Dracula, devised by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat, 2019
Gatiss and Moffat's treatment of Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes legacy always levitated somewhere between brilliantly quirky and outright deranged. Chunks of it were so incomprehensibly complicated that often entire episodes would be lost to nonsensical gibberish. I challenge anyone to decipher the plotline of "The Empty Hearse" or or make head or tails of "The Six Thatchers." Part of the blame admittedly rested with Benedict Cumberbatch's insistence on delivering some of the finer details of the plot at such riffle-fire speed they became a mere agitated thrum of sound indecipherable to anyone with an auditory IQ of less than 190. Certain elements of Dracula also suffer from Gatiss and Moffat's obsession with intricacy and 'cleverness' to the point of frustration too, but it's a massive relief on the whole to discover that their new three-part (90 minutes each) TV adaptation of Stoker's eponymous Gothic fantasia is mostly faithful to the novel and all conducted at a comparatively sedentary pace.
Dracula is pure porn for anyone with a kink for Goth sub-culture. Its hyper-stylised aesthetic is a visual orgasm served up with lashings of thick claret blood, creaky doors leading no-where, dank stony interiors and inky movements in the shadows. It's so lavishly and sensuously constructed that it arguably surpasses even the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film version, always regarded as a high-point of vampiric artistry. The Count's castle is a wonder to behold, perched like a gigantic carbonised walrus atop a perilously steep hill and overlooking the forbidding Transylvanian winter landscape. Bats scurry skywards in rapturous flight and black wolves tread the snow, baying at an ever-clouded moon. The blunt crudeness of the late 19th C Eastern European sensibility depicts a 'savage age' and, indeed, an entire inquiry into Stoker's 'Othering' and racial stereotyping of European culture would make for a fascinating analysis of English attitudes towards their European neighbours during this period. Is there a whiff of something 'Brexit-ish' to be found way back then? Luckily it does allow for a sense of wondrous mysticism surrounding the Dracula myth. In fact, much of the triumph of this adaptation rests with its no-holed barred immersion into the absolute totality of vampire-land. As such it's a thorough gore-fest but it also reminds us what we all secretly love about vampires: they get to live immortally in a parallel universe, a nocturnal labyrinthine playground where they can indulge their powers of seduction, made all the more irresistible by their pointy heeled shoes and outrageous choice of high neckline capes. There's always a little more than a touch of that fabulous drag-queen penchant for exhibitionism which clothes the very best incarnations of this hammy somewhat perpetually closeted aristocrat and this production plays on that androgyny with subtle flair.
As with the source material, solicitor Jonathan Hacker (John Heffernan) comes visiting from his civilised centre of Englishness in order to dot the 'i's' and cross the 't's' on a hot property deal the Count has sealed in London: it's some old abbey, naturally. But what makes this version interesting is the framing device the writing duo adopt: Hacker is busy dying from the aftermath of a ravaging by his host the Count and has managed (or been allowed?) to escape only to end up in a convent in Budapest where he is interrogated by two bitchy nuns: one wonders which fate is worse for the poor fellow? Here he relates his story in flashbacks to 'Sister Agatha van Helsing' (brilliantly played by Dolly Wells) who has to be the most wondrous nun ever committed to screen. She is plucky, sassy, bold, acid, selfless in the face of the inevitable onslaught and she's also having a serious crisis of faith. In one of her many brilliant one-liners she explains that she's a nun because, "Like many women, I'm trapped in a loveless marriage maintaining appearances for the sake of a roof over my head." She has studied the occult and is something of an amateur vampire aficionado. She likes to try out all the legends, for instance. Some work, most don't. Garlic doesn't seem to be mentioned, but it never occurred to me that the legend about having to be invited into a room before one can enter actually comes from vampire lore. (It's not surprising that the topos of vampires translates so effortlessly now into our modern age of issues around consent and the permission culture: the truism that we often invite into our lives the very monsters that will feed off us, suck our blood dry.) From this premise, anyway, the inevitable has happened: Hacker was kept in the castle against his will; at some point he was either alive or dead or 'undead'; while Dracula's insatiable thirst for pedigree blood has been reignited with savage energy and eventually leads him to the nunnery and an encounter with his soon-to-be arch nemesis, van Helsing. Episode two is set on a ship bound for England, episode three when he has awoken in 2019 after a 123-year long snooze in his coffin submerged on the seabed off the English coast.
Dracula is played by Claes Bang with lupine verve, panache and just the right amount of hammed-up theatricality to make you laugh out loud every couple of minutes: "I'm undead, not unreasonable" he chirps at one point, oozing charm. At another juncture, Harker yells: "You're a monster!" to which the Count blithely replies, "And you're a lawyer: nobody's perfect!" He's also utterly chilling at the right moments and his eyes have a habit of taking on a blackened glazed opaqueness which is genuinely terrifying. He kills freely and without compunction. He's a wonderful seducer. That he sets off for England from Romania to feast on the young, the beautiful, the refined and the intelligent is to him a mere matter of dietary stimulation, because at home, "people around here have no flavour."
It's difficult to determine whether Gatiss and Moffat have any larger designs here when it comes to meaning or intention. Mostly Dracula is just good old plain fun: so over the top it's impossible to take it seriously, and yet in the final coda of the last episode there is an interesting tonal shift towards a more philosophical introspection. The conceit used to find a way for Dracula to end his own torturous immortality is thoroughly modern but also ingenious and it allows the van Helsing character (now a modern descendant in the form of a psychologist) and him to share something of an epiphany about life and death as the fatal glare of sunlight looms outside, waiting to douse him in an affirmation which has always been hidden by the dark presumptions he has carried. In the end there is something touching in Dracula's admission that he has misunderstood life (un-life?) and this carries some weight as a metaphor for us all: even as unlikely a source of inspiration he may be.