This is a mostly spoiler-free review for all three episodes of Dracula, which is now available to stream on Netflix.
Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have taken another stab (stake?) at adapting a classic, this time re-vamping and reshuffling Bram Stoker's Dracula for the modern screen. Tonally, Dracula takes a bit of time to click — as it tries to blend goofy with ghoulish, sassy with sinister — but the end result is quite rewarding.At one point, in the series' most on-the-nose scene, Moffat and Gatiss show their dueling main characters, Count Dracula and whip-smart nun Agatha Van Helsing, playing chess. Truth be told though, the strength of the show lies in their to-and-fro feud and the clever lengths to which they both go to one-up each other. After lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) appears, clearly not the man he once was, at a Hungarian convent in 1897, it's off to the races. Van Helsing and Dracula go to war – and it's the mind games that resonate the most.Van Helsing's attempts to crack Dracula's psyche and the Count's own malicious machinations regarding his intentions for Agatha stand as the North Star of these three chapters. Classic adversaries, these two and their interactions form a powerful enough spine for the series that it's then able to indulge in silliness and occasional satire. Also, the three episodes feel very different from one another, so the Dracula/Van Helsing dynamic is crucial for tethering us back to the core story.Occasionally, one can feel the strain of the series trying to out-match and out-wit itself with 2020 incarnations of the book's famous characters (Van Helsing, Harker, Mina, Renfield, Lucy, etc) — even borrowing a character from another old vampire tale — but overall, the transformations and subversions work. This first series, which is much like a season of Sherlock (three feature-length episodes), is paced well, and the first two episodes use an "Interview with a Vampire-style" structure to unspool the story, which is usually the recounting of events that have already taken place leading us up to a killer final half-hour. Because of this, Dracula is able to address its absurdities upfront, so that they quickly normalize and blend into the narrative.Danish actor Claes Bang plays Count Dracula like a game show host from Hell. It's a mirthful mix of madcap and mayhem. It's also overly casual in a way that reminds me of the way Brian Cox played Hannibal Lecter in 1986's Manhunter. Those expecting a more diabolical performance, a more Anthony Hopkins-as-Lecter type of portrayal for Dracula will be initially thrown.Admittedly, the fang-in-cheek aspects of Bang's stylings can be a little jarring, but this is why Dolly Wells' Van Helsing is such a crucial ingredient. Bang's Dracula feels right when paired with, and pitted against, Wells' avenging, acerbic nun. This is when he makes the most sense, when the two of them are able to go at each other with playful venom.The Hannibal Lecter comparisons, and nods, aren't lost on anyone either. Obviously, both literary villains consume the blood and flesh of others, but this new series pointedly paints Dracula as a self-professed gourmet who has somehow been able to ascend over other mindless vampires because of the particular blood he consumes – each carefully chosen victim imbuing the Count with knowledge, talent, and savoir-faire that prepares him for a life hiding among polite, civil society. The show has a lot of "new takes" on Dracula's old design, but this one was the most intriguing. And telling.
Dracula may take a bit of getting used to, tonally, but once the Count starts to war with the equally plucky and persistent Van Helsing, the show finds itself – along with its ability, and excuse, to indulge in ferocious foolishness.