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.