We’ve had a number of surprisingly good genre TV shows this year – HANNIBAL, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN, SLEEPY HOLLOW, AGENTS OF SHIELD – and the return of favourites such as GRIMM and THE WALKING DEAD. Is everyone ready for another one?
Well, tough noogies, ‘coz I don’t think NBC’s DRACULA is going to be one of them.
This is a British-American co-production, a limited series, that premièred in America on October 25, right after the established GRIMM, and is set to appear in the UK on the Sky Living channel on Halloween Night. Which, having watched it online thanks to my Internet Fairy Grandmother, means I’m gonna recommend people watch something more appropriate for that most sacred of nights, like THE PAUL LYNDE HALLOWEEN SPECIAL (which is actually available on YouTube here, and is worth watching both for the camp value and bad jokes, and to see his guest stars, including Tim Conway, Margaret Hamilton, Florence Henderson and KISS! How can you pass that up?).
The last time I visited Dracula on this hallowed site was in my review of Dario Argento’s DRACULA 3-D (see here), a putrescent pile of garbage that stood astride the twin pillars of incompetence and incoherence like a Crap Colossus. Strangely enough, Thomas Kretschmann, who played Dracula in Argento’s celluloid abortion, pops up in this one too, though this time he’s portraying Van Helsing. Not that this will save him – or us.
DRACULA opens in Transylvania, 1881, where a pair of graverobbers break into a tomb that contains an exotic cage with some steampunk-style hydraulics. One of the graverobbers is interested in the bars of gold he finds. The other is interested in slitting the throat of his companion and spilling the contents into the open, fanged mouth of the skeletal figure inside the tomb. As the blood pours down and the surviving graverobber activates some switch that opens the tomb despite having lain dormant for centuries, and draws back some iron spikes sticking into the corpse, we cut to…
London, a decade or so later, as we see some buff young guy (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, THE TUDORS) bathing and readying for a party that night. His assistant Renfield (Nonso Anozie, GAME OF THRONES) instructs him (obviously Dracula) that here he is to be known as an American named Alexander Grayson. Why? You’ll find out soon enough.
Then we cut to a swanky ball that Dracula/Grayson is throwing, though all the elitist British snobs he’s invited act like they’re just there for the hot dogs in sausage rolls. An exception is Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw, the Huntress on TV’s ARROW) and her beau, Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, THE RAVEN), who in this adaptation has gone from being a young lawyer to being a young tabloid reporter, but at least he’s not being played by Keanu Reeves, which is a plus in anyone’s books. Renfield gives Dracula/Grayson a grand entrance, he makes the usual greetings, and exposits that he’s there to secure patents from the local bigwigs for something… illuminating.
Literally illuminating, as Grayson (fuck it, he’s Dracula, okay?) hands the assembled guests light bulbs, which he proceeds to light up wirelessly. It seems that this vampire has been taking lessons from Nikolai Tesla, and he wants to bring free energy to the world. And the bigwigs running the various industries aren’t going to like that.
Which is where I pause, to mutter Huh? I get that Dracula will not show up in London and scream I’M A FUCKING VAMPIRE! because, you know, that sort of thing just isn’t done in polite society. But at no point has the character ever struck me as being the People’s Hero type. Appearing as an American entrepreneur with a plan to upset the Establishment would not be on the top of my list of vampire disguises. And the way he’s mangling his American accent makes me long for the subtlety of an Inspector Clouseau disguise.
Anyway, Dracula has bigger fish to fry: it seems the elite, this show’s version of the Illuminati is called the Order of the Dragon, and centuries ago they had killed Dracula’s love and stake and entombed him, and now he’s out for revenge against their descendants. Now you see, that’s a motivation expected of the King of Vampires. But all this secret conspiracy bullshit feels just like, well, bullshit. And if Dracula wants revenge, he shouldn’t waste time skulking around rooftops getting into slow-motion fights with Order assassins, or plotting the branches of the Order like he should be wearing an aluminum hat and writing letters to the newspapers about who really assassinated James A Garfield. He just goes out Keyser Soze style and slaughters them!
As it happens, however, Van Helsing is aware of the vampire’s presence (in an aside apropos of bigger all, he notes how he covered up a previous vampire attack in London in 1886 to form the Jack the Ripper myth); he even has a sexy blonde kickboxing assistant named Lady Jane Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit, BULLET PROOF MONK) who beheads Dracula’s victims so they don’t arise again (she also keeps a vampiress locked in a cell in her underground training room, for Reasons). But, at the risk of spoiling it for you, the twist to this is that it was Van Helsing himself who had reanimated Dracula! Because the Order had wiped out Van Helsing’s family, so the enemy of my enemy yadda yadda.
Seriously? That’s the re-imagining that this show promised? I get that it can be a trope that enemies sometimes have to team up to defeat a common foe, but really, that’s a plan that even Wile E Coyote might blanch at…
And therein lies the problem with this DRACULA. Dracula has already been re-imagined up the wazoo. Britain and America have produced modern re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes, another long-mined fictional character, and both have had success. But we’ve seen Dracula in modern times already. We’ve seen him in the future, in space, in musicals, porn, blaxploitation, comedies, operas, children’s shows (Groovy Goolies Rock!), comic books and breakfast cereals (Hi, Count Chocula! Miss you!). I’ve even seen a deaf Dracula (DEAFULA, 1975, done totally in sign language. Look it up.). The last adaptation I saw that held any interest to me was SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (see my review here).
I suppose this Dracula is looking for points for originality with this eco-friendly anti-hero Versus The Establishment, but it doesn’t wash. It’s preposterous, but not in the same fun way that SLEEPY HOLLOW’s vision of the Headless Horseman with an assault rifle is preposterous. And while SLEEPY HOLLOW (and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN) provides genuine scares, and blood and gore, DRACULA’s kills are very discreet, with the camera moving away to show blood dripping down drainpipes and such… the show seems more prepared to set up the title character’s vendetta against the thinly-disguised 1%. Or as Dracula long-windedly puts it, “They do their dirty work via private clubs and boardrooms, they employ business, politics, and oil. And that last thing, Renfield, will be their undoing. They believe they will fuel the next century, and if they control it, they control the future. But from the moment we demonstrate the viability of geomagnetic technology, *PFFFF* No more money. No more power.”
The cast is okay (especially Anozie as Renfield, less iconically sycophant and insectivorous and more capable and charismatic aide) but the story requires Meyers, an Irish actor, to fake an American accent. This and the fact that for most of his time, he has to play a vampire pretending to be an ordinary guy, when really he all tuned in to see the vampire. It’s a sumptuous production, looks good, and the pilot is swift and efficient in getting us places and telling us things, but I just kept gathering questions in my mind:
- Why did the Order entomb Dracula with all his gold? And rig the mechanisms so that he can be so easily freed?
- How does Lucy, Mina’s friend (described in Stoker’s novel as pure and sweet but since Coppolla’s 1992 adaptation has been portrayed as outrageous and seductive with Sapphic undertones, thereby earning the horror movie trope wrath of being the monster’s first victim), get away with showing up at the dance in what looks like underwear?
- Why the American disguise for Dracula, and one designed to antagonise and put your enemies on the alert?
- Why is Mina a medical student at a time when you were more likely to find Winnie the Pooh fisting Mary Poppins?
- Why does Dracula meet Harker for an interview in a room in Dracula’s house with open curtains and a chance of being burned by sunlight (which in fact does happen)?
- Why does Dracula have so much trouble dealing with one guy on a rooftop at night? HE’S FREAKING DRACULA! I can see it if we were talking about some sparkly emo who craps himself if he runs out of hair gel…
- Where did Van Helsing’s blonde assistant Lady Jane learn modern kickboxing, and why is she keeping a spare vampire in a cage? Is it getting fed from poor chimney sweeps or orphans or something? And if she’s working with Van Helsing and is aware of Grayson’s true identity, why does she let him finger her in her opera box? (yes, I wrote that)
Perhaps DRACULA can improve with future episodes. I’m hoping it can, because anything’s better than more reality shows. It’s on NBC on Friday nights after GRIMM, and will start in the UK on Sky Living from the end of the month. The trailer is below.
Director: Steve Shill
Plot: 2 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. The D is silent. And the E. And Both Gs and the S. Y? I’m not telling…