Dracula AD.2020

The Arts

Dracula and I have a long history.

I had read the book at an early age – it was the sort of novel my mother preferred to keep over say, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I was not old enough to see the definitive Hammer Dracula – I’d watched the Bela Lugosi version on TV and found it stultifyingly boring – but I had been able to sneak in underage and see Hammer’s first Christopher Lee sequel, ‘Dracula, Prince of Darkness’, which played like an eerie dumb-show version of the traditional legend. The coach-driver refused to look up at the impossibly baroque castle; prim, pent-up Barbara Shelley was transformed into a sensual middle-aged hellcat; Dracula was invited in by a feeble-minded lunatic, crucifixes seared, fangs were bared with a hiss, James Bernard’s sinfully lush score was backed by the ever-present moaning wind and a blustering man of the cloth made a nuisance of himself. The only real romance on display was an unhealthy love of all things dead, and even the happy ending felt doom-laden and false.

Later I went on to write a missing Bram Stoker chapter (‘Dracula’s Library’) and conduct various forays into Hammer territory, the biggest being ‘Hell Train’, my novel-length homage to the studio. For me Christopher Lee’s vampire lord was an embodiment of elegance, stillness and evil intent. The book remains a triumph, epistolary and surprisingly modern in its language and form. It’s the keystone for all subsequent versions, including the stylish Louis Jordan BBC remake in 1977, played straight with a handful of nightmarish castle scenes.

It’s this version that seems to have influenced the latest lavish reboot by the BBC’s go-to Victorians Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat. The three 90-minute episodes are their passion project, and dip into the novel at different points.

I’m no purist and certainly don’t expect new versions to follow the book slavishly; it was, after all, a pulp novel written at speed, but with a real conviction that gets it through even the ropier moments (like Harker spotting Dracula making the beds) but Gattis & Moffat’s gimmicky take on it is one that owes more of a debt to ‘Carry On Screaming’.

The book has an unusual two part structure, half in Transylvania, half in Whitby, and one informs the other, so that the idea of bringing an exotic and alien contagion into polite Yorkshire society feels highly invasive and disturbing. This core idea was explored by Hammer themselves in ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’, which exposed the Victorian hypocrisy of righteousness.

Not here, however. Stoker’s big idea has been binned. While the first part of the lavish new ‘Dracula’ plays to the writers’ strengths, with grandstanding speeches, breakneck turns and stage-effect reveals, they can’t resist shoehorning in unnecessary shock twists that work in shows like ‘Inside Number 9’ but make little sense here. At least Dolly Well’s inquisitorial nun is a great new character; in Episode 1’s very first first cheat (That’s not Renfield – it’s Harker!) she excites expectations even though it feels unbelievable that she would a/ blaspheme and b/ ask if Harker has been having sex with the undead count.

Claes Bang’s Dracula is a great casting choice, except that he has picked a Guy Ritchie-ish estuarine accent for his proclamations – and this is one Dracula who never shuts up. The hectoring tone and lame double-entendres rob him of grandeur, especially as he never uses a word when three will suffice. He’s more knowing than Lee but has to deliver some painful lines about the count’s lust for blood, and the more he talks the less we fear him.

Still, the first episode provides a fresh take on old material, even sticking to a few moments from the book, and finally a swarm of bats looks good, instead of the rubber-bat-on-a-string effects of ‘Kiss of the Vampire’. A brief passage from Stoker’s novel – the voyage of the Demeter – becomes the feature-length middle episode, a whodunnit more stagebound than the first, and then the show slams into a brick wall. Or rather, it turns into ‘Dracula AD 1972’, set ridiculously in the present day, as if the writers grew bored with the whole idea and decided to go for a Sherlock vibe. And just as that rebooted series failed loyal viewers, this ultimately suffers from the same problem.

It could have been so good if the new filmed version had been kept in Transylvania and Carfax Abbey. It would have stymied Gatiss and Moffat’s tendency to paper over the cracks with quick fire jokes and sleights of hand, and would have forced them to consider the material with a little more gravitas. Instead they fall back on a shared knowledge of old movies, great for cineastes who see echoes of ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and even ‘Love At First Bite’, not so interesting for those who hoped for an intelligent upgrade of the novel.

 

15 comments on “Dracula AD.2020”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    Agree with all of this – Gatiss and Moffat go dancing with Stoker, and the results are largely enjoyable. I wish I could unpack my own problems with “cleverness”, as I value it highly and it is one of the things I look for in drama and fiction, so why do I find it occasionally problematic? Perhaps because it has to exist alongside other virtues, and sparkling wit wit doesn’t mean you necessarily care what happens to the characters. This makes an interesting comparison with the BBC’s War of the Worlds. They take many liberties with Dracula, but one never got the impression that they felt superior to their subject matter and they clearly love it, while the people working on the Wells seemed to feel that it needed fixing and thank heavens they were there to spare us an original they didn’t actually like.

  2. Andrew Holme says:

    Two engaging writers with a decent track record decide to have a go at Dracula. Where would you start? How do you bring something fresh to a subject that has had hundreds of different treatments? I enjoyed the first episode very much, especially Sister Agatha, but the remaining two I’m afraid I struggled with. The book is so wonderful and so outre that I think a modern screen retelling of it is still a viable option. Give me more Renfield! Gatiss and Moffat seemed to throw every idea they had brainstormed at the story, to see what stuck. The finest intelligent upgrade of the novel remains the Buffy season five opener. All other bets are off.

  3. John Griffin says:

    To get it right, Dracula must be on the edge of bestial savagery with SM overtones as he is in the novel. The first episode was spot on in tone. Bang was far too cultured though, and the suicidal add-on of Dracula drinking Lucy’s blood was unclear, as an example of the weakness of the third part.
    Frankly I was hoping for

  4. John Griffin says:

    Suicidal as in Lucy was, not a disaster add-on……though it might have been. I prefer the original colonial (or Freudian) metaphor of the eternal beast (Id) being tamed by modern weaponry and sheer force (the Freudian equivalent being bored to death by psychoanalysis or crushed by drugs). .

  5. John Griffin says:

    (err) Frankly I was hoping for something much more faithful.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    I thought thatvit was dark, nasty, and above all, fun. I was having a great time finding the nods to other versions of the story – my favourite being the number of the Oncology ward –
    ‘AD | 072’. Also, the appearance of the ‘Overlook Hotel’ carpet as a wallpaper pattern. The way Dracula got some reviving blood is very reminiscent of the priest’s blood dripping into the ice in ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’. It’s not a great adaptation, but it’s definitely entertaining – although Dracula in a coffin under the sea was definitely borrowed from ‘Angel’, who spent a year or so in the same manner. The Dracula on Buffy, was certainly funnier, with Spike sour-grapedly saying that everything Dracula did was basically parlour trickery and showing off. And he still owed Spike ten dollars. You can’t really compete with that. I did laugh at Dracula rather prissily stamping out the embers that had been Lucy, presumably so they didn’t ruin his carpet too much.
    I enjoyed it, all three episodes. Should I want to see an extremely faithful version, then I have the beautiful version made by the BBC years ago, and starring the urbane and charming Louis Jourdain, on DVD.

  7. Ken Mann says:

    Jack Shepherd was a great Renfield in the old BBC version. I recall one of the “brides” also used to feature in TV ads for mediterranean holidays, so clearly she was impervious to sunlight.

  8. Cary Watson says:

    Episode three felt like a weak episode of Dr Who. And the psychological explanation of Dracula’s fear of sun/crosses was just silly. Turns out vampirism is mostly a case of toxic self-loathing. And I really hated what they did with and to the Lucy character.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    My mis-spent youth leaves me with no knowledge of any of this.

  10. Tony Smith says:

    I watched the first hour and after that I turned over, as to me personally, it was joke and total hogwash, and more in line with a comedy.
    Christopher had a demeanor that can’t be replaced in my opinion, and I think he would have scoffed at this tripe, as he always wanted to do a version true to the character.
    Besides, Chris and Louis Jordan looked scary as Dracula, but this guy didn’t have the presence to put fear into a Nun, pardon the pun.
    They took the role seriously, but this version was a complete waste of what could of been.
    Christopher had a presence that was scary anyway, even when not in his Dracula role.
    That voice!

  11. Jo W says:

    To me, Dracula is and always will be Christopher Lee, especially in my mind’s eye when reading Hell Train. Hmm, Barbara Shelley was in that book too.
    P.s. Chris, ever thought of a sequel to HT ?

  12. Ian Luck says:

    ‘My’ Dracula isn’t actually ‘Dracula’ – not in a litigious sense, anyway – it’s Max Shreck’s ‘Count Orlok’ from F.W. Murnau’s still as creepy as all fuck 1922 movie ‘Nosferatu: Ein Symphonie Des Grauens’. He scuttles like a rat, has two fangs like a rat, and wherever he goes, he leaves death and disease in his wake. He’s competely alien and unknowable, and that makes him utterly terrifying, and completely loathsome. In short, he’s simply superb. Thank the god of celluloid that a copy of the movie was saved from Mrs. Stoker’s wrath.

  13. admin says:

    ‘Hell Train’ did well in Germany but didn’t get traction here, Jo – a shame as I really like its recklessness.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    I enjoyed the Solaris books, Hell Train was fun. Lugosi will always be the archetypal Dracula for me (By the way the Spanish language version made at the same time is not better, the Dracula is awful though not as wooden as the Van Helsing.). In the later Lee films the wig begins to take on it’s own life. I always liked Jack Palance’s Dracula, one wrong look and he could give you a proper knuckle butty.

    Wayne.

  15. Wayne (the other one) says:

    After reading this entry I have come to the conclusion that missing the last two thirds of the latest reboot has been a blessing, how I could have watched and regretted (as I do so often these days) the time wasted in front of the TV set.

    I haven’t been around much for the last year or so and I have a whole load of blog entries to get through but I have to say the quality of your blog is still first class, thank you for continuing to provide such thoughtful entries. I’ve still been buying your books and am still very much a huge fan of B&M, so thank you for continuing to write about their adventures. Oh and as i’ve said before ‘Hell Train’ is one of my Favourites along with Hellion Curse of the snakes.

    Best wishes for 2020 Christopher.

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