CHRIS NEWTON concludes his reviews of Dracula BBC 2020, with his look at Episode 3: The Dark Compass
Editor warning: This article has lots of spoilers!
I have a guilty pleasure. It’s Dracula A.D. 1972. It can hardly be considered a good film by any stretch – but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and now, almost 50 years since its release, it’s almost as much of a period piece as the ’58 original.
Uprooting Count Dracula from his 19th Century setting and dropping in modern day London seems sacrilegious.
But it’s interesting to consider that’s exactly what Stoker did for his 1897 novel – taking an ancient monster and placing it in his ‘modern’ Victorian society.
In that respect it’s easy to see Dracula as a classic novel and forget how progressive it was in its day. (One could even argue that Dracula’s epistolary format laid the foundations for ‘found footage’ horror.)
When Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat gave us their 21st Century interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, they suggested that the character needn’t be preserved in Victorian fog. Holmes was a progressive creation at the time, and a character fascinated by technology and scientific advancements.
We shouldn’t have been surprised that they would take a similar approach to their version of Dracula, but the time-jump cliffhanger of episode two took many of us by surprise nonetheless.
After Sister Agatha Van Helsing set him alight onboard the Demeter, Dracula retreated to his box of dirt on the seabed, just off the coast of Whitby. That is, until The Jonathan Harker Institute – an organisation dedicated to preparing for the Count’s return – inadvertently resurrect him.
If we’ve learned one thing from the Spooky Isles comments section, it’s that this series has been divisive to say the least. This episode will probably be the most divisive of the lot. If episode two deviated from the novel, ‘The Dark Compass’ tears it up and starts from scratch.
If you’ve read my previous Dracula reviews, you know that my feelings have been mixed, and that Claes Bang didn’t grab me from the beginning. My favourite elements of the series thus far had been the Victorian Gothic aesthetic and Dolly Wells’ performance as Agatha. The fact that the modern setting of the final instalment unsentimentally discarded both of those suggested there was little left for me to enjoy, but the effect was quite the opposite.
Unleashed in the 21st Century, Dracula – both the character and the series – seemed to come into their own. Divested of his cloak (which, had you asked me, I would have insisted was a Dracula staple), Bang’s Count finally stepped away from the dad-in-fancy-dress that had bothered me so. His accent didn’t bother me as much, either. Sounding like Danny Dyer was incongruous when threatening 19th Century Hungarian nuns, it didn’t sick out so much when he was menacing Chanel Cresswell in 2020 Yorkshire.
As much as I want my Dracula to be creeping around a Gothic castle, or sneaking through a bedroom window, it’s been done so many times that the competition is almost insurmountably stiff. Bang is far from being a Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman (to me, at least), but in this episode I was finally able to accept his character in his own right, and it took taking him out of the shadows to do that.
Dracula A.D. 2020 (Ok, that’s not called that, but I’m saying it anyway) succeeds where the ’70s version didn’t because it embraces its modern setting. (I’m not sure if it was Lee’s understandable distaste for the premise, but his Dracula largely stays out of funky London and skulks among Gothic ruins.) Doubtless there will be detractors and staunch Stoker purists but, as someone who was fairly critical of the first two episodes, I’m going to do a U-turn here and suggest…
5 Reasons Gatiss and Moffat were right to set their Dracula in the 21st Century
Seems like I’m stating the obvious here, but whilst we think of Dracula as an inherently Victorian character, he’s been around since medieval times. Why confine a character with eternal life to one strict time period?
It’s something this version touches upon as Dracula marvels at a modern video camera with childlike delight. “I’ve been around since the 15th Century. Things change. You get used to it.” Bang’s Dracula is both remarkably savvy (managing to get online and skype someone within seconds of getting a tablet) and charmingly naïve. “Is the fridge the white box?” The scene where he watches the sun on ‘the moving picture box’ is remarkably touching, and reminiscent of Louis’ similar moment in Interview with the Vampire.
It’s always curious to view our own lives from an alternate perspective, and this episode makes a salient point when Dracula incorrectly deduces that Katherine (Cressell) is ‘clearly very wealthy’. It reminds us that, from a 19th Century perspective, even the humblest of 21st Century homes is a ‘treasure trove’ of comfort and technology.
But poverty and status are relevant, which brings me to…
As well as being immortal, let’s not forget that Dracula is also a member of the aristocracy. From a class perspective, his vampirism could be interpreted as him leeching off those beneath him, his immortality an analogy of the endless suppression of the poor, often by those whose wealth is inherited.
In the novel, Count Dracula’s heritage is of paramount importance to him. “In our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship … What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins? … Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race?”
These sentiments are echoed by Bang’s Count: “I’ve always approved of inherited power. Democracy is the tyranny of the uninformed. Only in blood to we find the truth.”
One of the most interesting and enjoyable elements of this episode was Frank Renfield (Gatiss), who appears not as a lunatic, but a lawyer. More specifically, Dracula’s lawyer. Tellingly, Dracula doesn’t escape confinement by the Harker Institute by brute force, or dark magic, but by legal leverage. Like many of the worst people in history, Dracula is wealthy enough to have the law on his side.
On a side note, Gatiss plays Frank with absolute relish. I particularly enjoyed his filling out the newspaper crossword with ‘Dracula is my lord’.
3. Dark Reflections
Dracula may not cast a reflection, but monsters and horror stories have always been a way of giving society a dark mirror image of itself. As the Mother Superior says in episode one: “Darkness and evil seem compelling to us all, and I believe it is because, in their presence we can feel God in our hearts.”
Put simply: we need evil in order to define good.
Stoker’s novel was a fantastic mirror to Victorian society, with playfully ambiguous intent. Was it condemning wild, animalistic lust or condoning it? Was it an exercise in deep rooted xenophobia and the fear of foreign invasion, or a denouncement of empire?
This TV series addresses more modern concerns, and rather than a buttoned-up Victorian, Lydia West’s Lucy is a sexually liberated, Instagram-ready socialite, whose filtered selfies mask a deep dissatisfaction with modern life. In fact, she was such a realistic, relatable character that I found myself thinking there was no way they were going to behead her.
They didn’t. Her fate was much worse…
3. New Horrors!
The march of technology brings ever more gruesome potential, and a lot has changed since Dracula last walked abroad. “These days everything is being delivered, even food,” Dracula quips as he peruses Tinder as one might survey a takeaway menu.
But Courtship isn’t the only thing that’s changed since Dracula’s day. It’s a well-known fact that a person who has been bitten by a vampire bit will subsequently rise from their grave to feed upon the living. But what happens if that person is cremated? (The UK’s first official cremation occurred only two years before the publication of Stoker’s novel.)
Lucy’s fate is probably the darkest moment of the series, in an episode that was by far the most horrific of the lot. The ‘peekaboo’ child was my favourite scare, and I’m sure most of us lay awake staring anxiously at the foot of our beds that night.
In fact, it was Lucy’s relationship with Dracula that saved this interpretation for me. I may not have found Bang to be as charismatic or alluring as I’d have liked, but Lucy clearly did, and there was a genuine element of seduction on both parts. He was irresistibly drawn to her because she didn’t fear death, and she to him because he embodied it.
Their graveyard exchange is probably the series’ finest moment. It was where I found myself accepting Bang as Dracula as he proclaimed, “In a world of travelled roads, death is the last unprinted snow,” perfectly summing up the appeal of the character. We are as attracted to vampires as Lucy is.
4. A Very Different Ending
Here’s another guilty secret of mine – as much as I love the novel, I’ve always found Dracula’s ending to be slightly anticlimactic. Compared to the horror of Harker’s stay in the castle and the thrill of Lucy’s transformation, I personally found the ‘adventurous pursuit’ section to be the weakest. And I’ve always secretly felt that Dracula was dispatched of a little too easily. The absence of Jonathan and Mina in this version moves the story in a very different direction and, without spoiling it too much, I felt it gave this vampire the ending he deserved; full of drama and with a hint of romance. This isn’t the best thing Gatiss and Moffat have written, but I saw the best of their writing in its final moments. “After all this time, did you think I’d let it hurt?”
Claes Bang may not have been my ideal Count Dracula but, as much as I evangelise about Lee’s and Lugosi’s performances, the stories of their respective films were far from perfect. It’s safe to say that nothing will ever be as perfect as the version of Dracula that exists in my head. Such is the ill-fated nature of any book-to-screen adaptation.
But if this latest iteration of the tale introduces a new generation to one of the greatest books ever written, then it gets my seal of approval.