Good news – unlike its title character, Dracula doesn’t suck.
Fresh from creating one of the most successful and popular TV adaptations of all time (and a spate on a little-known sci-fi series called Doctor Who), Sherlock’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss make their return to BBC One with a brilliantly campy, scary and stylish (if a little bloated) take on Bram Stoker’s bloodsucker – and for once, it’s not hyperbole to say they’re back with a Bang.
Well, a Claes Bang to be precise. Danish star Bang is Moffat and Gatiss’ new Count Dracula, slightly reimagined here from the monstrous, shark-like vampires of Christopher Lee et al or the romantic hero of Gary Oldman’s take to become something more like a demonic James Bond, always ready with a suave one-liner as he tears his way through the Transylvanian countryside.
Just how successful this depiction is for you may depend on your mileage for laboured puns (“You’re looking…rather drained…” he tells one victim), but generally speaking this is a Dracula adaptation as full of humour as it is horror.
Sometimes the pair sit together slightly uneasily, and it can feel a little like Bang’s Count is undercutting his own menace, but it’s hard not to chuckle along at some of his more outrageous utterances. And frankly, an actor as charismatic as Bang makes you forgive any number of sins – handy, considering he’s literally a creature from Hell.
Elsewhere, Bang has able support from co-stars including a surprisingly omnipresent Dolly Wells as a wisecracking nun called Sister Agatha (who has a tiny part in the book, but here essentially plays second lead to Bang) and John Heffernan’s Jonathan Harker, the unlucky solicitor who travels to Castle Dracula to help the Count plan his move to England.
In this retelling, a conversation between Harker and Agatha is used as a framework to reveal the horrors Harker faced during his stay, complete with Sherlock-like inventive scene transitions, unreliable narration and tension-puncturing gags, and Moffat and Gatiss make some intriguing – and unsettling – changes to Stoker’s text.
Jonathan (John Heffernan) and Dracula (Claes Bang) (BBC)
Perhaps most notably, the role of Harker transforms from a slightly wet, dull character who only exists to cringe in a dark castle into a genuinely affecting and admirable figure, which makes his subsequent trials all the more horrifying. Really, Heffernan almost walks away with the whole episode and it’s a terrific performance.
Harker is also the subject of this first TV film’s (part one of three) most terrifying scenes, which while sometimes campy in a Hammer horror sort of way – one moment where Dracula bursts from his coffin feels positively retro in the best way – are sometimes genuinely chilling and unpleasant, particularly when “Jonny” meets some other residents of the castle…
So yes there’s a lot to enjoy here. Dracula is sharp, visually arresting, genuinely scary and sometimes funny, and it’s got some great Easter Eggs for horror aficionados (you may even recognise some dialogue). But as any vampire knows, all this light must bring a little shadow – and this adaptation definitely has its downsides.
As noted, the jokes sometimes feel like they come slightly at the extent of Dracula’s status within the story, and generally the tone feels a little uneven as it lurches from arch Sherlock-alike gags to visceral body horror.
Dracula (Claes Bang) and Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells)
Also, at a feature-length 90 minutes this episode occasionally feels a little bloated, dragging slightly in key scenes that you can’t help but feel could be a little sharper, a little lighter and faster. One scene comes to mind – Dracula arriving at the gates of Sister Agatha’s convent – which lasts almost 10 minutes and sometimes feels like it’s covering the same ground repeatedly, rather than adding any new entertainment or insights.
With all that said, though, this is still a fun, slick and entertaining Dracula story that’s perfect for the cold, dark nights of the New Year. Whether people will watch all three episodes on the three consecutive days they air is unclear – four and a half hours of TV in three nights is a bit of a tall order – but even you watch it a little later on iPlayer it’s well worth checking out.
Now that’ll really be an on-demand package to sink your teeth into…
Dracula begins on BBC One on Wednesday 1st January at 9pm