Following last year’s dissection of Frankenstein’s make-up in 2014, Jokerside turns to the original Dark Knight – the one who’s never allowed to retreat to the shadows. Just how is the legendary Prince of Darkness fared on the small and big screen in the peaceful few years before that other Batman swings back? In this first part, a look at NBC’s high profile adaptation… Er… Dracula.
DRACULA’S HUGE IMPACT ON POPULAR CULTURE BELIES THE ORIGINAL NOVEL’S LIFESPAN OF 118 YEARS. It was theatre and film that gave him wings, starting with a performance at the Lyceum penned by Stoker himself. And after a slow start the Count soon came to carve a significant cultural footprint in the 20th century thanks to the contemporary advent of film. Despite the legion vampires who have followed him he’s never stayed out of view… And as recent adaptations show there are plenty of facets left to explore.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
“Stoker’s real masterstroke was to ally vampirism with sophistication “
No real introduction is necessary. There are reasons why the vampire that Bram Stoker crafted stood cape and fangs above all the blood-suckers that had come before. While the tale was lodged in late Victoriana it has refused specific categorisation in invasion, horror or gothic genres. And that proved a significant benefit in the century that followed, with adaptations dragging Dracula into every genre imaginable.
Stoker’s opted to title his protagonist Dracula rather than the mooted Count Wampyr, for reasons unknown. Apart from a modicum of subtlety you would hope. There’s little to suggest that he knew a great deal about Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century member of House of Drăculești and infamous protector of the Romanian people, who went by the name of Dracula. Though by seizing that family name, Stoker opened up a treasure chest of exploration – as potent for writers as the more obvious facets of blood, horror and immortality. But away from Eastern European royalty, Stoker’s real masterstroke was to ally vampirism with sophistication. The central European locale, the entwining of love and vampirism, the superstitious deterrents… They had all existed before, notably in Dracula’s Irish near-comparator Sheridan le Fanu’s Camilla. But Stoker bolted on Victorian sensibilities to the myth of the vampire, including aristocracy, society standing, land-owning and the natural development of The Grand Tour. It was a compelling mix and one that proved irresistible when the character hit screens a few decades after publication: particularly Bela Lugosi’s imperious entrance on the stairs of Castle Dracula in 1931. Bram Stoker seized on many contemporary elements to craft his tale. And at the tail end of the gothic era it proved inspired and highly influential.
As with that other giant of Victorian literature, soon to earn a deerstalker and cape of his own, the temptation to update the 19th century setting is all the more irresistible when there is ready-made mystery in the origin. Although, as Hammer’s soulless and fairly disastrous Seventies updates to the myth show, it’s a tricky business. Still, the Count is endlessly resourceful in his reincarnation, and as recent adaptations show he’s as full-blooded as ever.
“From the makers of Downton Abbey”
UK co-produced, the most off-putting thing about the launch of NBC’s Dracula series was the tagline “from the makers of Downton Abbey”. What could that possibly mean for this high-budget, prime time investment? Well, to a fair extent, exactly what you’d expect. But for a moment, just a moment you’d never have guessed.
Dracula starts exactly where it should: with a spot of tomb raiding, a rather Hammer-like reanimation and mysterious voiceover. It’s effective, mysterious, full of promise… Then, following a bath and suiting up, this Dracula surfaces in London in 1896… As American Industrialist Alexander Grayson, Master of Carfax Manor. And that’s really where it all falls apart. Or at least, sets itself a mission as steep as the long rocky path to Castle Dracula itself.
Vlad about Town
“A theatrical showman with a predatory stare”
Jonathan Rhys Meyers cuts an interesting figure as the eponymous vampire. Being saddling with an American accent for most of the series isn’t the real problem (at least it’s an act, compared to Drac’s natural British accent – being a London newcomer of course). Here the sophisticated look of recent vampirism is present and correct, and in this it befits an industrial entrepreneur.
That look has been a struggle for many years, as productions seek to capture a hint of the dazzle Bela Lugosi cut in the 1930s while serving up something utterly different. With Rhys Meyers in the saddle, that look couldn’t be too extreme of course. Yes, this Dracula may still occasionally suffer the rather debilitating effects of the sun, but he cuts a rather dashing goateed look – with a demeanour that often suggests he’s slightly less irritable than the actor’s most famous television creation, Henry VII in The Tudors.
Rhys Meyer’s Dracula is a theatrical showman with a predatory stare, but hardly a voracious sexual appetite; he’s permanently governed by a drawn out scheme of revenge on one fang recapturing the love of his lost wife on the other. His Grayson persona establishes a suitably palatial structure in London and fills it with the trappings of his station, while the Ripper murders in the capital cover his bloodsucking nocturnal antics when the need takes him (all too rarely). It’s important to note that while this Dracula is dedicated to his purpose he’s not enthralled with his predicament. When not under attack he’s happy to bide his time and even displays a natural altruism and a distinct moral code. By the end of the series, the endless night he talks about is quite in opposition to the invention he funds that there’s no suggestion won’t bring endless light to humanity. Not so Dracula, but he’s not totally without precedent.
Medically defeating death counterbalances reincarnation”
Here, like Coppola’s inaccurately titled Bram Skoker’s Dracula, the vampire elegantly swans around London in his beard until he’s distracted… By love. And of course, that comes in the form of Mina Murray. The spitting image of Dracula’s long dead wife she may be, but she’s a version radically altered from the novel. An aspirational doctor, her obsession with medically defeating death counterbalances Dracula’s consuming obsession with his wife’s reincarnation. Ilonia, as we soon find out is not only the major reason for Dracula’s presence in London but his real weakness – especially when she pops up in pleasant society as Mina. It’s another dig into the legend of Vlad Tepes, and one that draws out the weaknesses in the series as much as the anti-hero – horrid coincidence sits uneasily amid heavy plotting.
For Mina is just one part of an impossible net extending into the far past and centring on the English capital. Not least because Jonathan Harker inevitably hangs from her arm, less a lawyer than a naïve sub-PR man in this version. He moves to Dracula’s side in his new abode, rather simpering in his social crawling and crushed by many superior personalities. It’s rather a surprise that, come a series finale that sets him a greater purpose, and one potentially far more in keeping with expectations, Harker enjoys the strongest development arc in the series. But that’s mainly thanks to the other man in Mina’s life – she being the brilliant and rebellious student of one Abraham Van Helsing.
“Hatred born in the same crucible”
Dracula of course, needs to be measured by the quality of his enemy, none more important than the legendary Dutch physician. Since Stoker’s novel was published Dracula and Van Helsing’s battle has been drawn to the centre of the myth over a hundred years of refusing to adapt Stoker’s novel faithfully. And here all is not as it seems. “I was wondering when you’d make your entrance” says Van Helsing at the end of the first episode as the curtain drops on the series’ main twist. For it was indeed Van Helsing’s voiceover heard at the start of the first episode and he who reanimated the Prince of Darkness. And the reason? “Hatred born in the same crucible” – both are united in vengeance at the loss of their families at the talons of Ordo Drago. And through a pact against this mightier foe comes not only a ridiculous backdrop of business intrigue but a radically new dynamic: This dashing count doesn’t just become an anti-hero, but quite easily a lesser villain than his age-old bearded nemesis.
The Order of the Dragon is another dig into the life and impalings of Vlad Tepes. The Order formed around the concept of the Christian Crusades in Eastern Europe, solidifying in 1408 under Sigismund, a-soon-to-be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Significant in the repulsion of the Ottoman Empire to the south, it was joined soon after formation by Vlad II Dracula and then his son. The son with the predilection for impaling.
It’s at the start of Dracula’s Episode two that we see the pact-forming meeting of Van Helsing and Vlad Tepes, complete with some proper vampiric action in Vlad’s temporary tomb. From here the series adds decaying flesh to this unholy alliance against Ordo Draco’s “vile crimes in the Lord’s name” as Van Helsing puts it. In this mythology, the Order creates both monsters – the one condemned to be undead and the physician willing to resurrect him. However, time has moved on for the Order as well. Now we see an aristocratic and business led circle at the heart of London society. Indeed, their vampire quashing may paint them in a better light were the greys of the series not so thinned by Dracula’s good behaviour. For all the count’s cursing at their murder, rape and torture those lines remain loosely drawn.
In the midst of an intricate plot, Van Helsing and Dracula’s bantering is a highlight. But perhaps that’s only acting out a long pondered what if? Beyond legendary scraps, vast swathes of celluloid have necessarily kept the two apart; free to share a joke… If they wished. Here they spend more time together than ever, far removed from the Star Trek II-like framing of Kahn and Kirk. Yes Star Trek. It’s easy to draw those draw kinds of cultural comparisons with this series.
Bats and Swords
“Treading similar holy ground to the myth of the Immortals”
Dracula has always lent itself to external influence, and NBC’s reinvention digs deep into the big and small screen. Batman’s there, not so much in cave and costume as in the Dark Knight-lite plot of corporate takeovers, blackmail and extortion which the vamp struts over like Bruce Wayne. With that kind of reference comes a certain solemnity and need for concentration though – which rides against the inherent dark fun of Dracula. He may drink the blood of lawyers, but corporate takeovers?
Taking an overview, this Dracula’s remit is vendetta rather than vigilantism (his scraps are almost entirely self-defence). And through the opposing force, this immortal with incredible fighting skills comes to London to avenge the past in the present… As he proceeds to summon others of his kind to London several parallels with Highlander are difficult to ignore. That’s partly a nod to post-Lost narrative, where characters have their back stories woven blatantly into complete episodes rather than putting up with a character of the week structure. Considering the history it can draw on, it would be difficult to avoid treading similar holy ground to that myth of the Immortals – and what is Highlander if not an exploration of vampirism. Who wants to live forever?
Son of the Dragon
“Lucas rot sets in early”
The Order of the Dragon amounts to a broad base of threat, from the aristocrats of London with their considerable resources, links to the Vatican, vampire hunters on call and even short-lived seer twins – two of the few who actually reveal the potential of Dracula’s powers. Among many television shows that borrow and rewrite tropes, Dracula is certainly ambitious. But when it dwells on the domestic and Victoriana, it’s really quite hard to distinguish it from Mr Selfridge. Not only do random scenes of action and gore sit uneasily in that department store, but between dashing power plays and domestic anguish, what may be best described as ‘Lucas rot’ sets in early. That would the emotional term for a million voices crying out in horror at the over politicisation and complication of the Star Wars prequels.
This Dracula’s key to success, and his massive sedative, is a complicated plot whereby he must weakens his enemy’s position through a politically destabilising energy innovation – no less than harnessing electromagnetism. Overall, the complexity of this Dracula takes a while to sink in although again, there is a precedent. It’s very much in the spirit of the innovations that Stoker made in the novel of course, and allows a fine dose of steampunk to broaden the Victorian scope. But the series badly needs to quickly cast an intoxicating net that can better marry the sparks of violence with Dracula’s fall into respectable life. Instead, it kicks off with prolonged scenes of business politics and seldom lets up. And that’s exactly what you don’t expect or want when watching a Dracula series on a hiemal Friday.
Unfortunately the sum of its influences and aspirations are not commensurate with the Count we all want to see, especially not during one single short season.
The Van Helsing Conundrum
“Someday I will kill you for it”.
In a fine cast, Thomas Kretschmann (A former Dracula himself) holds firm as the important anchor of Van Helsing. Darker and madder than many previous iterations, though with just cause, this series is at pains to explore that. Tutor to Mina, this Van Helsing is a little more Frankenstein than haematologist. He mixes his blood work with experiments to cure Dracula of his photosensitivity for most of the series. A feature that forms a crux of a later episode, Dracula yearns for the prolonged touch of sunlight that he can only tolerate for a miniscule amount of time. While it add a welcome pressurised time factor it’s hard to ignore that Dracula’s biggest enemy during that crux is a board meeting.
Fortunately, the series expands in other far more interesting ways, even if they’re not totally successful. Van Helsing uncovers some neat revelations, such as the (obvious) lack of circulation in the undead. While enacting the visceral experiment to make Dracula a day walker, the experiments are intercut with the history of loyal Renfield, up until the suiting and booting reversal of Dracula’s first appearance. Here Renfield is a far more rounded character than traditional (not being insane helps), although his motivation is in doubt. Renfield proves to be as much a strength as a weakness in Dracula’s game, while young pawn Harker is slowly destroyed so he can be. But among them all, it’s Van Helsing who rises the most with some fine scenes to test his mettle. By the seventh episode, we are left in no doubt that Dracula has reached his lowest ebb as we head to the final act. He’s abstaining from eating as he pines for Mina; his machine has been shut down as the Order fights back behind the scenes; his attacks on gratuitous are unwise and; his precious Dresden Triptych has been taken. Amid all this, or because of it, Van Helsing sees the chance to take his revenge and becomes the greater monster. If only it was as Red Dragon as it sounds.
Sadly, as moments of tension such as these are built to, there are slips as much as red herrings. There are the vampiric blood cells that Mina injects into a rat, little more than a reinforcement for Lady Wetherby’s laboured comparison of vampires to vermin. That crumbles quickly to dust. Then there’s that Dresden Triptych itself, an odd plot device that acts like an anti-McGuffin. It surely exists not so much to further the plot as ensure that Dracula’s plans are going to be ripped apart. With a datable and exact portrait of Dracula and Ilona/Mina a token look at the painting would be all it took for such a powerful Order as that of the Dragon.
”We will annihilate the Fell one and his spawn”
Dracula does get to flash his teeth of course. Occasionally the feral surfaces: the supernatural awareness; detecting that Lady Wetherby is a Vampire hunter; playing with the un-lives of his kin. At one point, Dracula’s enhanced vision allows him to see poker cards in the reflection of Ewan Telford’s eyes – and that shouldn’t be a memorable highlight of his powers. There’s also the rescuing of Mina late in the series; a wonderful, gory scene where the Count gets to make a point as the Impaler.
That said, there is time to tip a stove pipe hat to many aspects of the Dracula legend, even in such stodgy plotting. It takes in the streets of London, the temporary Tomb of Dracula, even the asylum…
But it’s inescapable that this Prince of Darkness is far better as businessman. There’s a nice moment at the climax where Dracula talks to press about the fear of change. It adds a punch and pizazz to proceedings before everything literally and impressively blows up. It’s a big bang alright, but surrounded by the sabotage of Dracula’s machine; Van Helsing’s successful blackmail and the weak surprise of patricide and death by fire just… It doesn’t quite feel like quite enough of a build-up.
At the climax of a good nine hours we hope for full on vamp action a little bolder than Lady Wetherby’s Buffy-esque encounter with a female vampire in Episode Eight. Great SFX duly arrives as vampires are dispatched – beheaded and cast into daylight, while both sides of the equation stare at the death flares arching across the London sky. But for all the escalation of an endgame, beginning with a vampire counter attacks and the Order drawing on the big guns of the Sanguinum Sanctorumn, an Italian Seer and a Maori Huntsman, this still seems like a game of Risk.
The deranged Van Helsing is a highlight though, duplicitous and homicidal in a far more compelling way than his traditional nemesis. Having fallen away, taken the initiative and sneakily fallen back into the Dracula camp, he enjoys two finales. One is the destruction of his laboratory, and not inadvertently Dracula’s hope of day-walking, while singing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Before rather cruelly stabbing Renfield to death. Surely that wouldn’t have been the last we saw of him… And on the other side, in closer opposition to Dracula, is the jilted and deadly Lady Wetherby. Hers was always a Lois Lane blindness, eventually forced into recognising the man she’s obsessed with, the yearned for lover, is indeed Dracula. She seizes another gift from the Vatican armoury before their last encounter, the Papal state fast becoming the Library of MacGuffin.
“Grayson you bastard, I know you’re still alive…”
Oh, lady Wetherby puts up a fight, bringing out more softness from the main vampire as he encourages her to walk away… Then accepts her appeal to be killed rather than turned. In the end, he was just too old and senior for her toys to work. Dracula is the perfect Victorian invention here: the pinnacle of progress and time marching on. It’s a fairly savage dispatch – but finally that level of violence works in the context of the giant explosion’s bombast.
That’s no disrespect to lady Wetherby however. She has a far better deal than poor old Lucy. Poor old, impressionable Lucy. Always destined to come out the worst. Dutifully, Dracula, having defied his love for Mina because of understandably pressing matters, hears of Lucy and his vengeance is stoked. It was inevitable that he’d make a monster of the hapless girl. It’s a violation in the piece. And another fantasy rollercoaster for actress Katie McGrath.
There’s no doubt that Dracula’s finale is owned by the men, but it doesn’t fall the way you’d hope or expect. While Van Helsing owns this vengeance as much as Dracula, it’s a little disappointing that it’s the wild physician who dispatches Ben Miles’ Browning, leader of the Order, while Dracula is left to deal with his lieutenant Wetherby. Considering how thinly he’s been spread over the 10 episodes perhaps that’s no surprise. Even when demonstrating his prowess on the piano (perhaps a telling nod to Anne Rice) he’s hamstrung by his false identity. Dracula shouldn’t need to wear a persona more than paper thick; he is already that false identity.
And so once the first season arc is solved, with dozens dead and hundreds injured, Van Helsing passes the secret of the holy box he first used to control Dracula onto Harkness. It’s “everything you need to destroy him” says the twisted quack to Harker – now the spirit of Van Helsing’s quest to make things right.
And there’s the cliff-hanger that will never be resolved. And in a way it’s fitting. With every promise that the true Dracula will be revealed at the end of the series, this is one Prince of Suspense who never quite goes off. In the end, the lack of renewal came down to the series’ failure to even live up to the promise of the names of its production companies: Universal, Carnival, Flame and Playground.
Still, it comes to something when a vampire makes you count your silver linings. The merciless early staking did ensure that we never saw any crossover with Downton Abbey. Could the pursuit of that lofty Emmy-baiting, period-crushing promise and Dracula’s harsh banishment possibly have been related? As ever, never say never when it comes to Dracula. The phoenix of The Gilded Age looks set to rise from the ashes of that British ITV smash hit… Perhaps Julian Fellowes’ trip to 19th century New York will show us how a second series could have panned out after all.