Dracula-1×01: ‘The Rules of the Beast’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Written by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
Directed by Jonny Campbell
Original Air Date: 1st January 2020

When it comes to Dracula, every generation gets their own version of Bram Stoker’s iconic horror figure it seems and with it an iteration of the story that either plays fast and loose with Stoker’s narrative or adapts it faithfully.

Even when cinema was still in its infancy we were treated to unique sight of Max Schreck as Nosferatu, a Dracula film in all but title, where the names were changed to avoid litigation that, unfortunately for the filmmakers, came anyway. All throughout the history of pop culture, there have been many, many versions of the tale, so much so that at one point he was one of the most filmed fictional characters in history, alongside the equally famous ranks of Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes.

That Dracula is in that esteemed company with Sherlock Holmes is ironic given that the BBC’s latest contribution to the long list of Dracula productions comes from creators of the massively successful Sherlock.

That series brought Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation to the modern day, not only in a manner that was creatively fulfilling and wonderfully entertaining (especially those first two seasons), but which was a massive worldwide success, making Benedict Cumberbatch into a household name and giving Martin Freeman a chance to show that there was so much more to him than Tim from The Office.

When Dracula was first announced, it was easy to expect that we might be given a modern-day version. Interestingly, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have opted for a period set piece, but it’s the attitude and writing, as well as the portrayal of the Count himself, that makes this a truly modern telling of the story.

There are many, many alterations to Stoker’s novel here that one would expect might aggrieve the purists, although in truth so many Dracula films and television series have deviated from the source that in all honesty Gatiss and Moffat’s script is in very good company.

The first episode uses a framing device of Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) being interrogated by a pair of nuns about his encounter with the Count during his visit to have him sign the papers for Carfax Abbey.

For the first fifteen minutes we are in the presence of Harker, a creepy castle and an equally creepy old man that is Claes Bang under a lot of prosthetics and with an evocative and gothic depiction of his castle, and for that time it feels very much as if we’re in for something approaching the style of Francis Ford Coppola’s portrayal of the story.

Claes Bang bringing fun as well as a regal sense of horror to his performance as Bram Stoker’s famous creation.

Things deviate pretty much after that when the nun interrogating him, later revealed to be Agatha Van Helsing, a gender swap of Dracula’s mortal enemy from the book and so many Hammer films and played wonderfully by Dolly Wells, point blank asks Harker whether he had sexual intercourse with the Count.

Purists may once again argue about the deviations here, but they make for such entertaining television that it’s hard not to get swept along by the sheer fun and creativity of it all. What makes this version of the tale so much fun is exactly that; it’s fun.

Most interpretations of the character of Dracula are as a monstrous figure (Shreck, Lugosi, Lee) or a brooding romanticised persona (Langella, Oldman), but the script and Claes Bang’s performance goes for an approach that borders on joyful charismatic camp.

This is a Dracula with swagger in his body language and a spring in his step, and where most versions of the tale give the character a romantic drive to find the resurrection of his long lost love in London, hence the reason he goes there, this Dracula wants to be young again and take advantage of having a major city full of people to eat and that’s really about it for his motivations, at least on the basis of this first episode.

Most movies depicting this story obviously aim to use Harker going to Transylvania as a starting off point, usually within the first act of the movie, but with four and a half hours to play with (the episodes are ninety minutes long like Sherlock’s), Moffat and Gatiss take their time here, spending the majority of the first episode at Dracula’s home, experiencing the horror through Harker’s increasingly terrified eyes and throwing into the mix all sorts of weird, creepy imagery, most disturbing a vampire CGI baby.

When the framing device of the episode catches up to the events Harker is recounting and we get our first taste of Helsing against the Count, the episode brilliantly ratchets up the body count and the blood in a manner that comes as a shock to learn was aired on the BBC in a prime time slot on New Year’s Day when millions were watching.

Although nowhere near as sexualised as various other Dracula productions over the years, interestingly the most amount of nudity comes from Claes Bang himself, standing around with no clothes on as he taunts Agatha and her army of nuns. That the majority of them die just before the cliffhanger ending might rub some up the wrong way given that the majority of the body count are female characters, but it reiterates that while we can sit here and enjoy the antics of a Dracula who is clearly relishing the chaos he is creating, he is still, at heart, a monster.

Dracula is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the U.K and Netflix in both the U.K and the U.S.

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