Late Dracula Flawed but Still Entertaining
By Kristin Battestella
I was excited for NBC’s 2013 prime time limited series Dracula. However, network demands and a rocky start seem to have unfortunately done in the series’ potential, and gothic, horror, and steampunk audiences are sadly left to wonder what could have been with this entertaining one shot.
The latest suave American inventor in 1896 London is none other than Dracula himself! Posing as Alexander Grayson, Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) seeks vengeance against the corrupt Order of the Dragon with the help of Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) and R.M. Renfield, Esq. (Nonso Anozie). Meeting Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), however, expedites Dracula’s desire for a vampirism cure. He hires Mina’s paramour Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) as his assistant, using his newspaper know how whilst also romancing the Order’s lead huntsman Lady Jayne Whetherby (Victoria Smurfit) away from her vampire killing duties. Unfortunately, Mina’s best friend Lucy Westerna (Katie McGrath) also has romantic folly on her mind…
Episode 1 “The Blood is Life” jumps right into resurrecting Dracula from his spiky prison in proper bloody fashion, but this first installment feels ironically slow paced with seemingly little actual set up and too many new characters and changes to the Stoker tale audiences were probably expecting to see. Couldn’t Dracula take down these angry, interfering businessmen with supernatural ease? Conflict over fantastic industrialism and wannabe Tesla designs feels unnecessary and takes up valuable narrative for purists, and steampunk enthusiasts – who, despite what the recent mainstream bandwagon would have us believe, have been around for decades – may be put off by these very changes meant to attract such an audience. Though historically based and possibly interesting, the Illuminati-esque Order of the Dragon and its thinly veiled but thickly laid modern technology talk of wireless power versus corrupt oil detracts from Dracula’s opportunities as the tormented villain. “A Whiff of Sulfur” shows Grayson’s blackmail cunning and character conflicts and thus does much better in getting to the action of how and why Dracula was resurrected. Had Dracula begun here with Episode 2 or as a full 90-minute premiere the reasons behind his revenge may have been more hard hitting. Dangling the weekly carrot with flashbacks to start each episode feels uneven, as does the mix of steampunk and seers horrors. Stockholder plots and majority shareholder papers in “Goblin Merchant Men” feel limp or easily played and gay blackmail comes across as too trite. We didn’t need this villainous organization against Dracula’s intimate quest for a solar vaccine – his psychic battles and eerie visions with the seers are far more occult fun then the Order’s gents playing at being bad. Early on Dracula simply can’t decide with which vein it wants to tell its tale, industrial allegory or gothic good times.
Fortunately, Lady Jayne gets her fight on with the vampire coming out party in “From Darkness to Light,” and guest star Alec Newman (Dune) makes the intrigue between her and Grayson as both lovers and antagonists more complex. These juicy elements should have come a lot sooner in the series in order to hook the audience – energy scenes and power demonstrations are simply not as wondrous to us and feel tacked on amid superior past vampire angst and threats on who knows Grayson isn’t the romantic do gooder scientist he claims to be. Despite an excellent progression on the Van Helsing character and his daylight serum, this lingering, feeling itself out writing and drastic book changes all at once do not work on network television today. Familiar vampire intrigues and an already delightful core story don’t need Ottoman Empire conspiracies, either. Thankfully, “The Devil’s Waltz” continues the great cliffhanger from Episode 4 with sexy dreams and Victorian torture. It’s on the nose perhaps, but also violent, kicked up, creepy yet nonchalant. Up close cinematic filming, askew angles, and dark Frankenstein turns for Van Helsing up the demented fantasy horror along with the delightful Renfield developments. Loyalty, laboratories, predatory blood and violence – the scenes of horror and irony in Dracula are excellent. Subterfuge and deceptions tie together perfectly with vampire sexy, shocking, and tender. “Of Monsters and Men” also ups the saucy and suspicions over Grayson’s plans – daylight meetings increase the intensity and Mina is far more interesting as a snooping Van Helsing assistant. Lady Jayne and Lucy manipulate wonderfully and great skin and bloody special effects keep the pace, confrontations, and toppers entertaining.
The excellent blackmail and character entanglements continue in “Servant to Two Masters,” and Dracula gets close to showing some scandalous for NBC. Primal filming distortions, tempting heartbeats, sensuality, and angsty vamp out resistance accent the simmering man versus nature and himself. Likewise “Come to Die” brings stimulating personal dynamics, and with such medieval takedowns and revelations, it’s baffling why Dracula ever began with generic overreaching revenge. I would rather have seen Lady Jayne’s pursuits and dramatic love triangles before the early Order of the Dragon piecemeal. Renfield and Dracula both play devil and angel on each other’s shoulders as needed while torn arms and impalements remind the audience that Dracula was always going to be a show about vampires – even if the series got away from that foundation at its start. Grayson’s orchestration goes deep, and the Order framework was never needed if “Four Roses” can bring all the abductions and character revelations together like this. The innocent are caught in the bloodbath crosshairs, and the pace upticks thanks to daylight interference and changing allegiances. I don’t want to spoil these final episodes, although “Let There Be Light” does inexplicably return to laying the Order’s purpose on thick when huntsmen versus fangs action and gruesome threats are done better. Bombs, horror violence, and questions on who is really the hero or the villain counter any quibbles. Granted, some maybe, maybe not character fates are unknown thanks to the show’s cancellation and seeds left for more in hopes of continuation remain hanging. Dracula, however, concludes with the confrontations that needed to happen and a quality dramatic finish.
In recalling his early, pale, androgynous roles, it’s surprising that Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) has not played a vampire previously, for he is perfectly cast as both the medieval warrior Vlad Dracula and his incarnation as the Victorian entrepreneur Alexander Grayson. Yes, it’s unusual that he puts on an American twang rather than simply coming from the continent as the Stoker source says. However, Meyers embodies the charisma and scandal nonetheless thanks to animalistic nuances for the more toothy scenes, a sexy stealth making his lady victims so ecstatic, and a well aware, calculating slick. I’m not sure why Grayson is made to drink so much considering Meyers’ off screen alcohol difficulties, but he carefully accents the character within a character suave using the glassware and props. There is unfortunately some flat foil and weak dialogue hampering him, scenes without Meyers tend to drag, and playing politics with a different Order of the Dragon chap each week is a waste of Dracula’s primal potential. Why does Dracula need outside revenge or romance? Why can’t he be a vampire for good energy or bad daylight power for his own motivation? Grayson’s desperation over not being able to keep his proverbial fangs in his pants adds more dimension – his vampire nature is the very thing that mucks up his plans most.
Victoria Smurfit (Ballykissangel) as Lady Jayne may seem shoehorned in to Dracula for no reason or too Selene ala Underworld to start thanks to an off kilter mix of slo mo fights hindering her suspicion of Grayson – she looks unnecessarily played and stupid in not knowing he’s a vampire. Fortunately, her Old World pretty and kick ass make for a unique, sexy conflict, and Jayne’s chemistry, dialogue, physicality, and confidence match Dracula’s game. Her intriguing upmanship with Katie McGrath (Merlin) as Lucy Westerna adds a fresh element as well, and where Mina’s bemoaning seriously impedes Dracula, Jayne and Lucy’s twists work wonderfully. Simply put, McGrath should have played Mina instead. Her flashy style and flirty pish posh perfectly hide Lucy’s subtle lady leanings, and again, this viewer aside is a pleasing character improvement upon Bram. We know the reasons why Lucy may seem too pretentious, but despite these positive strides, Lucy isn’t fully utilized until the later half of the season. Jessica De Gouw (Arrow) as Mina is far too bland in comparison and remains typical as the off and on, wishy washy, maybe reincarnated love interest instead. It’s quite progressive that she is a Victorian medical student, but Mina is also squeamish and set back with nervousness and romantic idiocy. Her seemingly feminist dreams and juvenile behaviors don’t match the character’s would be strengths nor Grayson’s sophistication, and one wonders why all these people are so desperately enthralled with her.
Likewise, Oliver Jackson-Cohen (World Without End) overplays the wannabe rich and snot reporter Jonathan Harker. The potential for early old-fashioned newspaper designs and muckraker happenings is ruined with his clunky – Harker does not have the who’s who and what’s what finesse to be an insightful investigative reporter and conflict is created purely by his being a jerk or stepping into it with everyone or everything. Along with the equally plodding Order of the Dragon, the character could have been written out with the show no worse for the wear. Blessedly however, Nonso Anozie (Game of Thrones) as R.M. Renfield is an ingeniously urbane henchman. He likes that Grayson is not a “proper” employer and dislikes Dracula’s bouts of morality but stands firm and remains loyal in wise, quiet villainy. This Renfield smartly sees through people, deduces their nature, and will use or dismiss anyone as needed. Another very positive character development for Dracula along with Thomas Kretschmann’s (Avengers: Age of Ultron) cantankerous Professor Van Helsing. Old time medical gear aids his rocky relationship with Dracula and the debating between these expected enemies now allied is meaty fun. Science and revenge both help and hinder, and again, Dracula could have been solely about this search for a desperate daytime cure with Van Helsing’s side dose of revenge. His retribution feels far more believable, and his ruthless motivation leads to some intriguing questions on who is the worse monster on Dracula.
Though not as costume bespectacle as big screen productions of old and a bit too modern in hairstyles, fabrics, low cuts, and pants wearing women, the 19th century style on Dracula is high end, flashy, and colorful – frocks, feathers, jewelry, long coats, and top hats! The elegant men are refreshingly refined alongside quality blood, creepy graves, cobblestone streets, carriages, early cars, and plenty of fog and rainy feelings. Delicate society highs and lows are here along with skeletons, medical gruesomes, and head choppings. Sometimes the false illumination technologies seem overhyped, but dangerous window light and swaths of streetlight make for mood and interesting shadows. CGI rooftop battles are obvious as are Highlander style swordfights and too much slow motion, but thankfully, these designs are gone after the first few episodes. Did someone realize such action was unnecessary? The blink and you miss them opening credits, however, seem trapped in a contemporary blue tinted and steampunk atmosphere – complete with gears and goggles as if NBC felt they had to package the show with such forced edge. Ironically, these expensive production values and showy misfires when compared against the resulting ho hum Friday night numbers are most likely what cooked Dracula’s goose. Different writers and directors across the series created no clear vision of progression, and with only 43 minutes per episode, the story felt like it was just getting started when it was time to stop. I had hoped NBC might develop other gothic properties or literary works for a rotating classy prime time block. However, network television is increasingly cutting its nose to spite its face, and Dracula is no longer available On Demand or Hulu while one awaits the incoming 3-disc set from Netflix. With its faulty start, it was tough enough to watch Dracula from week to week. NBC could have made a real autumn event by having several Dracula episodes airing on back to back nights or even showcased the entire show in the true mini series format of old with two hour television movie chic. Viewer styles have changed and the production team here was simply not up to pace.
Longtime Bram Stoker fans can’t go into this Dracula expecting a faithful book retelling. In fact, the plot as ended feels more like a prequel to the novel we know and love. Yes, it is slow to start. Yes, mixed motivations will have you yelling at the TV. Fortunately, progressive characters, excelling performances, and superior plots save Dracula. Despite its brief life, the intriguing changes, gothic style, and moody spins here are perfect for a sophisticated vampire viewer’s macabre weekend marathon.