Given the public’s appetite for vampire stories over the last few years, it’s fairly remarkable that the story of Dracula has been left alone for as long as it has. Narratives like Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries have monopolized the public’s attention for years, while the narrative that forms the cornerstone of the entire genre has been left dormant in its coffin for the last few years. The character hasn’t been left alone of course—he’s second only to Sherlock Holmes in terms of appearing in media—but for the most part those appearances are either parodying the iconic Bela Lugosi performance or because writers need a stock villain. When he’s a central character or antagonist, it’s typically for quickly forgotten adaptations described as “a work of staggering stupidity” or “hilarious awfulness.”
The fact that it’s been left alone for so long is also startling given the strength of the source material as a story. The original Bram Stoker novel is a classic, an novel that builds a genuine sense of dread and horror as the immortal Transylvanian noble preys on the minds and hearts of Victorian England. It’s a story that’s been analyzed for its take on colonialism and the role of women in society among many other themes, but as a novel it works chiefly for its Gothic imagery and mystery. Thanks to its epistolary format, readers never view the story from Dracula’s perspective, they only see how other characters react to this force preying on them with utter disdain and contempt. It’s a brilliant choice because it keeps him otherworldly, a being whose abilities and motivations can only be guessed at.
That’s not the approach of NBC’s Dracula. In fact, it’s hard to put into words what exactly this version of a well-trodden story is, other than another instance of taking the established property name and reworking it into a story that spins the wheel of random plot ideas. In the first episode alone, there’s ideas of alternative energy, reincarnation and conspiracies spanning centuries—all of which are presented in disappointingly straightforward fashion. It’s well-presented starting out but also fairly scattershot, not quite enough investment in its ideas or characters to measure up to its source material.
In many ways, the story feels less like a retelling of Dracula and more a supernatural reinterpretation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo. In this universe Dracula, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers of The Tudors, is a Romanian noble imprisoned centuries ago by the mysterious Order of the Dragon. Reawakened in Victorian England, Dracula assumes the persona of American industrialist Alexander Grayson and plots to bring down the Order by economic means, marketing “power drawn through the magnetosphere” to cripple their investments in oil. His plan hits a hitch though when he’s drawn to a young medical student who’s the spitting image of his long-dead bride, who as the episode ends seems to be experiencing flashbacks of who she was in a past life The Mummy Returns-style.
This is certainly a respectable approach for a narrative—Revenge managed to use that structure in the early goings before it went off the rails in a good way and then in a worse way. However, what Dracula doesn’t have starting out is a defined reason to care about this quest. The reason why The Count Of Monte Cristo worked is that Edmond Dantes had clearly defined adversaries, and there was a genuine investment in why he wanted to bring them down and the steps he took to do so. Here though, the Order of the Dragon is a generic group of startlingly arch old white guys indistinguishable from one another (save for Victoria Smurfit’s Lady Jane Weatherby, presented as a Dracula love interest/antagonist), and their discussions are largely dry talk of petroleum contracts and board memberships. Dracula’s quest is to gore their ideology, and for now all we have to go off of is vague tales of crimes committed centuries ago as opposed to putting a face on things. Even the most interesting part of this plot—Dracula’s ability to light up an entire room of unconnected bulbs using a steampunk/Tesla-style generator—is largely skimmed over, discussed less for how he’s able to do it and more for what it means to his plan.
That being said, while Dracula doesn’t have a face to its antagonist it’s found a good face for its protagonist. Rhys Meyers has matured from the often petulant air he had in The Tudors, and projects both an air of authority in his bearing and piercing stare. He brings out both of the key parts of the archetype by looking appropriately regal as he broods in the shadows, but also quick to fatal bursts of anger when provoked, in an early instance nearly decapitating one Order member for daring to insult him as an “interloping colonial.” The best vampire stories are the ones that make it apparent they’re equally man and monster, and the show makes it clear from the opening scene—a desiccated form in a darkened tomb, flesh reforming over fangs and claw-like nails—that it won’t shy away from that darker side in favor of making him a brooding antihero.
It’s a good thing that Rhys Meyers has the bearing to unite the show, because most of the other cast doesn’t leave an impression starting out—having familiar names from the original Stoker book are their most defining characteristic. Even moreso than Dracula himself, the supporting cast of Stoker’s novel are often heavily reengineered or even combined depending on the adaptation, and there’s a considerable amount of rework done here as well. Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Mr. Selfridge) is now a journalist Dracula seeks to use to advance his cause, while his love Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw, Arrow’s Huntress) is an ambitious medical student. Renfield (Nonso Anozie from the second season of Game Of Thrones) is no longer a psychotic spider nosher but a supremely capable retainer, while Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann of the aforementioned Dario Argento’s Dracula) has gone from vampire hunter to vampire’s greatest ally.
All of those are interesting modifications to the characters, and it’s easy to see where they’ll fit into the ongoing narrative as Dracula’s pawns or assets. The problem is that once they stop interacting with Dracula, they become decidedly less interesting. Dracula cultivating a relationship with Jonathan or threatening Van Helsing with decapitation are scenes that have depth and emotion, but interactions like the cross-cut scene as Jonathan and Mina discuss their complicated relationship or Mina and Van Helsing at the medical school are filler at best. Granted, anyone tuning into a show called Dracula is doing so chiefly so they can see Dracula do his thing, but the show needs to develop this framework more going forward so it doesn’t overtax or exhaust its lead’s charisma reserves.
That being said, when the show doesn’t have much to latch onto from a narrative sense it is at least good to look at. Period dramas of this scale often run the risk of looking cheap on a broadcast budget, but the art direction on Dracula has a solid execution that manages to distract from green-screened set pieces. The set designs and costumes are all appropriately lavish, several of the scenes have a grand sense of presentation—particularly the grand party at Dracula’s expansive estate—and there’s a nicely atmospheric score from Trevor Morris, who did spectacular work on The Borgias. It veers into over-stylized territory at times, particularly in a wire fu rooftop fight scene between Dracula and one of the Order’s vampire hunters, but it’s more restrained than it could be (and certainly would be if it was airing on Starz or Showtime). There’s plenty of gore, but it’s not gore intended for shock value, more to–once again—let you know that for all his grace and wealth, this guy is a monster.
And that sort of restraint is what generates some hope for Dracula going forward despite initial disconnect. Yes, it fails to be as entertaining in its gathering of different plot elements as, say, Sleepy Hollow, but it’s also not as messy and superficial outright as Da Vinci’s Demons or Reign. “The Blood Is The Life” doesn’t build up the stakes right away, but neither does it drive those stakes through the show’s heart early on, and there’s enough elements scattered throughout and presented well enough that it could develop into something more.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s regular coverage of Dracula! I hope you’ll follow along with me as we sink our teeth into this latest take on the story.
- I could have spent this whole review talking about the accent Dracula affects as Alexander Grayson, because, ye gods, it is terrible. When he talks about being “As American as God, guns and bourbon,” it’s almost enough to make Rebel Wilson’s accent in Super Fun Night look good by comparison. It’s a generic twang that seems to skip between American regions and threatens to hobble Rhys Meyers’ entire performance, but is salvaged by the general sense of Dracula being being ill at ease in this persona. (It’s also salvaged by his pronunciation of the word “scheduled” early on, which I deeply hope is a nod to the Mel Brooks take on the story Dracula: Dead And Loving It.)
- Other than Dracula, Renfield is the most interesting of the main cast to me personally, partially from affection for Xaro Xhoan Daxos and partially because it’s more agency than the character usually gets. Whatever motivations Renfield has for serving Dracula, he’s clearly not put off by his master’s more violent tendencies, and is even somewhat amused by it. “So you tear the man to pieces? Perhaps we should mount a warning sign.”
- In the fight scene Dracula takes an arrow to the knee, which I assume means he’s no longer an adventurer.
- Your appreciation of the show may also depend on how much flourid dialogue you can stomach. An example: “Their corruption and their hubris is unbridled… Readily identified by their overtly grotesque sense of entitlement.”
- Harker’s notes on Alexander Grayson: Visionary. Delusional. Egomaniac. We will have to see if any of those will apply to the showrunners going forward.