Review of BBC’s Dracula: A complex feast for a Stoker fan

Can you remember New Year’s Day? It seems so long ago, even though we’ve still got a week of January left…

Anyway, try and cast your mind back through the hazy fog to January 1st and you might recall that the first episode of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s three-part BBC adaptation of Dracula flew onto our screens.

I’ve been a bit of a vampire nerd ever since reading Bram Stoker’s novel in my early teens, and as a result, I’ve seen a fair few adaptations of Dracula. So, the stakes for this new one were high. (Please either enjoy that pun or grit your fangs—I mean teeth.)

This review is going to be littered with spoilers so I recommend you watch Dracula before you read on because the plot does deviate from the events of the book.

Episode 1: ‘The Rules of the Beast’

Dracula 1

This episode was faultless. It had everything I wanted and more.

Screeching bats, TICK. Dracula’s towering shadow, TICK. Both basic Dracula components appeared within the first ten minutes — and there were also flies buzzing around Jonathan as he entered the castle, signalling decay within the walls. Great stuff.

The castle itself was rich in gothic detail. The low, flickering candlelight used created the perfect unsettling ambiance, and I loved that we got to see how much of a maddening labyrinth the castle was to Jonathan.

I was in awe, terrified and grossed-out many times over during the episode. The fly entering Jonathan’s eye made me shiver; the undead corpses chasing Jonathan through the castle tunnels was scary as hell; Dracula bursting out of the wolf’s stomach was gloriously gory, and Jonathan’s deterioration was masterfully displayed — I genuinely felt sick seeing his fingernails peel away. Huge hats off to the hair and makeup team. I also loved that we could visibly notice Dracula absorbing life and youth from Jonathan; this seemed to draw on the part of Stoker’s novel when Renfield begins killing insects and animals to absorb their ‘life force’.

The casting was superb. I’ve always been slighted annoyed by Jonathan’s character but John Heffernan brought a wonderful subtle gentleness to the role and conveyed Jonathan as a truly damaged man in the convent scenes. Claes Bang had the dark hair and thick eyebrows reminiscent of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, along with a perfectly menacing smile and a new, disarming sense of humour that felt welcome rather than out of place. And Dolly Wells. Sister Agatha. AGATHA VAN HELSING. Oh wow. What an absolute power-house. Her quick wit, intelligence and nonchalant attitude to danger firmly established her as a formidable opponent to Dracula; the power-play between them was electric.

There were three great stand-out moments in ‘The Rules of the Beast’: the striking chiaroscuro on Dracula’s face when he rose from his grave in the candlelight (that shot had Hammer horror written all over it); the nod to Sherlock when Sister Agatha mentioned a ‘detective acquaintance in London’; and when Dracula started hungrily licking Agatha’s bloodied knife after she’d finished tantalising him with it. The latter, hyper-sexualised imagery was almost on-par with Dracula’s lustful draw of breath after licking Jonathan’s shaving knife in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation. (You ask me why I think Gary Oldman is the best actor in the world, your answer is in that scene.)

I was genuinely speechless when the episode ended. I couldn’t wait for the next instalment.

Episode 2: ‘Blood Vessel’

Dracula 2

Remember I said the stakes were high? Yeah… this episode is where things became problematic.

The Demeter’s journey isn’t short, but the description of it in Stoker’s novel is, so that’s why ‘Blood Vessel’ felt too drawn-out. It was as if I was watching a murder-mystery where I already knew who the murderer was and how he did it. Ironically, at the beginning of the episode, Dracula advised Agatha ‘not to get too attached to any of [the people on board]’ and I really didn’t care for many of the characters — although I did enjoy the ‘needs paprika’ scene and the unlikely bond formed between Oglaren and the boy posing as ‘Piotr’.

Dracula was less terrifying, which was probably because he had more screen time; the more you see a monster, the less likely you are to be scared of it, after all. I was on edge watching ‘The Rules of the Beast’ but this time I didn’t even so much as flinch. I was missing the grit and gore of the first episode, Dracula’s jagged movements and unpredictability.

The Inside No. 9 references were fun and the twist was cleverly done, I admit. The birds-eye shot of the castle steps forming a number nine inside Agatha’s ‘dream’ was great. However, I felt as though the first half of the episode was preoccupied with leading up to the twist, and as a consequence, we lost some of the striking cinematography and horror elements that made the first episode so enjoyable. Additionally, even though Dracula evidently enjoyed having the upper-hand over Agatha, and made her blood ‘last’ like a fine wine, he seemed to be playing games with her only to pass the time rather than truly trying to get to her. In ‘The Rules of the Beast’, Dracula seemed intrigued by Agatha’s fascination with him, but this time round his behaviour towards her was more dismissive. The power dynamic shifted and their chemistry was less palpable.

Nevertheless, one thing I admired about ‘Blood Vessel’ was its discourse regarding stories. The form of Bram Stoker’s novel was epistolary: it was made up of diary entries, letters, news articles and other written accounts. ‘The Rules of the Beast’ seemed to pay homage to Dracula‘s form because Jonathan narrated his experience of Dracula’s castle to Agatha, in the same vein as Jonathan’s journal entries in the novel. In ‘Blood Vessel’, Dracula continued the narration of events by telling Agatha the story of his sea voyage. Additionally, we saw Countess Valeria divulging a story from her youth to Dracula and in doing so she became encaptured within that memory, making her easy prey for Dracula. This tied in with the ‘blood is lives’ comment from the first episode to create an intricate metanarrative: Dracula is able to absorb knowledge and stories from people by drinking their blood, stories which in themselves are also ‘absorbing’ and distracting, and which can be retold many times over. At the end of ‘Blood Vessel’, Olgaren made a comment to ‘Piotr’ about honouring the dead passengers of the Demeter by ‘telling their story’, reinforcing the power of a good narrative.

I’d love to say I was speechless at the end of ‘Blood Vessel’, but the last scene set me off in a rage. I was so excited to see Whitby in all its gothic glory and felt like I’d been robbed when I saw that — WHOOPS — Dracula had spent over a hundred years in his box of soil at the bottom of the sea. WHAT?!

There was no real logical explanation for it. Dracula had already drunk from the Captain, so he wasn’t weak and in need of rejuvenation from the soil. He told Agatha he’d swam under the boat in order to get back on it before, so what was stopping him from grabbing his box from The Demeter and pulling it ashore with his super strength? The ship wasn’t far from Whitby. It was still night. Also, even if Dracula did just jump in the box, could he not have woken himself up? He could clearly breathe underwater because we saw him breaking out of the box and walking underwater to shore. SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

Were we talking about stakes? I think by this point, they’d sunk into the mud.

Episode 3: ‘The Dark Compass’

Dracula 3

After I had let my frustration out about the ending of ‘Blood Vessel’, I tried to reserve judgement for the final episode.

I still found it difficult to adjust to the 21st century setting, but thankfully the pace of ‘The Dark Compass’ was faster than ‘Blood Vessel’, and there were some genuinely chilling moments amongst the absurdity of others. I’ll start with the absurd parts…

I don’t understand why Gatiss & Moffat decided to omit the character of Arthur Holmwood completely, and have Lucy engaged to Quincey instead. The engagement itself was preposterous — in a nightclub of all places, on the same night that Quincey had been introduced to Lucy’s friends, and less than one minute after we’d heard Lucy say ‘it’s not like I’m gonna marry anyone’. Stoker’s Lucy was a frivolous and flippant character, but the modern-day setting of this episode made Lucy’s acceptance of Quincey’s proposal ridiculously unbelievable.

I cringed watching Dracula using Tinder to find victims and texting Lucy — although I did laugh that he used all capitals to text, typical centuries-old man, ‘LOL’. The thing that annoyed me the most was when Dracula guessed the WiFi password at the Jonathan Harker Foundation because it was HIS NAME? You’d think, with a highly intelligent and cunning vampire imprisoned there, they’d have put better safety measures in place… I didn’t appreciate the cheap joke.

However, that’s enough about what I didn’t like. There was actually a lot to appreciate in ‘The Dark Compass’ and now that I’ve watched it back, I think the good balanced out the bad in this final episode.

Mark Gatiss brought a great comedic element to Renfield’s character. Watching him answer a crossword in the car by writing ‘Dracula is my lord’ with so much confidence and conviction was funny.

I enjoyed the graveyard scene, where Dracula allowed Lucy to listen to the voices of the undead ‘sufferers’ buried there. Dracula’s vulnerability finally became apparent in this scene; he was fascinated with Lucy because she didn’t fear death and was willing to let him drink from her.

Part of my favourite line from the novel made it in: ‘The children of the night, what music they make.’ In the novel, this line refers to the howling of wolves, but in this adaptation, Dracula referred to the people in the graveyard who were at ‘unrest’, which I thought was just as effective. The little zombie-fied boy in the graveyard was creepy; I didn’t expect to see him again so I was terrified in a later scene when I realised he had followed Lucy home and was grappling at her bedcovers. Stuff of nightmares.

Lucy’s arc was engaging and I liked that she was sullied, burnt and ‘ugly’ in her vampirism after being cremated. In Stoker’s novel, Lucy’s beauty is enhanced in her death, so to reverse that was a bold move by Gatiss and Moffat, but it paid off. Lucy lost rather than gained the title of the ‘Bloofer Lady’ in her undead state, and I felt sympathy towards her that I’ve never had before. Hats off to the hair and makeup team again, because Lucy’s charred body looked horrifyingly realistic, and hats off to Lydia West for giving an unnerving performance in that scene.

I thought the ‘blood is lives’ concept concluded superbly in ‘The Dark Compass’. Agatha was able to travel ‘to the new world’ in Dracula’s veins, and, after Zoe drank Dracula’s blood, gain closure by finally uncovering Dracula’s true weakness: fear of his own death. Agatha and Dracula’s chemistry was reinstated in ‘The Dark Compass’, and the ending of the episode cemented a mutual understanding and respect between the two characters. Once Agatha had made sense of ‘the rules of the beast’ and vocalised this through Zoe, Dracula chose to share one last moment with her in gratitude as he drank Zoe’s cancerous blood, alleviating her pain in death as he succumbed to his own. The blinding light used in the final scene was striking, and I loved the shadow of the cross that appeared across Dracula as he walked towards the window.

In summary…

There was a lot going on in this adaptation of Dracula. On reflection, I think my main issue was with the second episode. All stories need a middle, and this one felt weak. The pace was slow, but then it jolted too suddenly at the last moment and we went from atmospheric, gothic candlelight in the Victorian era, to vibrant neons in the present day, with too poor an explanation for the time-skip.

However, what I did truly love and what made this Dracula unique was Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha and Zoe Van Helsing. Van Helsing was so integral to the destruction of Dracula in the novel and to have this character brought to the forefront and reimagined as a highly powerful and intelligent woman was incredible. I loved the fact that Agatha was eager to be close to Dracula, to pursue him and learn from him in order to uncover his weaknesses, rather than relying purely on her prior knowledge of the undead. Through Agatha, we were offered explanations of Bram Stoker’s vampire lore. We got to understand why Dracula kept to the shadows, couldn’t stand the sight of the cross and needed an invitation etc. and for that, I applaud Gatiss and Moffat.

Thanks for reading. What did you think of this Dracula adaptation? Let me know!

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