recreation of nineteenth-century Romania, in particular, was beautifully executed and nicely mixed a modern sensibility with a visual aesthetic clearly culled from the Hammer Gothic Horror tradition. Visuals effects were also quite good – especially for a series of TV films – and the level of gore was surprisingly high, achieved in what one must assume were practical effects. Dracula’s metamorphosis from wolf to human being was startlingly effective and put one in mind of the kind of stunning visual trickery on display in a seminal horror classic like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

In total, clocking in at four and a half hours, this is certainly the most epic version of Dracula that has ever been done, yet the great potential was never reached. Undercut by its writing that is certainly too clever for its own good, Dracula is as a well-acted and well-produced series of half-baked ideas, jumbled tones, and attempts to reinvent Stoker which ultimately fall flat. Total fidelity to the novel is not and never has been a hallmark of an excellent piece of Dracula media, but throughout this series, I could not help but think that Moffat and Gatiss simply missed the point of the original. And certainly, you meddle with the King of Vampires at your own risk.

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