[Series Review] DRACULA (2020)

[Series Review] DRACULA (2020)
Courtesy of Netflix
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been obsessed with vampires. The obsession began with, at first, the hit soap opera “Dark Shadows“, with the enigmatic Barnabus Collins. However, it wasn’t until the worker at Hollywood Video (yes, I do believe I’m dating myself a wee bit here) told me that the character was inspired by the infamous Count Dracula that I found myself engaging in a downward spiral of research and obsession that would linger now in my late ’20s. I’ve read the original novel. I’ve seen almost every interpretation of the infamous fanged character and, as such, have taken pleasure in how the character has been interpreted by writers and actors over the years. So, when I discovered that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were adapting the project for BBC and Netflix, I was curious to see what they would do to try to add their own spin onto the character. Needless to say, I’d say that DRACULA will be polarizing, with many people either loving or hating it. Also, be warned, there are spoilers in this review. I repeat, spoilers abound here.

DRACULA follows a loose interpretation of the original tale across a span of three, roughly 90-minute episodes. The story starts off on a high note in the first episode, where we meet an emaciated Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) being interviewed by Sister Agatha (played captivatingly by Dolly Wells) with regards to his travels to Transylvania. We quickly learn about how he comes to meet Count Dracula (Claes Bang) and what dangers reside within his castle walls. The episode concludes with an epic showdown of wits between Sister Agatha, who is revealed to be Van Helsing, and Dracula, but ends with a cliffhanger. The second episode leaps directly into another battle of wills between Dracula and Sister Agatha, which takes the audience through Dracula’s journey to England. While the episode starts off with an abrupt shift from the cliffhanger we were left with at the end of the preceding episode, the decision to start there makes sense about two-thirds into the runtime.

The episode ends with the ship exploding into a ball of flame, with Sister Agatha losing her life and Dracula sinking to the surface. However, he does find his way to land. By the time we conclude the episode with Dracula on land, we are left with another jarring cliffhanger that – unfortunately – might instigate an eye roll or two from the viewer. Dracula has emerged from the ocean in England 130 some years into the future. This revelation leads into what I find to be a rather subpar concluding episode, with much of the fun being poked at Dracula now adapting to this future time period. Dolly Wells returns in the final episode as a descendant of Sister Agatha, but she is rapidly succumbing to cancer. However, this unfortunate truth provides the key she needed to unlock the true mystery behind the Count’s fears and all the answers that her ancestor sought in understanding the monster. Despite the interesting dynamic provided between Claes Bang’s DRACULA and Dolly Wells’s Sister Agatha Van Helsing and Zoe Van Helsing characters, it could not make up for what I felt to be an unnecessary twist by throwing a massive time-shift into the mix. In the end, the story felt cheapened by that twist and – in some ways – almost made it feel like one of Moffat’s old “Doctor Who” episodes.

Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha in Netflix’s DRACULA

I will be honest, I really do struggle to enjoy Moffat’s writing a lot of the time. As has been seen in shows like “Sherlock” and his time spent on “Doctor Who”, he has a propensity for starting out really strong and then losing steam rather quickly, which results in a so-so or rather disappointing conclusion. Gatiss, as his co-writer, I imagine is usually the person who tries to keep things rooted in some semblance of reality. At least, that’s how I’ve come to justify how some of Moffat’s work resonates better than others. Needless to say, the DRACULA series does get weighed down by the faults that are commonly found in Moffat’s work. To be quite frank, while I did like many of the liberties that were taken with the source material, at times the story suffers from needless attempts to be edgy and many moments, especially in the third and final episode, where the writing is screaming how clever it is trying to be but falling short of the expectations that had been loudly set. However, I did appreciate the new elements and explanations that were added to the tropes that many of us have come to expect from a vampire or DRACULA piece. And the decision to make Van Helsing, the titular character’s adversary, a woman was honestly the change that made me most compelled to continue watching in part due to Dolly Wells’s performance.

First off, I will say that I’m immensely glad about the decision to combine the characters of Sister Agatha and Abraham Van Helsing together. For those unfamiliar, Sister Agatha has a brief moment in the original novel where Jonathan Harker is tended to by a nun named Sister Agatha after his escape from Count Dracula’s castle. Given the short episode order, it made sense to cut corners character-wise while also trying to find ways to make the story work in such a short episodic time. Combining the characters of Sister Agatha with Professor Abraham Van Helsing creates more of a purpose for the character’s inclusion in the storyline while also injecting a new spin into the character that many familiar with the story might not come to expect. While the character’s dialogue felt like a weird hodgepodge of Moffat’s edgier female characters (here’s looking at you, Irene Adler), Dolly Wells delivers the character with such aplomb and charisma that one can forgive the sometimes more purposely bate-y lines that make you just want to roll your eyes. My only complaint is that oftentimes it did felt that the character was shoved off to the side for a fair bit until the story needed to be poked along with a stick. But despite this, dare I say, Wells’s performance is honestly what kept me motivated to keep watching the series after the first episode.

However, Wells was not the only other standout in the series. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the man of the hour – Claes Bang. While his accent, in the beginning, sounded more Italian to me than Romanian, once the character of DRACULA transitioned from young to old, Bang’s performance became more seamless and natural. And, dare I say, he handles the dialogue and more sociopathic direction of the character quite well. Bang radiates cheeky charm and charisma, even while being immensely detached from his various experiments in figuring out the various quirks of his vampirism through a variety of subjects. We see the true depths of his monstrous nature in both the first and second episodes, where Bang gets the opportunity to dabble in both sociopathy and addiction, with the mere sight of blood driving him into almost a shark-like feeding frenzy. However, we do lose a bit of what makes his particular interpretation of the infamous Count stand out in the third episode and – unfortunately – it has less to do with Bang’s acting abilities and more in terms of the direction Moffat and Gatiss chose to take in throwing the character so far into the future. It renders the Count coming across as more comical than I think either of the writers had intended, which is unfortunate. However, in the first two episodes, we do really get to see how Bang’s makes the Count memorable and that combined with his chemistry with Wells’s Van Helsing makes for a lightning bug in the bottle type of watchability.

Claes Bang as Count Dracula in Netflix’s DRACULA

In dissecting the actual story, I’ll be plain. There are a fair amount of liberties both Gatiss and Moffat take in deconstructing what we know about the original tale and rebuilding it to make it fun and interesting for them. This comes, of course, with mixed results. For example, I did feel that the show really worked well when it stuck to being a period piece. It still felt modern due to the dialogue itself, but it still contained that aura of the Hammer film era of DRACULA that just made it feel like coming home in a way. However, all that changed once the writing duo decided to throw the character into the future. I’m not sure whether the decision was more due to their familiarity in tackling traditionally Victorian characters and smacking them with the modernity stick or what. However, the time jump threw off the overall tone of the series at that point and, unfortunately, wasn’t as clever as they probably thought it would be. Throw in undead children stalking Lucy Westenra, an overly out of his element DRACULA, and the weird laboratory set reminiscent of my vague memories of “Torchwood” and the episode felt like it could have belonged in the “Doctor Who” Moffat era.

Speaking of Lucy Westenra (played by Lydia West), man, does the writing of that character really remind me of Moffat’s problem with writing women? Don’t get me wrong. The character of Lucy Westenra generally gets the short end of the stick, but she really gets screwed over in terms of her character development in this adaptation. Somehow Moffat and Gatiss make her into this immensely vapid, self-obsessed person with no actual care as to whether or not she dies. The latter is what initially draws DRACULA to her, but her fixation on her beauty is a constant thread even after she is changed over. In what only seems like some sort of karmic punishment, the character is cremated before she can rise. Oh, and she can feel every bit of her flesh burning off in the process. It isn’t until she discovers that she is no longer beautiful, but a burned husk of a person that her confidence crumbles and she begs for death. This particular character development was immensely unfortunate, especially given the modern era that the duo had written the story into.  This treatment of Lucy along with the casual dismissal of Mina Harker (Morfydd Clark) as an insipid girl for the brief section she appeared makes me give massive side-eye given Moffat’s past history with creating lackluster female characters (cough…Clara…cough). Needless to say, these characters could have been handled and written a lot more satisfactory.

However, despite what I mentioned above, the updated mythos specifically featured in DRACULA is quite interesting and makes this vampireholic intrigued by how future creators might run along with the changes. The biggest change is how the consumption of blood changes the titular character. As is stated in the first episode, “Blood is lives.” While this quote will make the viewer pause, the explanation through a combination of showing and telling helps explain how the character has managed to survive and adapt throughout the course of his long life. We learn that through the act of drinking blood, he essentially absorbs all of the knowledge and experience that life has acquired. This results in him most apparently learning languages, acquiring a person’s body ticks, and the like, which Claes Bang handles with gusto. This also ties into how the consumption of blood has become an addiction to the character. With how much DRACULA desires to know about himself and the constant changes in the world around him, taking a person’s blood provides an insight he could not obtain living just through his own actions. This proves to be his greatest asset and weakness because the thirst for knowledge is never-ending. These changes, however subtle, help to make the character stand out and provide an explanation for curious viewers who always wondered why anyone would fear the cross or be unable to walk into a residence unless invited in.

Overall, I think this iteration of DRACULA was interesting, but not exactly a rush to must-see adaptation.  In my case, I think I’d say to watch it at your leisure rather than rush to binge it ASAP. While Moffat and Gatiss succeed in bringing the titular character to a modern audience through various changes in the overall storyline, I think the changes will be met with mixed feelings. Unfortunately, as someone who is all too familiar with Moffat’s work, the series suffered from the pitfalls that his preceding works suffered from. The concluding episode suffered from its twist of taking place in 2020 and – ultimately – ended up shifting too much in tone to something more overtly comedic and corny. However, the redeeming factor in this entire series is the chemistry between Claes Bang’s DRACULA and Dolly Wells’s Sister Agatha Van Helsing. To hammer my love of Sister Agatha home, if someone decided to create a spinoff of just Sister Agatha, I would give them my money right then and there. Netflix, you heard me. Get on this.

DRACULA is now available for streaming on Netflix.

Sarah Musnicky
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