When Sherlock, the modernized, slightly twisted vision of Sherlock Holmes from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, debuted in 2010, it was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Viewers loved that Moffat and Gatiss made the usually off-kilter Sherlock even more off-kilter, while giving him and Watson a sense of humor and joie de vivre that had been missing in the past. Now Moffat and Gatiss are lending that same swagger to Bram Stoker’s most famous character, Count Dracula of Transylvania.
Opening Shot: A convent in Hungary, 1897. A sallow-eyed man is watching a fly buzz around his room, then we see the fly very close-up, as if it landed on his eye.
The Gist: The man, Johnathan Harker (John Heffernan), looks like he’s near death. Two nuns come in to question him: One is silent, but the other, Sister Agatha (Dorothy Wells) starts asking him all sorts of questions,. You see, he’s in the condition he’s in because of his encounter with one Count Dracula of Transylvania, and he supposedly wrote up all of his interactions with the Count in a journal when he arrived. She even asks him if he’s had sex with the Count.
When we go back to Transylvania, Harker is a young man; he goes to the castle of Count Dracula (Claes Bang) to close out the sale of an estate the Count is buying in England. When he gets there, Dracula is a withered old man speaking in a Hungarian accent. And he gives Harker a tour around the large, confounding castle. During dinner, he informs Harker that he’s arranged for the lawyer to stay there a month, to teach him how to fit in better with his future British neighbors.
Harker only sees Dracula at night; after seeing someone scratch the words “help us” into his window, though, he spends his days wandering around the labyrinthine castle trying to find out who that person was. Every night when he sees the Count, he notices that the old man is getting younger and that his accent is getting more British. At a certain point, he starts to feel more decrepit himself.
Day by day, Dracula gets younger, while Harker’s health disintegrates; he’s even started to forget the face of his beloved fiancee Mina (Morfydd Clark). He eventually figures out that Dracula has been draining him of his life force by drinking his blood, as the legend has it. “Blood is lives!” Dracula tells Harker. Harker also finds a shortcut that takes him to the person who scratched the message, a woman named Elena (Lujza Richter) that Dracula more or less keeps as a pet, which Harker finds out when he sees body parts in the box where she sleeps. He also unlocks boxes containing some very undead characters, who chase him to the Count’s lair, where he finds Dracula sleeping away from any and all sunlight.
What Sister Agatha starts to realize is that Harker is now undead, but somehow has kept a sense of humanity about him, and escaped Dracula’s clutches. When he finally is able to recall how he came back from the dead and escaped Dracula’s castle, she reveals to him that the other nun sitting with her is indeed Mina, who wants him back even in his undead state. But evil comes to the convent when Dracula shows up in the form of a rabid hound. Agatha, one of the more cynical nuns you’ll ever see, is ready, knowing that he can’t attack unless someone invites him in. But will anyone do that?
Our Take: Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss created this new take on Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, and the first episode of this three-episode BBC/Netflix co-production is about as stylized and self-indulgent as their previous collaboration could sometimes be. There are dryly funny moments, especially when it comes to the stated beliefs of Sister Agatha, moments that are dragged on well past effectiveness, and moments that are tough to look at because they’re so gross.
What we don’t see in the first episode, though, is much of an actual story. We flash back and forth between Harker’s time in Transylvania and Agatha’s interrogation, which goes a long way towards explaining why he’s in the state he’s in. But then, at the one-hour mark of this 86-minute first episode, we make a sharp turn towards Agatha confronting Dracula himself, with all the arcane things she knows from her studies, mainly that he can’t enter somewhere without being invited in. We spend a lot of time watching him disgustingly break out of the hound’s body and stand at the convent gates naked and covered in blood. But we’re not 100 percent sure where the story is going to go once someone invites him into the convent and he pretty much kills everyone.
Ironically, that last half-hour is when the pace of the first episode picked up significantly. Maybe because it was full of action, or maybe because it was such a tonal shift from that first, mostly talky hour. But the most attention-grabbing part of the episode did little to advance the show’s actual plot.
Bang is appropriately creepy as both the old Dracula and the revived one, lusting for blood and knowing what he needs to do to get it. The highlight to us, though, was definitely Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha, who tells Harker that, despite never finding God, she’s still in the convent because “like many women I’m trapped in a loveless marriage, maintaining appearances for the sake of having a roof over my head.” That’s a Moffat/Gatiss line if there ever was one, but quips like that lightened up what was mostly a bloated dirge of a first episode.
Sex and Skin: All the sexiness is wrapped up in neck biting and blood drinking, so… no.
Parting Shot: Agatha and Mina hide out from the encroaching Count, but find that he’s closer to them than they originally thought.
Sleeper Star: We’ll go with the effects team here, because they made so much of this first episode squeamishly creepy, from the effect of a fly crawling around the inside of Harker’s eye to the undead minions unfolding themselves in offputtingly herky-jerky ways. We had to try hard not to look away on more than one occasion.
Most Pilot-y Line: Agatha mentions that she knows a detective in England that helped them track Mina down. While that generated one of those “Ha! I get it!” laughs, it was a still a cheesy Easter egg back to Sherlock.
Our Call: STREAM IT, but only because we hope Moffat and Gatiss can take this version of Dracula somewhere. However, they seem to be giving in the temptation to show how clever they can be over telling an actual story. That’s what sank the final two seasons of Sherlock, and it will sink Dracula, too, if they’re not careful.
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