It’s already become fashionable to bash the new “Dracula” series unleashed on the world with the new year by “Sherlock” creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt.
Co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, the latest incarnation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic became queer news late last year when Gatiss (who is out) teased that its re-imagined title character would have bisexual appetites, immediately piquing the interest of queer horror lovers the world over.
Things began to turn, however, when co-creator Moffatt “clarified” by telling The Times that “bisexual” was not exactly the right word to describe the show’s vision of the Count. “He’s bi-homicidal, it’s not the same thing,” he says. “He’s killing them, not dating them.”
Controversy ensued, of course. Online commentators suggested that the BBC had engaged in “queer-baiting” to draw LGBTQ viewers to the show, and some took Gatiss’ additional comments that “horror should be transgressive” to imply that the bisexual overtones themselves were meant to be shocking — an outdated concept in 2020, to be sure.
When the show dropped on Jan. 1 (on BBC One in the U.K. and Netflix in the U.S.), the “bi-vampire-curious” among us got all our questions answered and those answers, it seems, were not the ones most of us wanted.
Any real discussion of whether this “Dracula” works is dependent on spoilers, thanks to the nature of its narrative conceits, so readers beyond this point should consider themselves warned.
The details of Stoker’s novel are well-known, of course, and this latest renovation remains surprisingly faithful to them, all things considered; but as any follower of Gatiss and Moffatt’s career knows, much of the magic in their work — most notably, their modern-day “Sherlock,” which made Benedict Cumberbatch the household name everybody loved to mispronounce — hinges on the way they shatter a familiar story and re-assemble its shards into something that feels fresh.
When it works, it’s breathtakingly enjoyable. For many viewers, it seems, the problem with their “Dracula” is that it just doesn’t.
Comprised of three feature-length episodes, the series begins in much the same way as almost every version of the tale, with the arrival of solicitor Jonathan Harker at the mysterious Romanian castle where Dracula has spent centuries draining his neighbors of their blood. This time, his story is told in flashback, as he relates his harrowing experiences there to a nun at a convent to which he has barely escaped with his life, or so he thinks. The Count, he tells her, had hired him as an agent to set up a relocation to England, in hope of finding meals with more “flavor” than the superstitious and unsophisticated locals are able to provide.
It’s here where we discover that the bisexual spin was not altogether wrong; Dracula’s wooing of Harker is overtly homoerotic (by which tactic the unfortunate lawyer is not unmoved), and he ultimately refers to the young man as his “favorite bride.” Yet ultimately, it’s all a ploy; like all of Dracula’s attractions, it’s based on blood, not sex, and anyone hoping for a queer vampire love story would be well-advised to look instead to the books of Anne Rice.
By the end of the first installment, we have learned that the situation is both nothing like what we are being told and exactly what we think it looks like, and also that the increasingly hard-edged and interrogative nun is none other than the Gatiss-Moffat reinvention of Dracula’s equally iconic arch-nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing, having been given both a gender-flip and considerably more sass. Up to this point, most viewers seem to have been all in.
It’s with the second episode that audience opinions seem to split. Documenting the Count’s sea voyage to England, it expands the Stoker novel’s six-page account into an Agatha Christie-style “And Then There Were None” scenario (which includes a doomed gay couple within the mix — again, not the supernatural romance we might have wished, but more than a token nod to representation, at least) before unexpectedly having Dracula finally set foot on English soil smack in the middle of modern times. This climactic reveal, along with the presence of a new and doubly-determined Van Helsing (no longer a nun but still female), sets up a final chapter in which, if social media can be considered a valid gauge, the whole thing falls apart into a disappointing and frustrating mess.
Contemporary setting notwithstanding, many of the book’s characters still put in an appearance, such as the tragic Lucy, whose journey from hopeful bride to walking corpse is here played out by a lovely young social media influencer who also happens to be a woman of color with gay BFF, adding a few more points for to the diversity scale. It’s the tale’s final twist, however, that has left many viewers feeling cheated, betrayed or otherwise victimized by the series.
That final revelation will remain unspoiled here. What matters more is that a lot of people seem to really hate it. Like disgruntled “Star Wars” or Marvel fans who take to the internet to campaign against creative choices with which they disagree, so too have “Dracula” purists seem to have embraced the new series as the latest example of how a thing they love has been ruined.
It would be hard to argue that the latest offering from Gatiss and Moffatt is a masterpiece. Its cleverness is often too deliberate, its glibness too self-referential and its horror too perfunctory; and while Dolly Wells is a show-stealing wonder as the durable Van Helsing, Danish actor Claes Bang can’t quite manage the delicate balance between camp and menace that is required to make Dracula the sexy beast we all want to see, though admittedly, he tries his best to shine through the sometimes ridiculous dialogue he’s been given to work with.
Even so, “Dracula” was never high art. It was a purely commercial endeavor for Stoker and even the iconic 1931 movie version starring Bela Lugosi was a clunky potboiler, even for its day. Every screen retelling has remade the durable tale in the image of the day, from the bloodthirsty horror of Christopher Lee’s popular incarnation to the subversive proto-goth allure of Gary Oldman’s romantic outsider in Francis Coppola’s divisive 1992 adaptation, and the best of them have always made bold choices in order to bring some meaning to the proceedings beyond the archetypal horror that drives the original novel.
Gatiss and Moffatt have done no less, and if the result flies in the face of expectation, it can hardly be helped. Instead of simply telling us a story we already know, they have taken the core of the vampire mystique — the seductive appeal of death itself — and made it the focus of a meditation that happens to also be a lurid, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously guilty pleasure. For those who prefer their classics as-is, that might understandably be a deal-breaker.
Anyone else should be encouraged to give it a chance. It can be a lot of bloody fun, if you let it.