Hello everyone, it’s the Classic Film Kid once again! We’re well into the New Year now, and I’ve been watching a lot more TV than I usually do. I kept up with the BBC’s His Dark Materials and their recent Christmas Carol trilogy, and of course the new Doctor Who series. However, there was one adaptation of a classic story that was so nearly about to go down into the history books as a cracking piece of TV, and it fell apart on the final hurdle. That is Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s morbid take on Dracula.
Now, much like Moffat and Gatiss’s other collaboration, Sherlock (which considering its once-in-a-blue-moon TV slot has presumably been moved to the history books), Dracula consists of just three episodes, but each is a whopping 90 minutes, the length of an average kids’ film. With a few episodes of Sherlock particularly towards the end of its run, I never felt that they used that duration wisely. Moffat and Gatiss mostly pull it off this time. For its first two episodes, their adaptation of Dracula was a blast. It was immensely enjoyable, well-paced, the actors were on top form, Moffat hasn’t lost a thing in regards to wit, it is amazingly gory, and it also retained the lovable campiness of the old Dracula films.
You’ll notice lots of Easter eggs to past Dracula adaptations, specifically the late great Christopher Lee, and the trademarks are all here: Dracula’s weakness to the sun, talks on religion particularly in episode 2, and over-the-top gore. But it mostly all feels fresh and inventive. Dracula Episode 1 came along at the perfect time. Doctor Who had finished an hour ago, I was just about over reeling from that cliffhanger, and I went into Dracula with not that high expectations. What my only hope was is that Moffat wouldn’t screw it up. Therefore, it truly hit me hard just how good Part 1 was and how much I got invested in it.
Claes Bang as Dracula was a revelation. I can’t say I’ve seen him in anything else, but oh my God I need to see this guy as the Master in Doctor Who now, Chris Chibnall take note (weird, considering what happened at the start of Series 12). He suited the look of Dracula down to the ground, but the little inflexions he put into his performance, the way he moved his mouth after consuming the blood. It was so ridiculous and hammy, but with enough sense of horror and actual humanity in him to balance the whole thing out. So well done. Dolly Wells was also amazing as Agatha. You expect her just to be a normal stern serious nun, but over an hour the wit, the vibrancy and the personality of her character just burst through. The final third of this episode was so incredible and awesome to watch I was delirious when it ended. I mean, Dracula comes bursting out of the body of a wolf, beheads a nun and says ‘She was clearing her throat, I think it’s fine now,’ in the space of about five minutes. How can you say that is not awesome to see?
The second episode wasn’t quite firing on every single cylinder but it was still damn solid stuff. The setting of a confined ship was refreshing after the big castle scope of the last instalment, there was a real level of tension, and the acting was still fantastic. Agatha (Van Helsing) didn’t have quite as much to do here, but when her character gets a chance to flourish in the third act, she still took every chance and seizes her moment. Aside from a few pacing issues and occasionally ropey effects here and there, I would still consider episode 2 of Moffat and Gatiss’s Dracula to be a quality bit of television. The cliffhanger was even more intriguing: the ship burns down, Dracula climbs out of his coffin and swims to shore, to find he’s been asleep a century and it’s now the modern-day. We know that the modern-day is a trademark of Moffat and Gatiss: obviously, Sherlock is a modern reimagining of Conan Doyle’s characters and cases, so I was interested in seeing if they could score a hat trick. Bring it home proper and give us an adaptation for the ages. Then they blew it. Someone like me, who had to sit through the ups and downs of Steven Moffat’s reign of Doctor Who and seen the hit and miss Mark Gatiss scripts, had forgotten how to scream their names angrily at the TV set whenever they screw everything up, but Friday the third of January sent all those memories flooding back.
It wasn’t the worst thing ever – Moffat and Gatiss have certainly written weaker scripts. However, it was a crushing disappointment compared to the gold that was struck on the first episode, and the still pretty great second part. It started reasonably well, being that the first thing Dracula does is go and find himself a victim and torture some innocent woman, but then it just divulges into some weird melodrama involving some teenage girl who is unafraid of death or Dracula, so he decides that she will be his bride. For what reasons exactly? We also have a weird love story involving Dracula and Zoe Van Helsing, who for some reason drinks Dracula’s blood and gets the memories of Agatha and there’s a split personality thing? It pretty much seems like Moffat and Gatiss ran out of ideas with what to do with the story and decided to cobble together a whole lot of malformed ideas that don’t go anywhere.
There’s a couple of neat little concepts in there, being that Dracula’s allergy to the sun is not true and he’s just scared of death which was a great premise, but it should have had more of a focal point rather than being at the end of an episode as flat and as aimless as this one was. It would have been pretty cool seeing Dracula trying to adapt to modern life, interspersed with killings and then have little set-ups to the eventual reveal that the whole thing with the sun is bogus. We could still have the idea of Zoe dying and that developing love story, but it would at least rein in the plot more than in the actual episode, which just falls flat. While the first two episodes were tight and focused, this was just a mess.
The trilogy seems to have gone down well with audiences, but everyone seemingly has the consensus that the third episode was terrible. I’m mostly in this camp too. If you’re familiar with Gatiss’s and particularly Moffat’s work, you’ll be familiar with the tropes: plenty of time jumps, big revelations, cryptic dialogue – none of these will surprise you. However, the first two instalments are some of the best work this duo have done easily since the early days of their Sherlock and Doctor Who run. It is a shame that the final hurdle was too much for them, but I think that if they’d have gone with something slightly more focused it would have been a magical three stories. I mean, I came up with that brief synopsis for episode 3 in about 30 seconds and I can see that working beautifully.
Considering the different quality of all episodes, I’ve given separate scores for all of them:
Episode 1, The Rules of The Beast = 9.5/10
Episode 2, Blood Vessel = 8/10
Episode 3, The Dark Compass = 4.5/10
That about wraps it up for this review of BBC’s Dracula. Look forward to some more film and TV reviews coming soon (the next will probably be an overview of Doctor Who Series 12 when that’s over). Until then, this is the Classic Film Kid, signing off!