Towards the end of the first episode of the new Dracula (BBC1), the vampire-obsessed nun Agatha (Dolly Wells) turns to Mina Harker (Morfydd Clark). Dracula is wreaking havoc with the sisters, and has infected Mina’s fiance, Jonathan (John Heffernan), with vampirism. Dolly is trying to work out how to stop him.
“None of the vampire legends make sense,” she says, furiously breaking sacramental wafers to use as a barrier, “yet somehow they are proving to be true.”
It’s a knowing line that gets to the heart of the problem with adapting Bram Stoker’s novel. Despite the blood and gore, and any number of po-faced other treatments of vampires, the original story is basically high-camp twaddle, all capes and bats and crosses and coffins and candlelit glances across dining halls.
At its best, this new version by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss is a loving tribute to the Hammer Horror kind of Dracula, which keeps the novel’s more macabre attractions, adds fresh wit and energy, and only occasionally drags.
It takes over the new year slot previously occupied by Sherlock, with three 90-minute films running over consecutive days. It serves as a reminder of the brilliant early series of that programme. The best Sherlocks, which is to say not the most recent ones, were characterised by a sense of complete familiarity with the source material, which let the drama riff on them in interesting ways. The same is true here, although there are more fangs.
The first episode is broadly faithful to the book. We are in 19th-century Transylvania, and Jonathan, a solicitor, is telling Agatha about his experiences with the count, which we then see in flashback. Agatha drives straight at the subtext, asking Jonathan if he had sex with the count. Wells is a surprising but effective piece of casting, with a zippy conversational style that sets the tone for the whole film. Why does she know so much about vampires? Harker, played suitably wet by Heffernan, has no idea what he’s in for as he starts exploring the castle’s depths, and no idea what has happened to him afterwards. Undeath doesn’t become him.
The main man is played by Claes Bang, the Danish actor best known for his performance as a museum curator in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square. He gives him a vaguely geezerish Estuary swagger, and never seems as if he’s not enjoying himself, although he dials up the menace when it’s needed. Often he seems hardly to be a villain at all, and gains in comparison to the unheroic Jonathan. Like all the best hosts, he puts us ease, even as he commits ever more atrocious crimes.
It feels like a passion project for the creators, especially Gatiss, who has a well-documented love of horror. This rollicking enthusiasm carries Dracula along, and we ignore the odd dodgy special effect that makes it feel like a gothic Doctor Who. None of it makes sense, but there’s a reason these vampires live for such a long time.
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