There are two big problems that arise when you decide you’re going to tell a story about Dracula. The first one is simple: he’s the most famous vampire in all of fiction, perhaps the most widely known horror villain in the world. This makes surprising people difficult. The other is that everyone thinks they know what Dracula is about, so each take is battling against dozens of other ideas at any given moment that range from goofy cartoon characters to Hollywood legends. This generally means any Dracula portrayal should, at the very least, have a clear idea of what it wants to be, even if it isn’t very different. Dracula, the new Netflix / BBC series from the creators of Sherlock, absolutely does not.
While the new series is similar to Sherlock in structure, with three 90-minute episodes, its ambitions are a little less clear. It doesn’t set out to be a modern-day take on Dracula at first; instead, it reinterprets Bram Stoker’s original novel across a wider canvas. It starts in a similar place: Jonathan Harker, the hapless 19th century real estate appraiser, is sent to Transylvania to mediate Count Dracula’s long-distance purchase of land in England. The Count purposely slows the deal down so that Harker is forced to stay and become his unwitting prey, and Dracula slowly becomes stronger as Harker wastes away.
Dracula quickly begins to deviate from its source material. The series immediately suggests Harker might meet a fate that’s very different from the one in the novel, the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing is now a nun named Agatha Van Helsing, and the rules of vampire fiction that Stoker’s novel established are slowly picked at. Unfortunately, the show isn’t actually interested in being as subversive or different as it leads you to believe.
Despite its changes, the show follows a lot of the same beats: Dracula is successful in his bid to travel to London where he will groom and seduce Lucy Westenra, feeding on her for months. The biggest twist is that getting to London takes him over a hundred years, thanks to a detour that traps Dracula at the bottom of the ocean, setting up a final episode that takes place entirely in the present day.
Claes Bang gives a performance that I struggle to describe as anything other than loud
Very little about this is thrilling. The show is too enamored with Dracula to be played for straight horror, despite having some legitimately incredible practical effects that give us a few truly frightening scenes. As the Count, Danish actor Claes Bang gives a performance that I struggle to describe as anything other than loud. Everything about this portrayal of Dracula is dialed to 11, with Bang bouncing back and forth between smug slinger of blood puns to rabid scenery-chewing animal. Every other actor in Dracula is performing for a different show entirely, but instead of being amusing, it’s exhausting.
You could call it the Steven Moffat Problem. Like Sherlock, which Moffat also wrote with frequent collaborator Mark Gatiss, or Doctor Who, the seminal British sci-fi show he ran for six years, Dracula is overwhelmingly built around the thrill of watching The Smartest Man In The Room. Once you notice this running thread in Moffat’s work, it becomes incredibly distracting. Stories are less about character growth than they are about the protagonist (Dracula, in this case) smugly one-upping everyone around them. This mode of storytelling has little to offer, which is doubly disappointing because the Dracula mythos has so much to contemplate.
There are over a hundred years of writing on Dracula and vampires out there, and from the very start, the original Dracula novel set the template for all great horror by not being about a monster so much as it was about us. Is Dracula about desire? Cultural anxiety over the agency of women? Puritanical attitudes toward sex? The destructive rot of masculinity? All of these things? None of them?
These are all good questions that are fascinating to wrestle with in vampire fiction, and they have been for years. It’s kind of incredible that this new Dracula works so hard to avoid every one of them.