The first time I read Dracula I was enthralled with the way the epistolary form and the subject told a story than grew gradually more horrific even though the words Stoker was using were prosaic at best, and banal whenever he tried to be dramatic. The creeping sense of dread was simply magnificent and made the subject so much more frightening than any vampire reference I'd ever seen or read (admittedly one of each at that time).
Although other authors have mixed language and horror even more successfully (see Lovecraft, King and oh my god that one Isaac Bashevis Singer short story) I remain fascinated with the question of how did dull-as-dishwater theater manager Bram Stoker, for crying out loud, pull this off? His other books don't have a fraction of the weight Dracula had. No one is lining up to remake Lair of the White Worm, and they should be for The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which is not totally bad. (I am not impartial here – I had a crush on Stephanie Zimbalist when she starred in the 1978 version so I have a weak spot for the story, however told).
Stoker's story in Dracula has been told and retold on screen likely hundreds of times to the point that a literal retelling would interest no one but me. Each version seems to come with its own message, usually the one thing that wasn't present in Stoker's Count – undying love. As much as I love Coppola's 1992 train wreck – and oh I do – it's a love story that Stoker would have found completely inappropriate. And as obvious as the sexual undertones in the story are to anyone but Stoker, Coppola's version goes a bit overboard with them, and to my mind they serve as prurient little speed bumps in the story. Less would have been more.
But Dracula has become almost like Shakespeare in that it can be staged in dramatically different ways to tell a different story, without having to worry about having to replicate the original text. Coppola's version did that with a fair degree of fidelity to the original, and others have as well. The 2006 version seen on Masterpiece Theater was period as well, but introduced a diseased twist.
Which brings us to Netflix' three-episode Dracula that just came out. This version is by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who are the creators of Sherlock, the modernized version of another Victorian classic. What Gatiss and Moffat have done copies Sherlock rather closely in that they take the character and the stories in the original book and craft three quite original stories set within the framework of the book. As in Sherlock, the original themes and sayings are tweaked ever so slightly. "The blood is the life" becomes "the blood is the lives" for example, which takes the framework of vampiric existence in a slightly different direction that enhances the storytelling aspect.
But the snarky, comic dialogue that played so well in Sherlock fares poorly here. Two young men with mental health issues coping with bitter humor makes sense. A centuries-old monster exemplifying evil and a nun joking back and forth about how dangerous a situation she is in is not. There are places – especially in the third episode, when the characters are on a more equal level where the humor is terrific, but 21st centry snark is just not a good fit for late 19th century polite society when an undead monster is involved.
Most reviewers seem to have thought the first episode was okay, the second a little baffling, and the third batshit crazy. I was pretty much the opposite. I found the first disappointing, the second pretty interesting, and the third almost completely terrific. The story moves to the present time, and while I never like an effortlessly smooth and debonair Count (I hate the perfect hair), I found the recasting of the familiar scenes with the three suitors and Lucy to be original, creative, and engaging. The scene at the cemetery and Lucy's story were brilliantly told, and at times frightening as hell. And while the end of the episode was as bizarre as the end of Sherlock (WTF was that?) it was still a pretty good reimagining. I always give points for a vampire story that takes care to build its back story – it's one reason I liked the early Anne Rice novels and loved Moonlight.
No, it's not Sherlock. The story is just too limited and too dark for the kind of characters and storytelling that made Sherlock so much fun. And while Claes Bang does okay, I'd have appreciated him looking a little more haggard and unkempt while he wisecracks. But if the capacity of Dracula to tell a story that interests and frightens and fascinates you is what you're after – it's really not bad.