Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dracula [Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat]

When it comes to Dracula, you could say I'm something of a fan. I first read Bram Stoker's soaring horror adventure novel as a kid and have returned several times to enjoy at least the best bits. Then there were the many movie and TV adaptations, of which I have previously seen:

Nosferatu (1922) - FW Murnau
Dracula (1931) -  Tod Browning
Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958) - Terence Fisher
Count Dracula (mini-series) (1977) - Philip Saville
Dracula (1979) - John Badham
Nosferatu (1979) - Werner Herzog
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - Francis Coppola
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) - Guy Maddin

There's also the Orson Welles radio drama adaptation, the interesting BBC radio pastiche Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula and that's not including the various sequels and spinoffs, and any vampire movies not specifically based on the Stoker book. With so much Drac-Koolaid consumed, it would take something out of the ordinary for another Dracula adaptation to make an impression. I was at the outset somewhat skeptical about the new mini-series from Messrs Gatiss and Moffat. I had grown disillusioned with their contemporary Sherlock series after the first season, preferring instead to watch Elementary, even though that one grew stale by repetition. But the sumptuous period production values, and the promise of Dracula as a ruthless monster rather than a wimpy lover made me give in.

Dracula (2020) begins at a place where you think you know where you are, with an enervated Jonathan Harker recalling the harrowing events of his time with the sanguinary count, but soon shows that it is happy to jigger around and throw in new elements to surprise even the jaded Dracula fan. Such revision is of course a two-edged sword, but at least across two of the three episodes, the writing provides a brave and fun re-working of Stoker's novel. Sister Agatha who is but a bit player in the book is now a major character that takes on Dracula himself in a war of wit and tactics. Other major characters are modified, truncated or eliminated as per the script's demands. The iconic chapter of Dracula's preying on the Demeter ship is rendered like a tense variation on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

The third and final episode is probably what will divide most die-hard fans. It involves a major transition that may or may not work. While I feel it could have been done better, I was certainly not put off by the shift. The conclusion draws inspiration from both Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu and Terence Fisher's 1958 Dracula and even in its not-quite-satisfactory way, manages to pull off a different spin on the typical "destruction of the vampire" climax.

I have spoken of boldness of the writing, but of equal importance is the excellent lead acting talent, mainly Claes Bang as Dracula and Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha. There is a constant stream of trendy quipping and dark humor, but the character of Dracula is almost never trivialized as a threat, which is crucial to the lasting power of the original work. The scenes depicting period Europe look excellent in the way that a high-budget series does, with sweeping vistas, moodily lit interiors and gorgeous dream sequences. Dracula doesn't skimp on the blood, but doesn't overdo it either, concentrating on being a character-driven adventure saga than a gore-fest. Given the way they ended this I doubt there's any real scope for a second season, but this was worth my while, and possibly even a re-visit. Pass me some more of that red stuff.

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