Dracula airs new episodes across three nights on BBC One this week in the UK and will air internationally on Netflix.
English lawyer Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to meet a new client – and a legend is about to get fresh blood.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is my favourite book of all time. There’s an opening gambit for you. So each time there’s a new adaption I’m anxiously anticipating it’s originality and reverence to the source material.
In walk Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss showing that exact reverence I required alongside an impressive resume including Sherlock, the series on which the formula of this three-part Dracula is based.
The first of those three parts, “The Rules of the Beast”, is an outstanding re-contextualisation of Stoker’s original text. Highlighting certain aspects which are often omitted in popular culture and injecting it with enough flair and originality that it becomes relevant and interesting to a modern audience without forsaking the spirit of the original.
The episode is framed by Jonathan “Johnny” Harker (John Heffernan) being interviewed by unconventional nun Agatha (Dolly Wells) after his traumatic experiences in Transylvania.
From the outset Gatiss and Moffat begin dropping hints of plot points to follow. Jonathan clearly did not survive his experiences unharmed, visually he seems to be scarred by the experience and when a fly passes under his eye it certainly signposts his later transformation to a vampiric state.
Agatha is accompanied to the interview by a fellow nun played by Morfydd Clark who sits idly at her side with an awkwardness and unease which I wish I had been able to see through sooner.
Scenes of the interview are mixed in with Harker’s actual time at Castle Dracula. The flashback elements pick up within the pages of Stoker’s book before deviating from the path often walked.
We’re quickly introduced to Claes Bang’s Dracula who, at first, appears as a frail old man. Dracula’s second example of excellent makeup design. His frail frame supported by a cane, his English broken but still he demands attention from the viewer.
Bang is magnetic in his portrayal of the classic horror icon. At first his broken English allows the dialogue to lean in to a Hammer Horror style as he discusses the blandly “flavoured” locals which Harker corrects to suggest they are dull and boring. As Dracula explains that Harker must stay and help him learn English he suggests he will “absorb” the skill from his new friend. It sounds like comedy schtick to write but its all executed brilliantly on screen.
As Dracula feeds on Harker and grows younger he becomes more boisterous, more intimidating but also more charismatic and enthralling.
His dialogue is written with pinpoint accuracy and incredibly well acted by Bang. When he later appears at the convent and taunts the nun’s at the gates there’s a palpable delight as the naked, blood stained Dracula paces back and forth whilst engaged in a war of words with Agatha. It’s darkly sexual and everything fan of the book would expect from a well-pitched portrayal.
Dolly Wells is another case of Dracula making perfect casting decisions. Agatha has an impeccably sharp tongue and brings a lot of laughs to the episode. Despite her pledge to god she’s clearly not a conventional nun and her questioning of Harker is untactful and extremely intelligent. I had barely remarked that she deserved her own demon hunting series when her origins were revealed.
Agatha Van Helsing, a twist on the source material which many will be as pandering to gender politics, is an inspired choice which gives Dracula its own Buffy. The archetypal female hero to stare down the undead prince.
All aspects of Dracula’s production feel equally inspired. Set design is perfectly dark. Castle Dracula is depicted like a maze of spiral staircases as Jonathan gets lost in its many passages. Underground passages are depicted in tightly framed, uncomfortable shots whilst the great dining hall sprawls out before the camera.
Dracula features some similar contemporary camera work to Sherlock which does, at times, feel a little at odds with the rest of the episode. As the camera pans around the castle exterior and speeds up it feels a little too modern but it can’t be denied that it ensures the show feels unique and original.
Special effects makeup is top notch. The undead creatures in the Castle Dracula basement are perfectly scary and imposing, like extras from early seasons of The Walking Dead. Dracula’s own transformation from Wolf to “human” is incredible. I had wondered if the scene would show the transformation and boy did it.
A sequence featuring a vampiric baby borders on Chucky territory but is also stomach churning but the award for more shocking moment has to go to the closing scene.
I won’t spoil it here but Dracula was simultaneously able to create a moment which feels straight out of a Hammer Horror film whilst making sure it feels honest enough to be taken seriously. Morfydd Clark’s blood curdling screams are easily a highlight.
The episode culminates in a massacre at the convent which possibly positions Dracula as too strong not to succeed in his mission. The story of part two will need to provide some context as to whether we’re following a path towards his ultimate defeat or whether Gatiss and Moffat have created a version of the story in which humanity is doomed to fall at his feet.
“The Rules of the Beast” is a triumphant first episode for this new Dracula. Incredibly tense from the outset, littered with references to versions past and with enough horror to make you sleep with the lights on. Well done Moffat and Gatiss.
Dracula stars Claes Bang (The Square), Lyndsey Marshal (The League of Gentlemen), Chanel Cresswell (This Is England), Matthew Beard (An Education), Lydia West (Years & Years), Paul Brennen (Happy Valley), Sarah Niles (Catastrophe), Sofia Oxenham (Poldark), John McCrea (God’s Own Country), Phil Dunster (Humans) and Millicent Wong.