WE just saw the latest screen incarnation of Count Dracula, cinema’s most famous vampire, in BBC-Netflix’ TV series, “Dracula”. The first time we were introduced to a Dracula flick was in Hammer Films' “Horror of Dracula”, which was a big hit in Manila that it had a long run in Universal Theatre for several months in 1958. There were older Dracula films starring Bela Lugosi, but we didn’t see it. We remember seeing “Horror of Dracula” with our parents as a kid and we were so terrified.
It was a gold mine for Hammer Films and it spawned so many sequels, most of which we also saw, like “Brides of Dracula”, “Dracula: Prince of Darkness”, “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave”, “Taste the Blood of Dracula”, all starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Van Helsing.
The character is based on Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel published in 1897 about Dracula's efforts to move from Transylvania in Romania to England. In 1979, Director John Badham did a big-budget version of “Dracula”, based on the Broadway play of the same title with Frank Langella in the title role and no less than Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing.
Then in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola made his own “Dracula” with Gary Oldman in the title role, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. It romanticized Dracula as Vlad Tepes, a tragic hero instead of being a murderous villain. There were also comedic spoofs like “Love at First Bite” with George Hamilton and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” with Leslie Nielsen.
The new “Dracula” is made by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who did the Emmy award-winning “Sherlock” TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, a big hit that ran for several seasons. Just like “Sherlock”, “Dracula” premiered with three episodes running one hour and a half each, set in three different locations.
The first episode, “The Rules of the Beast”, follows Bram Stroker’s storyline about Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), an English lawyer, going to Transylvania to help Count Dracula (Claes Bang) buy some land in London where he can relocate.
But so many other changes were made. Van Helsing is now a woman, and a nun at that, Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells), who is having problems with her faith. As a matter of fact, the series starts in a convent in Budapest where Sister Agatha is interviewing Harker after he had escaped from Dracula’s castle.
Harker now looks so old and weak, more like a walking corpse, but in the flashbacks, he’s shown as young and healthy. It turns out Dracula is feeding on him at night, draining his life force. The vampire starts as an ugly old man and gets younger and younger while Harker becomes older.
The pacing is rather slow, but in the last half hour, when Dracula arrives at the convent to have a showdown with Sister Agatha, it turns into a blood bath when all the nun colleagues of Sister Agatha are massacred.
The second episode, “Blood Vessel”, is set on the high seas with Dracula traveling to London on board the ship Demeter. The passengers include Sister Agatha, who is shown playing chess with Dracula. All the other passengers and crew members are killed by Dracula one by one. Sister Agatha manages to set Dracula on fire and he jumps off the ship in flames.
The third episode, “Dark Compass”, is set in the present. It seems Dracula had languished in the middle of sea for more than a hundred years before surfacing again in London. Sister Agatha is now represented by her grand niece, Zoe Van Helsing, who looks exactly like her.
The plotting gets more and more ridiculous at this point, with Dracula getting infatuated with Lucy, a black socialite who looks like a young Oprah Winfrey. The period production values are superb and it’s okay to give the show a modern spin, but this new “Dracula” suffers from the indecision of its creators on whether it wants to be taken seriously or played for laughs.
There are some intentional comic quips but they don’t really work, like Dracula telling Harker: “I am undead, but not unreasonable” or “You are a lawyer, nobody’s perfect”. The contemporary dialogue is sometimes off putting. You can also feel the padding to stretch out each episode with many talky and tedious scenes.
Dolly Wells is quite amusing as the irreverent Sister Agatha, a nun who’s having doubts about her vocation. Jonathan Heffernan is also quite sympathetic as the lawyer from London who hasn’t got a clue that he will be trapped in Dracula’s castle on top of a hill. But for the choice of Dracula, we feel they should have cast a younger actor. Claes Bang is a Danish actor who gained fame after he starred in the Danish film, “The Square”, which won best picture at the Cannes Filmfest and where he starred with Elizabeth Moss of the recent hit, “The Invisible Man”. He reminds us of Pierce Brosnan, what with his British accent, but he looks old to be the supposedly dashing and debonaire vampire. Those who have seen previous cinematic adaptations of Dracula will surely be disappointed.