On New Year’s Day the first of three episodes of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ take on Bram Stoker’s classic tale airs on BBC One at 9 pm. Gatiss and Moffat, two writers who will be forever associated with a TARDIS and a Deerstalker hat, together with Sherlock’s producer, Sue Vertue, have recreated the vampire from Transylvania restoring the gore and carnage of the original tale alongside a unique dash of cruel humour. The three episodes air over three consecutive nights starting with The Rules of the Beast followed by Blood Vessel and concluding with The Dark Compass.
Each episode is 90 mins long and directed by three different individuals. As producer Sue Vertue comments, the 90 minutes is a format that the team found worked well on Sherlock. It gives each director the freedom to put their spin on the script. Once again, it is evident that this format works for the Dracula mini-series as well.
The first episode is loosely based on Stoker’s novella with several of callbacks to the original story, including the character Jonathan Hawker (John Hefferman). We first encounter Hawker in a small room at St Mary’s Convent, in 1897 Budapest as he watches a fly move about his head. He is emaciated, shrivelled and weak, ravaged by some disease or worse. His face is full of open wounds that weep and the fingernails have been ripped off. But he is determined to tell the tale of his ordeal at Count Dracula’s castle.
Enter Sister Agatha, played by the incomparable Dolly Wells. Sister Agatha doesn’t believe in God but instead spends her time sequestered in study. What she studies will be a question for later, but for now, she and her fellow nun want to know what happened in Dracula’s castle, and how did Hawker escape?
Hawker takes us back to the beginning. A young and naïve English solicitor, he visited the Transylvanian castle to close on the purchase of a London property for Dracula. He quickly finds himself a prisoner in Dracula’s castle, unable to leave. And more terrifying, he is not alone in his peril.
The programme doesn’t shy away from gore and horror. And the episode is full of Dracula’s murderous methods and bloody feeding from his numerous victims. There is one captivating encounter of a bloodied nude Count prowling and pacing as he bares his fangs outside the nunnery while Sister Agatha taunted him. Due to the dark framing, the scene plays better on the BFI’s big movie screen than it does on my smaller Samsung telly, but it puts the audience on edge regardless. As with all good horror movies, it is the smaller events that invoke the ultimate terror starting off with the fly that crawls its way into Jonathan Hawker’s eye and the peeling of his diseased fingernails. Both send a shiver through the bones.
The three leads, Claes Bang (Dracula), Dolly Wells (Sister Agatha) and John Hefferman (Jonathan Hawker) are brilliant. Bang is oozing suave sophistication, beauty and sex appeal. Evil incarnate, his Dracula is without a shadow of remorse just as Dracula should be. Not the vampire boyfriend of the Twilight era.
Dolly Wells brings a modern appeal to this Victorian tale as a strong independent woman, hell-bent on facing Dracula head-on. It is Wells who provides much of the episode’s shocking humour. From her self-deprecating description “just another woman caught in a loveless marriage to put a roof over her head” to her sharp and explicit questioning of Hawker, she provides a biting and humorous portrayal.
John Hefferman steals the show as the young bright and blue-eyed solicitor. Somewhat pretentious and proper but with a sense of honour and integrity that carries him throughout his encounter with a vampire. A true hero of the story just not the manner that Bram Stoker originally conceived of him.
There are several twists and turns in the story just as in Gatiss and Moffat’s Sherlock series, as the story veers along a different but satisfying route than the novel. There are several Easter eggs for fans of these fanboy’s other series as this stylistic version of an old tale winds its way to its surprising and shocking conclusion. It is just leaving enough room for the following two stories on Thursday and Friday night.
Dracula: The Rules of the Beast airs on BBC One New Year’s Day at 9 pm. The following two stories, Blood Vessel and The Dark Compass conclude the mini-series on the 2nd and 3rd both at 9 pm.