One of my favourite modern writing duos have returned to the BBC with an updated version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss have become masters of taking literary classics and twisting them, making for gripping viewing and iconic work. Their last project, a modern updating of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which made lead Benedict Cumberbatch a household name, was applauded by critics and audiences alike, and four series later it still has a cult following and a thirst (excuse the pun) for more episodes.
In Stoker’s Dracula, Moffat and Gatiss, have done it again. Taking a Gothic novel that is centuries old and turning it on it’s head, with a brooding and blood thirsty vampire who comes up against a feisty nun (Dolly Wells deserves a Bafta), and travels across the world and time itself into a modern day Sherlockian style science lab to meet his fate, and the future blood line of his victims. Claes Bang is fabulously breathtaking as the Count, terrorising strangers and ripping his victims apart, while cracking one liners with a quick smile.
Emerging, covered in mucus, from a wolves body, he says to the terrified nuns, ‘I don’t know about you ladies, but I do love fur.’ While he constantly refers to his not drinking ‘wine’ and that he likes ‘vintage.’
Johnathan Harker, the lawyer sent to visit the Count, is shockingly unrecognisable at the beginning of the first episode as he sits in the shadows of the castle, telling the nuns his story. We watch horrified as he talks slowly, unsteadily, prompted by Sister Agatha, his eyes sunken in his emaciated face, bald head and sunken teeth. A fly crawls across his eye and then disappears behind it, he doesn’t flinch. This opening sets the scene for the horror to come.
Later, the blood and gore is there in abundance, with necks being torn open, heads being decapitated (and used as a kind of bloody dice in his game) and fingernails slipping off the fingers of dying humans like paper.
This adaptation pays homage to all the others, the creeping silent Nosferatu of 1922 (the original setting of Orava castle in Slovakia is used in this production), to the dark mystery and charm of Christopher Lee (1958 techni-colour production), and the screeches and laughs of the hammer horror movies. Yet it adds a particularly modern flavour, which is distinctive of Moffatt and Gatiss’s work. The scientific visuals in the opening credits, the episode titles and information on screen, and of course the switch to modern day in the final episode. We can’t help but laugh as we see Dracula adjusting to the modern world, in the creators imaginings, swiping left and right on tinder, texting and even using the internet to get himself a lawyer (who is brilliantly played in a cameo by Gatiss). We allow Moffat and Gatiss to get away with the slight time adjustments, of a technology focused modern day world set against a very 80’s style backdrop including techno music of the era.
There are also several humorous nods to the practicality of having a vampire, a non human creature in a very human world – in particular when Dracula points out the toilet in his cell and asks what it is for. ‘I’m a vampire!’ he declares, clearly amused, as the audience laughs too.
Moffatt and Gatiss go even further to twist the myths of the beast himself, and to suggest reasons for why he fears so many things. Wells is strong and confident as well as witty and sarcastic, as atheist Sister Agatha Van Helsing. Her real identity and heritage is something which we don’t see coming. Although we do perhaps guess that the woman in disguise at the monastery is Harker’s fiance, through several camera close ups and a suggestion she knows more than her silence portrays. The final episode brings the tale with a crash into the modern day, where Van Helsing herself appears to be waiting on a beach for Dracula, with a full swat team and helicopter. We of course, later learn that this Van Helsing is a descendent of Sister Agatha, and the manager of the facility which has been set up to explore his kind for medical research and ultimately detain him.
This is where it gets particularly exciting, as everything from here on is unpredictable. We cannot guess how it will end.
This fantastic series has taken a much loved classic and brought it to life in new ways, opening the door for more. The format here would work well as a series, much like Sherlock. Whether the response will demand it, or the writers will consider and pursue it remains to be seen.