by E. McDonnell
**** 4 Stars
‘This is a Fang-tastic (see what I did there) yet terrifying watch that makes the original 123-year-old tale scary again…’
Creators: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat (First episode directed by Jonny Campbell )
Actors: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, Morfydd Clark
Synopsis – In 1897, an English lawyer, Jonathan Harker, travels to Transylvania to meet a new client and finalise the sale of a stately house in London – but finds himself trapped in a terrifying maze-like castle of undead brides with a vampire Count whose ambition is to conquer the world…
New Year’s Day, 2020. 9pm. My family and I are flicking through the TV to decide what to watch. A trailer for a new Dracula adaptation comes on BBC1 and the first thing that comes to my mind is- not another Dracula adaptation! What need is there for another iteration of Count Dracula? Haven’t there been enough iconic and terrible versions to deal with? Where else can the best-known vampire possibly go? But I was persuaded to give it a go and, well, the opening scene completely changed my mind – and for the next hour and a half, I was hooked…
From the get go, this adaptation gives a completely unique spin on the beloved and feared tale of the original Vampire. The series opens with a strange, deformed, skeletal figure whose eyes are penetrated by flies, being interviewed in a nunnery by Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells). She is investigating the man’s tale of escape from someone he calls, Count Dracula. We then flashback to Jonathan (John Heffernan), an English, 19th century real estate appraiser, who was sent to talk a mysterious client through some legal issues at his castle. The client is an unsettling, old, old man with a Transylvanian(?) accent who says exactly the things you want a very, very old man with a Transylvanian accent and giant, gothic castle to say. Things such as “I don’t drink … wine” and “The people around here have no flavour”; “Perhaps you mean ‘character’?” suggests Harker gently, “Perhaps,” replies the very old man. It is around this point that you either start anxiously biting your fingernails or you say something like- here we go…
Then, we flick back and forth between past and present, with the pace of a vivid nightmare. The flashbacks are often quick, but vividly immersive as Jonathan noses around the castle-getting lost, finding boxes of Transylvanian soil, zombies and a coffin… Meanwhile, in the Hungarian nunnery, he’s questioned by sceptical Sister Agatha, who is witty, smart, hilarious and quite possibly one of the best nuns of all time (not forgetting the Sound of Music gals or Sister Act of course)-bringing a lot of humour into an otherwise dark and gothic story filled with A LOT of disorientating and truly frightening scenes. This Dracula certainly isn’t afraid to hold back on the blood, gore or the horror, with some terrifying jump scares and incredible practical effects that I’m not afraid to say, did freak me out quite a bit, so parental guidance is advised- you have been warned.
Speaking of the devil himself, Dracula throughout the episode eventually transforms into a deviously charming Claes Bang, who starts with only a faint suggestion of evil before growing into his true nature, telling many dark jokes along the way. His unsettling emphasis on certain words and his unnerving tongue-in-cheek sayings to the clueless Jonathan, provoke hearty laughter as much as shivers along the spine. The overwhelming humour in this Dracula is a wonderfully dark shock, even when it has been a feature in so many adaptations before, which eventually makes you question whether you like him or not. But the comedy doesn’t sacrifice the horror distinctive to the villain; on the contrary, they morph together with a glorious camp-ness and intensity that makes a very entertaining watch.
The non-linear story is thrilling, keeping you guessing throughout the episode, wondering how, why and when your previous theories about the narrative and characters will be resolved until the show completely throws them out of the window and adds more to the plate, with twist(very clever), after twist (ooh shocker), after twist (did that just happen?), after twist (oh my god, I don’t believe it) until all you can do is sit back and watch the final act- hoping that everything turns out as you want it to. The story, while revelling in its absurdity, is very clever, with both dialogue and plot points, fleshing out the foundational story, but without being in-your-face clever. It is full of comic and dramatic flourishes that give you the feeling that this is not just a treat but a tribute to all the great Counts who have gone before, with a few nice touches that just add to the enjoyment, while still staying entirely as its own thing.
It doesn’t set out to be a modern-day take on Dracula at first (save that for a later episode); instead, reinterpreting Bram Stoker’s original novel, paying homage back to the original whilst putting a spin on the story you thought you knew. This aspect of the show is what makes it so thrilling and seems to provide more clarity and creativity to the vampire genre then complicate it. The cliff-hanger ending opens the series to endless possibilities for the later episodes (and potentially series) to explore and just makes you want to watch more -let’s just hope they live up to the expectations that this episode has created for this iteration of the Dracula story. This is a Fang-tastic (see what I did there) yet terrifying watch that makes the original 123-year-old tale scary again…
Dracula is currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer and Netflix. It was rated 15 by the BBFC.