This Dracula from the Sherlock team of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss admirably doesn’t just apply the Sherlock formula to Bram Stoker. It has more in common with Moffat’s Jekyll – and even his stint, with Gatiss, on Doctor Who – in its use of a classic horror text that has been done over and over.
Broadcast in three feature-length instalments, it isn’t quite a three-episode serial (the format used for repeats of the 1977 BBC Dracula) and yet also isn’t quite a series of three self-contained movies (cliffhangers at the end of Part One dangle only to be resolved at the beginning of Part Three). So there’s four and a half hours of it, with chunks of Stoker – though, as with the recent BBC Christmas Carol, surprisingly little of the author’s quotable dialogue – and nods to many earlier adaptations, from reusing the location of Nosferatu and Bray Studios to costume elements borrowed from Lee and Lugosi.
In its revision of lore and this plot, it sometimes cops bits from lesser-known vampire stories – the near-zombie get of The Hunger, the Hannibal Lecter cell from Demon Under Glass – and, more than anything else, has the feel of the trilogy which began with Dracula 2000. Like that film, it sets out Dracula’s attributes – fear of sunlight and the cross, which aren’t shared by lesser vampires – and teases an explanation which duly comes along (he’s afraid of death or not being able to die or something) but is less immediately effective than Dracula 2000’s ludicrous but clever explanation for Dracula’s hatred of the cross, silver and wood (he’s Judas!).
The first episode, The Rules of the Beast, starts the story at a point in Stoker usually left out of adaptations – where an ailing Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) is recovering from his trauma in a Hungarian nunnery. Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), a Dutch-accented nun, debriefs Harker about his memoir of the horrible experiences he’s had at Castle Dracula, setting up a Shining bit when it’s revealed that he’s just scrawled Dracula mantras over and over in his journal.
In flashbacks, lawyer Harker visits Dracula (Claes Bang) and has some of the familiar experiences in the castle – but also, as in the first Hammer film and the Jack Palance version, gets infected and turns undead. ‘Did you have sexual intercourse with Count Dracula?’ asks Agatha, in the first of many calculatedly grabby lines which in retrospect make little sense – biting here isn’t especially sexualised, making vampirism more like rabies than an STD. With Mina (Morfydd Clark) minimally present in a wimple, Agatha draws out the backstory as Dracula himself besieges the convent – first in the shape of a wolf.
At the castle, we get a vampire It’s Alive Baby in a giant hamster-cage affair inhabited by one lone bride (Dracula claims there are always three brides but the line-up changes … but we don’t meet the other two). Still addicted to puzzles, Moffgat get into the architect of the castle and plans hidden behind a picture which supposedly give Harker an advantage over the Count – that then isn’t any use. At the convent, Dracula fixates on Agatha – who turns out to be Agatha Van Helsing, though nuns don’t as a rule use surnames – and they play out flirty fighty stuff like leftover scenes from the Doctor-Missy arc of Doctor Who … with Wells, who is excellent, showing she might have been good casting for a female Doctor if Moffat hadn’t left the series.
Bang looks fine – with cool fangs (courtesy of the great make-up effects team of Dave and Lou Elsey) – but comes across like a club owner in a Guy Ritchie knockoff gangster movie, and gets stuck with a lot of not-exactly-funny wisecracks (‘I’m undead not unreasonable’) and puns on being ‘drained’ or ‘drunk’ that work no better than when David Niven or Leslie Nielsen was doing this act. This Dracula is a smarmy thug, slyly self-regarding and with an unmagisterial incipient whine – a reading of the role that plays best in the second episode, which has a groaner title (Blood Vessel, also used by an Australian shipboard vampire movie this year) but at least comes up with a relatively self-contained story.
It takes Stoker’s proto-Alien voyage of the Demeter and plays it as an Agatha Christie shipboard body count plot, all too aptly prefacing the introduction of a bunch of new characters with ‘don’t get too attached to them). It might have been cool if at the climax it were revealed that the Count wasn’t the killer and really did have to turn detective. Instead, we get new characters named after Lord Ruthven (from Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’) and Dorabella (more obscure – from Robert Muller’s Supernatural). There’s a joke about Inside No 9 too, since that’s the cabin where an ailing mystery character – yes, it’s AVH – is as the interview structure of the first episode is repeated in some sort of mind palace.
In a pretty typical bit of BBC privation, the bulk of these stories take place in big rooms where mortal enemies sit and talk to each other – which recurs even more damagingly in the finale of the frankly hodge-podgy third episode (The Dark Compass) that leaps 127 years after a twist at the end of Part Two and has Drac show up on the seafront in modern Whitby then drift through a series of half-developed skits that mostly feature lectures delivered to cowering folk. In a neat bit, Dracula stands in a dump of a modern home and rhapsodises about the untold luxuries of the 21st century.
Things get untidy with Wells as a descendant (Dr Helsing) and the ghost nun talking to each other, a sketchy sub-plot about selfie/death-obsessed Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), Matthew Beard as an utterly useless Dr Seward who works for a Torchwood-type secret organisation, Gatiss making a comedy turn out of cringing lawyer Renfield, and a WTF ending which picks up on threads from that weird Doctor Who were Moffat claimed the dead could feel everything in their graves. Finally, Van Helsing does the Peter Cushing curtain-pull to reveal that Drac isn’t really allergic to sunlight — only they talk each other to death anyway.
There are good little things throughout and also bum notes aplenty, often side by side. Here, Dracula – in a derivation from Horror Express – picks up skills and knowledge with each person he drains. As with so many things here, this is established then made very little of. It’s suggested that he has powers of persuasion – needing an invite into the convent, he wonders which of the nuns will crack and let him in on a promise of eternal life (‘they all have that,’ responds Sister Agatha) … but none of the crowd of wimple and stake extras have enough character traits to seem even tempted and he gets in another way. He joke-beheads the Mother Superior (Joanna Scanlan) then slaughters all the nuns in what ought to be a shock sequence even if mounted according to BBC standards and practices – Being Human had a commuter train vampire massacre that was upsetting – but comes off just as decluttering the cast list.
As with Sherlock, there’s an odd side effect of reimagining this character in a contemporary setting – if Dracula is real and his story ongoing, then Bram Stoker didn’t write a book and so the Count casts no pop culture shadow, which ought to lead to an alternative universe where the first (and possibly last) vampire movie of any note is Carl Dreyer’s arty Vampyr … and the victims Dracula encounters when he shows up in the modern era potentially ought not know what a vampire is.