BBC/Netlix’s Dracula: A Mixed Adaptation of Stoker’s Classic Novel

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Photo Courtesy of the BBC

How do you make Bram Stoker’s 19th Century Dracula relevant for the 21st Century? How do you tell a vampire story post-Twilight and make the classic monster threatening? The three-part BBC/Netflix adaptation tries to do both with mixed results. Its first episode is reminiscent of early Dracula Hammer films, while drawing fairly heavily from the source material. The second two episodes take bold risks with Stoker’s novel, while trying to maintain the general story-line and characterization. At certain points, the series succeeds in making the vampire relevant in 2020, while at other times, namely in the third episode, there are too many poorly executed leaps.

In terms of the building slow dread and genuine scares, the first episode is the most effective, and it generally follows the beginning of the novel when lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) treks to the Count’s Gothic estate to complete a real estate transaction, only to fall prey to the monster, while  his fiance Mina (Morfydd Clark)  frets over his whereabouts. The challenge of adapting Stoker’s novel is the epistolary form. To handle this, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Mofatt still give Harker’s account of his time under the Count’s spell, but they do so by having nuns/vampire hunters (yes, you read that correctly) interview him. Oddly enough, it works. We’re introduced to a pale, badly scarred Harker, and in one of the most effective scares, a fly crawls along and under his eyeball. The presence and stench of death is a reoccurring motif in the novel, and the first episode uses the constant image of flies to reinforce this. It is unnerving and haunting, underscoring the power that the monster still has over Harker. His wounds are both physical and mental.

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(Photo Courtesy of the BBC)

Claes Bang is generally a captivating Dracula as his power grows over the young Harker. He is suave and handsome once he feeds. His hair darkens. His wrinkles disappear, but the fact his first appearance depicts him as a scraggly-haired, sharp-toothed fiend compounds the point Stoker emphasizes in the novel that no matter how alluring, Count Dracula is a monster who only unleashes death. Throughout the rest of the series, however, Dracula resembles a caped Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi more than he does Max Schreck/Noseratu. Additionally, the influence of the Lee-era Hammer Films  is apparent in the first episode, with several close-up shots of the castle and fog rolling beneath looming spires. The episode leans heavily into the Gothic elements and creates a mesmerizing atmosphere.

Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) also elevates the first episode, specifically when she encounters the Count for the first time and taunts him, calling him nothing but a beast who driven by sheer hunger at the sight of blood. Some  may gripe that Van Helsing was changed to a woman for this series, but in the first episode, she gives one of the strongest performances. Her intellect and confidence match Dracula’s.

The second episode takes place on the Demeter, a ship set for the New World/England,  as the Count stalks victim after victim and hides the bodies. The gore here is as effective as the use of flies in episode one, but after spending an hour and a half on a ship, you just want the Count to reach London already. Additionally, too many of the characters in the second chapter are too hollow and serve as little more than vampire bait. The third episode is the shakiest in the series and has drawn the most complaints from viewers. There are great leaps in the narrative and major characters from the novel, namely Lucy (Lydia West) and Renfield (Gattis), who feel shoehorned into the final chapter. The most brazen move entails setting Dracula in the present day. How he ended up in the present is absurd and laughable from a narrative standpoint and comes across as lazy writing. There are plot points regarding the Van Helsing family that also don’t quite stick. Yet, I couldn’t stop laughing (in a good way) each time Dracula checked email and Skyped.

Overall, the series is uneven. Its first episode is the strongest. Its visuals, story line, and acting all cohere to create an engaging first chapter that stays true to the source material while making changes that make sense for the TV format. The third episode is by far the riskiest and has drawn the most ire from fans. Too many major characters from the novel are stuffed into the conclusion and not given enough time to breathe. All of that said, at least  the vampire doesn’t sparkle. On the one hand, he’s attractive and intellectual, and on the other hand, when his mouth is covered with blood, or when he visits Jonathan’s dreams as an aged demonic figure, he’s quite terrifying. Final verdict: watch the series with an open mind and enjoy it for what it is.

 

 

Review: Hold the Dark (2018)

In Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier uses the tight confines of a dingy punk rock club in rural America to create isolation and tension as a band is besieged by neo-Nazis. At one point, the group is hauled up in the confines of a sound check room with no access to the outside world. Sauldnier’s latest film, Netflix’s Hold the Dark, contains sprawling Alaskan landscapes and stunning cinematography that creates bleakness and despair. The violence is as brutal and sudden as some of the scenes in Green Room. However, the film strays into too much ambiguity near the halfway point and sinks beneath its own weight.

Hold the Dark is based on the 2014 novel by William Giraldi, and it traces the journey/mission of writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who is summoned by Medora Slone (Riley Keough) to investigate the loss of her son, who was allegedly killed by a pack of wolves. The animals are also blamed for the death of other children in the village. The opening act  is the strongest, especially the scenes between Wright and Keough, whose acting is top notch. The dialogue is well-crafted and builds a foreboding sense of darkness that can’t be kept at bay, especially when Medora says, “The wilderness here is inside us…Inside everything.” The early scenes are isolating and often feature long shots of the all-consuming Alaskan wilderness, sometimes with the characters set small against the backdrop. One of the most tense scenes occurs when Core stumbles down a snowy hill and encounters the pack of wolves, their snouts bloodied after devouring one of their own, a cub. It’s a survival of the fittest/kill or be killed type of world.

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Russell Core (Jeremy Wright) and Medora Slone (Riley Keough)

Following the opening act, once Medora flees the scene and after it’s discovered that she may have been the one who killed her son, the rest of the film loses its momentum and veers off track, especially once her husband, Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgård), returns home from Iraq after getting shot in the neck. He kills and kills some more, as he searches for his wife. There were several missed opportunities and potential story lines left uncharted. The idea of isolation and loneliness caused by Vernon Slone’s Iraq tour is generally unexplored. Imagine being a military spouse, left to raise your child alone in Alaska. The tension between what the Native people believe about nature and the wolves and what police believe, mainly that there is no greater, metaphysical force at work, is interesting and deserved far more attention. Early on, the idea that there is some connection between Medora Slone and the wolves is lightly introduced but also underdeveloped. I had hoped the film would have explored some connection between the feminine and nature and how Medora is viewed by the villagers and the police.

Watch the trailer for Hold the Dark:

 

The film’s final act, when Core eventually confronts Vernon Slone, is the most frustrating. Yes, they come face to face and one walks away, so to speak, but the film’s conclusion is utterly ambiguous. Nothing is really resolved. It takes over two hours to build to such a climax, only to veer off into a strange direction with no finality.

The acting and cinematography are the highlights of Hold the Dark, and fans who liked the level of gore and violence in Green Room won’t be disappointed with some of the brutal scenes in Saulnier’s latest effort. However, the film’s plot comes unglued around the halfway point, and anyone who sticks around for the ending will probably find it underwhelming.