The new version of Dracula airing on the BBC and Netflix this week comes to us from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, whose previous collaborations on Doctor Who and Sherlock share more than a little DNA with the thematically muddled but intermittently interesting three-part vampire drama. Like Sherlock, their Dracula aims to reinvent Bram Stoker’s novel, but the result is more of a pastiche of a century of Dracula adaptations spiced with a superficial gloss on toxic masculinity and feminism and wrapped in a veneer of pseudo-camp and linguistic anachronism that cut hard against the vestigial Gothic horror the miniseries retains from the source material. British critics loved the series, but I wonder if it doesn’t play more to a British sensibility than to an American one. I have a hard time buying any Dracula who quips like a Batman villain as a timeless supernatural menace.
But, hey, it’s better than the BBC’s last Dracula adaptation, in 2006, which envisioned the vampire as an STD, or NBC’s version from 2013, which had him as a Nikola Tesla-style scientist.
Dracula debuted Jan. 1 on the BBC and will be available in the United States on Saturday Jan. 4, the day after its BBC run concludes.
The series opens as most adaptations of Dracula do, with a Londoner traveling into the heart of Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction with the vampire count at his crumbling castle. The beats are familiar, but Gatiss and Moffat cut short most of Stoker’s ominous portents to deliver Jonathan Harker to the castle more quickly. En route, Harker and his fiancée, Mina Murray, exchange letters in which she offers him an open relationship to pursue sex while on the Continent and teases him that she is sexually interested in a teenage boy and plans to experiment with lesbianism. This is decidedly not in Stoker’s novel. Nor is the modernized language, which finds its characters speaking a hybrid of stately Victorian floridity and woke Newspeak. I found the anachronistic wording distracting.
The series frames the first episode around Harker’s interview with nuns in a Budapest convent after his escape from Castle Dracula. The lead interrogator repeatedly asks Harker if he has ever had “sexual intercourse” with Dracula (Danish actor Claes Bang, styled halfway between the Christopher Lee and Jack Palance Draculas with the hair of Bela Lugosi). It’s a pointless titillation of the audience that has no direct impact on the story. Harker’s trials and tribulations in Castle Dracula, told in flashback, are similar to the parallel scenes in the novel, but they build toward revelations familiar to anyone who has seen the 2004 Hugh Jackman bomb Van Helsing. Plus, the show adds zombies, apparently just because it can.
Once Dracula rejuvenates himself with Harker’s blood, he transforms into a quippy, campy comic book villain who is remarkably fast with a one-liner for having only learned English a few weeks previous, and who somehow percolated a Cockney accent while digesting the lawyer’s life essence. Bang offers a performance reminiscent in tone and manner to that of Tom Ellis in Lucifer, but without the warmth. His Dracula is also more explicitly bisexual (or bi-homicidal, as the creators put it) than past versions, reflecting a 1994 argument that Stoker intended Dracula to be a demonic Oscar Wilde and an evil homosexual. The second episode, which sees Dracula spend the episode on the Demeter, is much jokier, with Dracula playing pranks as he kills the passengers and crew. The writing is too cute by half, with one of the victims being Lord Ruthven, the name of the title character in “The Vampyre,” the first English-language vampire story, composed by Dr. Polidori in answer to Frankenstein, and an inspiration for Stoker. Here, Dracula is openly sailing with the passengers and just as openly bisexual, with a range of modern sexual identities masquerading as Victorians aboard the ship.
British critics loved seeing Dracula as a sassy queen—an “outrageous diva tart” said the Times—but I found that the snark robbed the vampire of his otherworldly power. He doesn’t seem superhuman or even infernal but rather like an internet troll trying to “trigger the Libs.” And he never stops talking! It’s hard to be menacing when you monologue more than a James Bond villain. “We actually put Dracula front and centre and he gets he definitely gets the most jokes,” Moffat told The Express. I know when I think of Count Dracula, hilarious is the first thing that comes to mind. Worse, to my mind, is that he is less the terrifying presence of evil from the novel than all of the movie Draculas rolled into one. You could make a parlor game of picking out each specific reference and influence from previous films, though Christopher Lee probably stands tallest.
However, it’s clear that Gatiss and Moffat understand the effects their changes have. Their aim is to undermine Stoker’s original novel and most of the previous adaptations by reimagining the story not as a competition between medieval and modern manhood for control of women and resources but as a #MeToo allegory about toxic masculinity and the power of feminism to overturn patriarchal power and privilege. It might have been an interesting take on the old story, but I’m not sure that the execution effectively carries out that plan, however. There is a major twist at the end of the second episode that I would not dream of spoiling, but to be honest, I groaned rather than cheered the unexpected development, particularly because it is exactly the type of bonkers idea you would expect to find in Sherlock or Doctor Who, both of which have done variations on the switcheroo. The third episode is, for long stretches, a quite brilliant reimagining of Dracula in the vein of Sherlock, bookended by unsuccessful scenes. I would rather have watched that show for the full run rather than the three hours of failed remake that preceded the bits of manic brilliance. One hour of the last ninety minutes was not enough to erase what I hated about the first three hours. In fact, those two largely irrelevant episodes could have been condensed to half an hour to make the final episode a perfectly entertaining standalone two-hour movie.
In Stoker’s novel, after Harker escapes Castle Dracula, he is rescued by some nuns and recovers in their convent. Gatiss and Moffat seize on this minor plot point from the novel and use it to construct a new story centering on the nuns, Mina Murray, and a budding sisterhood of feminists who will stand up to Dracula in the name of love, Christ, and justice. The show’s most daring departure from Stoker’s novel is also one of the most obvious in our era of gender-swapped remakes, but I will leave you to discover the Dutch-accented Sister Abigail’s not-so-secret identity for yourself. Suffice it to say that the change, designed to make a progressive political point, has the unintended effect of injecting a regressive thematic element into the story. Stoker intentionally contrasted the occult, medieval, and mystical Dracula with the scientific, modern, and rational band of men (plus Mina) who fought him in the U.K., the home of Progress. Here, however, by centering the resistance on nuns and framing Sister Abigail’s interest in Dracula as an effort to “bring on the Devil” to find proof of God, Gatiss and Moffat rearrange the story to reverse Stoker’s progressive embrace of the modern and instead return us a place where the only important question is how to properly worship God. In the first episode, Sister Abigail goes from describing her relationship with Christ as a “loveless marriage” maintained for a “roof over [her] head” to outright rhapsodizing that Dracula’s demonic power must be proof of God. She is obsessed with legends and is amazed that they hold power even though “none of the vampire legends make sense.” By contrast, Dracula is lauded as a scholar and presented as a scientist (in the novel, he was trained in premodern pseudoscience and alchemy at the Scholomance, the devil’s school). Here he is systematically carrying out horrific research, without care for the victims. In the second episode, he literally says “I love science!” in an argument with a nun over the power of faith. Science and reason, the show seems to say, are dangerous tools of oppression. The second episode backs off the theme of God but maintains its critique of rich white men as evil, since everyone he kills is a woman, racial or sexual minority, or member of the underclass.
The religious angle is a strange theme to take up (though one present in the 2006 BBC adaptation), since Stoker had gone out of his way to make Dracula a symbolic Devil. In the novel, for example, he speaks in the language of the New Testament Devil, quoting the Devil’s temptation of Christ in the desert to Renfield. Here, though, Bang’s Dracula is less Prince of Darkness than the Clown Prince of Crime, sharing more than a little characterization with Mark Hamill’s cartoon Joker. But it’s a stranger theme to emphasize alongside a progressive embrace of feminism. The two themes don’t mesh easily, and even when Sister Abigail describes herself as both a “thinking woman” and a person of faith and therefore Dracula’s “worst nightmare,” the tension between regressive mysticism and appeals to progressive rationalism and logic can’t be entirely swept under the rug. What exactly are Gatiss and Moffat saying? That Dracula’s toxic masculinity is connected to his lack of faith? Or that logic and reason are themselves oppressive tools of the patriarchy? When we add in Sister Abigail’s insistence on identifying Dracula as maintaining the viewpoint of “an aristocrat” even in undeath, there is a layer of anti-elitism that also isn’t found in the original, where the opponents of Dracula are upper middle class professionals and headed by an aristocrat, Lord Godalming, who holds the British version of Count Dracula’s title, since Earl is the U.K. equivalent of Count. Gatiss and Moffat seem to be loading Dracula down with all the social evils they see in modern society. By the final third of the show, it is clear that they aim to depict Dracula and his toxic masculinity as vestigial remnant of an unwelcome past.
Ultimately, what didn’t like about this Dracula is what I assume most viewers and critics will love about it: postmodernism. This is a postmodern, intertextual experience that winks at the audience, offers teasing Easter eggs referencing previous Dracula movies, other vampire stories, and even Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes, and otherwise playing out like a too-clever boy’s Ultimate Dracula Pop Culture Mashup™. Dracula works best as a largely unseen menace, and making him the main character transforms his power into something of a cartoon. Dracula has long been one of my favorite novels, and I would have liked to see it presented as a true horror story rather than American Horror Story: U.K. Edition.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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