Over the years there has been a myriad of interpretations of Dracula and that's not exactly strange when you consider he is one of the most iconic characters ever imagined. Christopher Lee, Luke Evans, Gerard Butler, Leslie Nielsen, Gary Oldman, and even Adam Sandler, have all played the role in the past. Each interpretation has been widely different, however, and at this point, there are so many different variants of the character that one might call Dracula something of a "shapeshifter".
This rich legacy also puts a lot of pressure on the actors who take on the role and that weight now rests on the shoulders of Danish actor Claes Bangs, who plays Dracula in the Netflix series of the same name, this time created by Doctor Who and Sherlock creators-in-chief Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.
The series of just three episodes long, and while this might sound sparse, each episode has the length of a feature film. This is unusual when you look at the industry median, but not when compared to Gatiss and Moffat's previous major success, Sherlock, which was also made up of extended episodes. Although Dracula is a fairly coherent production, it still features three relatively separate narratives, and each one is long enough to feel distinctive from the next.
The main character here is Dracula himself, and not necessarily his hunter Van Helsing and certainly not his many victims. Here, the series is already exploring a strange narrative setup that has us consistently overexposed to the series' primary villain, who loses his sense of mystery relatively quickly, and this is followed by a lot of unanswered questions. In many respects, this three-parter acts as an introduction - a journey of discovery into a new world.
Throughout the series, fresh considerations are given to Dracula's myth, such as asking what a bite really means, how he views his victims, and how he manipulates others to get what he wants. In the end, we're offered a relatively deep character portrait that, admittedly, doesn't really attempt to add anything particularly new to the mythology but nevertheless manages to offer viewers a refreshing interpretation of the source material.
And in the spotlight is, of course, Claes Bang, who gives the character a somewhat attractive look. Here, Dracula isn't some rattling monster, but rather a manipulative, charming and all-knowing villain, who has spent centuries developing his sharpened senses and supernatural abilities. Admittedly, he's not a creepy villain, but rather, Bang brings a new dimension to the character - a more realistic identity perhaps, one where he acts as a puppeteer rather than a bloodthirsty and relentless monster. Overall, Bang's performance is the absolute highlight of the production and he is able to shift between keeping his cool in certain situations before portraying him in a more physical, desperate and animalistic way when required. His main foil throughout is Agatha Van Helsing, portrayed by Dolly Wells, who dedicates her life to the fight against Dracula. Together they establish the central conflict of the series, which keeps the viewer engaged even when the structure itself falls short.
Unfortunately, that structure often fails to keep up with the actors' performances. First of all, we don't think that the structure brings much to the series. We kind of wished that the story had stayed in Transylvania and that it took the time to explore the castle, its surrounding towns, and the hometown of Dracula himself. Instead, the iconic castle is swiftly replaced with other environments that may not be confusing but do diminish the vampire's mystique. The entire second act takes place on a ship, and while it stays true to its source material, it just doesn't reach the level of excitement one would want. The series is far too obsessed with the idea that it should be some kind of odyssey for Dracula, and the only feeling the viewer is left with is a slow narrative arc that somehow feels like it was a little rushed.
At the same time, this particular interpretation of Dracula contains some rather shaky tonal shifts that won't bother everyone but distracted us. Horror is undermined by jokes that fall flat, sexuality is suddenly replaced by banal action sequences, and the list goes on. This is something Gatiss of Moffat have done before in Sherlock, which is known to switch gears between thriller and outright slapstick comic elements out of nowhere. Here, however, when the audience is clearly supposed to fear Dracula, and the tonal changes undermines the threat he poses. It's a shame because Claes Bang really does give his all when portraying the character's many sides, especially since he's a really solid pillar throughout. Keeping his remarkable performance in mind, you can't help but feel for him a little when he makes a bloodsucking-joke for the 10th time in the same episode.
The series is quite the looker, however. Costumes, makeup and visual effects all look pretty good. This makes the tonal shifts even more apparent, however, especially considering the series will most likely be approached with the assumption that violence and blood will be at its core. In one sequence in particular, where Dracula crawls out of a wolf's stomach, truly compels, and it's great to see Netflix allowing creators to let go of restrictions and create the scenes that they want to make. Again, however, there's just not enough room for the producers to show that side of things off, and if the series had just stuck to the setting of Transylvania, especially the castle, who knows what thrills and chills we might have seen develop. What we got instead lacked that extra bite, and the uncomfortable, edgy sequences are really all confined to the first episode, which we thought was a shame.
Dracula isn't bad by any means, mostly because of Claes Bang's performance, but there are other redeeming features to admire throughout its three episodes. That said, the series is just too confused and suffers from uneven pacing for its own good. It also lacks the awkwardness that has made some of the other Dracula interpretations so memorable, and by the end, we were left thinking about what might have been rather than what we had just seen.