Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ ‘Dracula’ Combines Hammer Horror Throwback With Dumb Puns
Netflix’s Dracula has been a hotbed of discussion online for one very Internet reason: the series’ writers and creators are Doctor Who’s Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss. If you’re familiar with their run on the series, Dracula is pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be. Is this a good thing? Your mileage will vary.
Dracula has all the hallmarks of a Gatiss / Moffat script: a strong woman who talks like a robot version of what a woman sounds like, a secret society of (nuns! Scientists!) who’ve existed forever to fight whatever, and exhaustingly clever wordplay that’s sometimes just exhausting.
The influence of famed British horror studio Hammer is all over this miniseries, from giant aesthetic choices, pieces of action, or just Easter Eggs littered on the walls of everything: portraits of Peter Cushing, Hammer’s Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee, the studio’s every-monster, are visible on the walls of the ship Demeter; and Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s name is visible on the side of the coach that takes Jonathan Harker to Castle Dracula. Bits of action recall specific moments from the Lee/Cushing Dracula series.
At least, this aesthetic choice, very much driven by fan service as much as Mark Gatiss’ deeply felt and long chronicled love of horror-film history, stands for episodes 1 and 2. (If you haven’t seen the series, mild spoilers ahead, although I’ll try not to ruin any surprises) In episode 3, the harsh shift to modern times sucks the Hammer (mostly) right out of Dracula, and Moffat’s version of modern-day pop culture takes over. It’s Black Mirror-lite, and the series is worse for it.
Dracula, as embodied by Danish actor Claes Bang, is tall, dark, and too witty for his own good. When he goes dark, the series goes dark, and it’s all the better for it. The twists of the first episode are quite welcome, and sometimes horrific. This keeps things moving at enough of a pace that one can disengage from the at-times overly clever dialogue. If you love puns, this thing’s made for you; if you don’t, you’ll get pulled out of the action on a 10-minute basis.
Moffat and Gatiss wore out their welcome on Doctor Who– although to me they wrote the best episodes of the series to date–by getting too cute by half. And they’re great at starting a story, but shit at ending it.
But they did in fact create the most engaging versions of Doctor Who in David Tennant and Matt Smith. Many of those episodes are much loved by fans, and some of them even appeal to non-fans. Yet even in “Blink,” the Hugo award-winning highlight of Tennant’s run on the series, despite the compelling lack of traditional Doctor Who structure and the quite clever absence of Tennant for much of the episode, he still has him say the cloying, overly cute “Timey Wimey” over and over. Moffat can’t help his worst impulses.
Dracula’s supporting cast is mostly around to get killed, although Moffat assembles a pretty stellar group of British actors, including Sacha Dhawan, newly known to Who fans as The Master. Dolly Wells offers counterpoint to Bang as Sister Agatha and other characters via a fairly obvious reveal. Despite the arch dialogue she has to deliver, her charismatic presence makes up for it.
Moffat’s tread genre territory to much better effect before. His version of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, 2007’s Jekyll, transplants the entire story into contemporary times with enough couching in reality, and a standout, scene-swallowing performance by James Nesbitt, to earn its copious clever twists. There’s still a secret cabal of scientists, but you’ve bought into the story enough to choke it down. Claes Bang is good, but he’s not Nesbitt good.
In the end, if you make it that far, Dracula is a fairly sweet diversion, but not much more than that. It lacks Jekyll’s weight. It’s a lot of fan service around a gussied up version of the Dracula narrative. At times, it has enough creep factor that one might forgive its more precocious tendencies. And when Dracula is mean, he’s really pretty mean. I’ll take that over Frank Langella’s 1979 Dracula any day. But when it gets transposed to a contemporary nightclub, you’re going to have a pretty hard time shaking off the feeling that you’re watching the BBC’s version of Love at First Bite.