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Review: ‘Dracula’ (2020)

This week marks my first contribution in writing to the Madness Heart Press Patreon, which you can check out for as little as $1 a month. I’m covering Icons of horror, and this month, I talk at length on Dracula! In previous posts here at Madness Heart (like this one, for example), I’ve talked at length about my love of vampire horror, in particular, the progenitor of the genre, Bram Stoker’s magnificent 1897 novel Dracula. More than perhaps any other story in horror – and certainly more than any other novel – Dracula has proved itself to have staying power. The sort of staying power, in fact, that is usually a feature of myth or religion rather than an original literary invention cooked up by a single author. Dracula has been made into movies (so many movies), novels, comic books, video games, you name it. Stoker’s creation has been imagined as a puppet, a musical, and a puppet musical. Obviously, the misadventures of Jonathan and Mina Harker tapped into a rich, salty vein of human emotion, one whose pulse and spray still nourish fans 123 years after its publication.

The latest adaptation to take a stab at the legend of Vlad Dracula — impaler, undead blood-drinker, and incurable romantic — is a new BBC/Netflix miniseries. Dracula stars Claes Bang and Dolly Wells, both of whom are simply fantastic and whose chemistry supplies the venerable tale with an infusion of fresh, living blood. Bang’s Count Dracula is the equal of the one gifted to us by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s campy 1992 film adaptation, and that is high praise coming from me, given that Coppola’s version is one of my all-time favorite movies (despite Keanu Reeves’ accent work). Bang brings the frightening eroticism of the Count to life with stalking, scene-stealing, smoldering charisma, and the erotic game of cat and mouse that he plays with Dolly Wells’ Sister Agatha is impossible to tear one’s eyes away from.

The format of the new BBC Dracula miniseries is interesting, and one that I enjoyed. Written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, it breaks the story into three segments, each about 90 minutes long. (Heads up: mild spoilers to follow.) My favorite segment of the three is the second installment, which takes place almost entirely aboard the Demeter, the doomed vessel that carries Count Dracula from Eastern Europe to England, and which arrives as a ghost ship for its troubles. The voyage of the Demeter is one facet of the Dracula story that I’ve always found particularly fascinating (and that has, in fact, found its way into some of my work, including the short story ‘Come to Visit’). The way that Moffat and Gatiss handle the journey by sea is superb. In a recent episode of Wandering Monster, the podcast I co-host with John Baltisberger and Lemons Clemons, I mentioned that I thought the series’ use of one spice in particular – paprika – brought a touch of interesting terroir and Wallachia-ness to Dracula’s story. It’s a seasoning as much a part of Count Dracula’s homeland as the soil that fills his coffins in the hold of the Demeter; an earthy presence that geographically grounds (so to speak) the tale.

If I have any qualms about Dracula, it’s that the way in which the third act is handled leaves a bit to be desired, but these misgivings pale in comparison to my love for the first two thirds of its runtime (and to be honest, the latter third is still better than 85% of Dracula adaptations out there). I was not expecting – nor, had I been asked, would I have said we particularly needed – a new Dracula. Moffat and Gatiss delivered an unexpected delight into the opening weeks of 2020, and I’m glad they did. It’s nice, after all this time, that Dracula is still a story we can sink our teeth into.

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