A few months back, I joyfully received the news that a fresh new take on the old Dracula story was headed to my telly. A joint production from Netflix and the BBC, this version of the Dracula story promised to be a fresh, modern take on the great-granddaddy of all vampire tales. It would be smart. It would be sassy.
It would be gay. At least, the promo teased that it would be a little more than homoflirtatious. I mean, vampire guys have been flirting with each other since about as long as we mere mortals have been writing about them. But it’s always been so coy. So coquettish. So … muted. I, for one, was ready to have a Dracula be here, be queer. I could get used to it.
So shortly after the turn of the new year, I settled in to watch. Here’s my take.
Beware, brave traveler. Spoilers abound.
Dracula’s flight of fancy
So first things first: I watched it all and enjoyed it. I liked it. It was fun. That said, it was the most fun in the beginning and became progressively less fun as time went on. This version of Dracula is neatly divided into three parts: the first centers on Jonathan Harker who has escaped from Dracula’s clutches and is seeking refuge in a nunnery; the second episode takes place on Dracula’s sea voyage to England; and the third zooms forward to present-day London.
As you can already tell, the episodes move progressively further away from the book material. And that’s a good thing, honestly. We’ve all had ample opportunities to read and/or see the Dracula story already. We don’t need another canon retelling of the same. I want to congratulate show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat for breathing new life into what could have been the shambling corpse of an old tale everyone already knew.
What I loved:
- Dracula’s (played by Claes Bang) sassy self. We got a lot of this as he taunted the nuns outside their gate. I could watch that scene over and over. What a naughty, naughty boy. Now go put on some pants!
- Sister Agatha van Helsing (played by Dolly Wells), who provided just the right foil to Dracula. Every scene she was in was the better for it. And the Dracula story was the better for having a strong woman character for a change.
- The practical considerations of traveling as a vampire by ship. I admit, this might be a personal one for me, as I’ve had to think about this one as a writer, but I really enjoyed seeing how other writers tackled it.
- Some details that adhered to the book. Like the business of having Harker write the letters. The insistence of having native soil. That business with the baby. Nice touches that pay homage to the novel that rarely make it into movie adaptations.
Doing that means taking chances. And taking chances means there’s a good chance some won’t pan out the way you hoped. So I congratulate the risks they took, and I’m willing to overlook some of the misses along the way. I’m grateful for what they’ve added to the story.
When revamping goes astray
The thing about gambles is, they don’t always pay off. Dracula took some risks that didn’t work and made some promises that didn’t follow through. From my perspective, this became an increasingly sizeable problem as the three-part series went on, culminating in a somewhat eye-rolling ending.
I’m down with the idea of Dracula being among us in the modern day. That’s not the problem. It’s just … what is he doing there? Not to sound like an annoying acting school student, but what’s his motivation? I’m never entirely sure. He just sort of stumbles along from one meal to the next with no clear idea of what he’s really after. And I get it, that’s what my early 20s were like, but this guys well into his 500s by now and I expect better of him.
Not only that, but who is he doing there? Modern-day Lucy has all the heft and import of a Hallmark greeting card. That Katy Perry song about a plastic bag in the wind? That plastic bag is more intellectually weighty than this Lucy. And that’s perplexing, because just one episode before, Dracula was enjoying his tête-à-tête with Sister Agnes precisely because she was so sharp witted. So what gives?
- Where the gay men at? They failed to deliver. Oh, sure . Dracula puts his hand on Lord Ruthven’s knee. SO WHAT. Can you feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head? And yes, Dracula appears to people in the visage of a lady riding cowgirl style in a flimsy negligee and then *bam* it’s the old switcheroo he’s revealed to be himself but he’s fully clothed, heavy wool cloak and all. I mean I know Netflix has to make money in China or whatever but COME. ON.
- Power unlimited. In this version, Dracula has but one limit to his power, and it is this: neurosis. Yep. All those classic vampire weaknesses boil down to neurotic thinking. Weakness before crucifixes? That’s just jealousy of being able to die. Mortal fear of sunlight? All in his head. I’m sure the native soil was likewise a figment of neurotic fancy. While they didn’t touch on them, garlic, silver, all of that — nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few sessions of cognitive-behavioral therapy and a competent therapist.
And that last point is really a fatal (pardon the pun) flaw, because as a general rule of thumb, the more powerful a character is, the more vulnerable he also has to be, or else … why bother? Smaug the dragon has that missing scale on his underbelly that makes him possible to slay. The cyclops has that big eyeball to poke. Achilles and his goddamn heel. Know what I mean? But if Dracula’s only downfall is “it’s all in his mind,” well. Once he learns to overcome it, where’s the fun in that?
A final bite
Look, I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t like the series. Like I said, I did. I watched it all in one go and had a good time of it. But the first episode outshone the rest and it steadily rolled downhill from there.
But I appreciate the work the show’s creators put into re-imagining a story that has been told so often, and so often told so poorly. The creation of Sister Agatha van Helsing as the foil to Dracula was a stroke of genius. The production quality was outstanding. It is certainly worth watching.
I miss my unabashedly, uncensored gay vampire still. Someday.
Maybe when I’m published.