Dracula is a promising, atmospheric, unsettling gothic horror that loses its way

Despite a promising start, Moffat and Gatiss’ latest collaboration ends in a muddled and confusing finale that isn’t as clever as they think it is.

Starring Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, and John Heffernan

Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is one of the most famous literary works in history – massively important in developing massive amounts of lore surrounding vampires, which you can hardly escape from these days. Considering the massive public awareness of the story and the character, it has been the subject of many adaptations, for film, TV and stage alike. It was with an excited trepidation, therefore, that a nation tuned in on New Year’s Day to see what Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss would do with the beloved classic. Their massive success with “Sherlock” made audiences hopeful that “Dracula”, too, would be a slick, accomplished piece of television. However, much like “Sherlock”, “Dracula” ultimately ended up weighed down by the attempts of Moffat and Gatiss to make it as different as possible, purely for the sake of it.

“Dracula” starts off superbly. To tell the first part of the story in media res is a brilliant way to keep the audience hooked, and to tell the first stages of Stoker’s novel in a way that manages to heighten the tension. The first episode splits its time between the “present”, where Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) interviews Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) over his escape from Dracula’s castle. The flashback sections play out in a similar fashion to the book, with Jonathan aiding Dracula as his lawyer, only to fall prey to the vampire.

It’s a story that the audience is, no doubt, familiar with, yet these scenes still cause involuntary squirming in the audience. The gothic setting, with the unsettling visuals make for a captivating and chilling first instalment, especially when there are deviations from the source material to include a confrontation between Dracula and the nuns at the nunnery.

A lot of this comes down to the visuals. The repeated use of flies, in particular, to symbolise death, and the cavalier use of blood immediately puts the audience on edge. The screen adaptation also includes the more sexual aspects of Dracula’s personality, which makes the dance that he performs with Harker all the more sinister. It’s a flirtation, in a way, and the sexual imagery used later on, whether metaphorical or physical, is used to highlight the “otherness” of Dracula as a character.

The second episode is just as engaging as the first, though wildly different in tone. Again, the episode divides its time between a “present” conversation between Agatha and Dracula, as he tells the story of how he escaped Transylvania and made his way to England. The main meat of the episode is dedicated to Dracula’s journey to the mainland, which features in the book, but only momentarily. This episode turns into a sinister murder mystery on the boat as Dracula picks off the passengers one by one.

It’s the final twist of the second episode that truly bogs down this drama from what could have been an intriguing horror romp to what feels gimmicky and muddled. In what was no doubt spinning around their minds since they first thought of the series, the final moments of the second episode see Dracula successfully arrive in England, but in the modern day.

It’s a jarring transition, though not one that is entirely surprising considering “Sherlock” saw the pair adapt Sherlock Holmes to a modern day time period. The problem is that reconceptualising a series halfway through is always going to be an awkward affair, and moving Dracula into the modern day just didn’t work in the way that it was written. Having Dracula escape from imprisonment because he got a lawyer involved, and then using said lawyer (who, conveniently, was played by Mark Gatiss, just saying) to find him people whose blood to drink was, frankly, absurd. It wasn’t an intelligent commentary upon the present day, it was just ridiculous.

It also meant that all of the characters who the audience had come to appreciate and root for, such as Agatha, were all gone, replaced with Agatha’s seemingly identical descendant Zoe (also played by Dolly Wells). It completely stripped the series from its sense of stakes and tension, and seeing Dracula in the modern day just felt strange and uncomfortable.

The way that the Lucy Westenra (Lydia West) storyline was handled was interesting. They retained the ideas and principles of Lucy’s hedonistic lifestyle, lifted from the book, but they made her much more of an active participant in her seduction by Dracula. Here, instead of being a helpless victim, it was a choice that Lucy made, as disillusioned as she was with her regular life. The relationship shown between her and Dracula is very strange, and she becomes seduced by this idea of being undead. Ultimately, however, the resolution to that storyline makes her seem like a naive child. She appears “punished” for her vanity by being undead and ugly, which leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth of the audience. Not least because it gives the idea that she was conscious while she was being cremated, which is never a particularly pleasant thought for an audience – and, in fact, one that Moffat has been in trouble with before, in Doctor Who’s Series 8 finale. It almost seems as if the pair were trying to be as controversial as possible just to see what reaction they would get.

The ultimate resolution of this Dracula is that Zoe/Agatha (it’s unclear which one it is at this point) determines that Dracula’s real fear is of death itself, and she gives herself to him, using her cancerous blood to kill Dracula so that the pair of them die together. It’s very romantic. Which is incredibly unsettling. It shouldn’t be romantic. That’s not what the connection is here. Perhaps it’s romantic between Dracula and death, but not between him and Agatha, whose life’s purpose was to put an end to his existence. It’s here where the sexual imagery becomes slightly problematic. Either we see here Agatha/Zoe giving herself to Dracula willingly, and consenting to this sexual act, in which case she is literally insane, or the final moments of this series are just us contentedly watching her be sexually assaulted with somewhat soft lighting making it seem beautiful and romantic. No, thank you.

In fact, the entire sexual aspect of Dracula reeks of queerbaiting to me. In the novel, Dracula represents unbridled sexuality. There’s a lot of commentary in the book about sexual repression, so it’s only natural that these ideas of seduction should come into play, especially in a modern adaptation. What I don’t agree with is the commentary given after the fact. Here, in the show, we contextually see Dracula engaging in sexual relationships with Jonathan Harker (Jonathan is, in fact, asked the direct question whether he and the Count had sex) and another man on the ship, as well as an explicitly sexual relationship with Lucy Westenra in the present. It’s curious, therefore, that when talking of the character, Moffat refers to Dracula as “bi-homicidal” and not bisexual, because he’s killing them, not dating them. Sure, perhaps this is true. But if sex plays an element of that, and it’s an element that is going to be displayed visually, in a show that you have written, then you must expect those sorts of questions to come up, and to completely ignore it and erase that is irresponsible. Sure, Dracula may be in it just for the killing. He may, more accurately, be turned on by the actual homicide as opposed to the sexual encounter itself, but that would still put him on the queer spectrum. Just saying. He’s a murderer, and we don’t particularly want him, but still queer.

That was, indeed, another aspect that was triggering for me, I suppose. When making Dracula seem like a credible threat, and as sinister and deviant, that is when we are shown the sequence of Dracula having sex with Harker, with Harker imagining that it is Mina he is having sex with. The whole idea of Dracula being sinister and threatening because of this sexual encounter with another man is unsettling. I’d completely buy the narrative that it makes him a threat because it is non-consensual, but the way this played out, it definitely was made to appear more sinister that it was him, a man, and not that he’d been tricked into sex full stop.

Ultimately, the deviations from the original tale are so ridiculously different it doesn’t actually serve or enhance the story whatsoever, but is merely an opportunity for Moffat and Gatiss to try to show off.

Some of the changes that they made, such as making Van Helsing a no-nonsense, acerbic nun were brilliant, and Agatha made a compelling heroine. If, however, this only occurred so that the show could play off the sexual tension between her and Dracula, then it was really unnecessary to make this character change, as much as I adore having strong female characters at the centre of my TV programmes. Similarly, the structural changes that they made for the first two episodes were great, and even the addition of the confrontation at the nunnery were welcome, even if they were devised purely for the show. Quite why they decided to kill off Jonathan Harker is anybody’s guess, but I suppose it was so that the audience would say “wow, that’s so different. They must be genii”.

This adaptation really suffered from diverting too far away from what it could have been. In fact, there have been so many adaptations which have changed things around and altered aspects, that to make a decent adaptation that sticks faithfully to the book would probably have been the most unexpected thing to do of all. It would have held so much more of an impact for the audience to see the events play out in the final episode with characters that we care for and are invested in, instead of a recycled face in Sister Agatha’s descendent and poor, slutty Lucy Westenra, who is punished for being pretty by being burned while undead.

You can watch Dracula on BBC iPlayer and Netflix now.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s