I’ll say this about Netflix’s Dracula: It was certainly unpredictable. Or maybe its quick descent from greatness to a steaming pile of doggy doodoo was entirely predictable because Steven Moffat — who, according to my Doctor Who and Sherlock-watching friends, is great at starting stories but terrible at finishing them — created this version of Dracula, which is now on Netflix after a three-night run in the U.K.
It’s a shame, too, because the first episode of Dracula is fanf—ingtastic. Of the three episodes in this limited series remix of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it sticks closest to the source material as Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) heads to Dracula’s Transylvania castle in 1897 to broker a real estate deal and discovers that behind the stone walls lies a house of horrors filled with undead monstrosities and homoerotic subtext.
The premiere has the creepiest pale baby since Trainspotting. It has a legion of nuns fighting a smart-mouthed Dracula (Danish raven-haired hunk, Claes Bang), who plays with his prey like an apex predator bored with the hunt. It has Dracula covered in lupine amniotic fluid flaunting his nakedness in front of said holy ladies. It has a decapitation and one incredibly funny physical gag about wedding traditions involving the decapitated head. It has Dracula, wearing a blood-sucking grin, saying lines like “I’ve been dying to meet you,” so intentionally hammy that it’s charming. It has a nun asking Harker if he’s had sexual intercourse with Count Dracula. It’s the kind of episode that mixes horror, humor, and horniness without overdoing any of them and leaves you dying to see what’s next.
Unfortunately, what’s next in the three-episode limited series is a chapter that is somewhat watchable but stalls as an Agatha Christie murder mystery on a boat, and a finale that is beyond stupid, utterly destroying any goodwill that came before it because of an unnecessary twist that Moffat couldn’t resist (and I won’t spoil for those who curious to discover it in all its face-palming glory). Each of the three episodes, running about 90 minutes apiece, is tentatively connected to the others but stands alone as its own story, bouncing from genre to genre when it was fine as is in its first hour. Clearly, Moffat and co-creator Mark Gatiss wanted to put their own stamp on the classic, but the further they strayed, the worse things got.
The second episode does explore parts of Dracu-lore Stoker’s novel only touches on, namely Dracula’s boat ride to England on the ship Demeter, which is mentioned in the novel but not in detail. Dracula spends its entire middle on the boat, introducing characters we don’t see again and posing a murder mystery when we know full-on who the murderer is (spoiler: it’s Dracula). The final episode is Moffat pounding on the desk and declaring that this is his story now, taking things to places that seem so far away from the first two chapters that they may as well have never existed. It’s a complicated, unnecessary mess that concludes in a puddle of rushed reveals and shrugs, which I understand is something close to what happened to Doctor Who a few times under Moffat’s leadership.
Bangs is wonderful as Dracula, his performance sitting perfectly between diabolical and seductive — especially in the first episode — and recognizing the frequent absurdity of the series. But it’s Dolly Wells who steals the show as Sister Agatha, a bullheaded nun who’s not afraid to stare down Dracula while everyone else cowers. The two square off in the series’ best scenes, overdoing it on the dialogue slightly, but infusing it with cat-and-mouse fun that suits the show well.
Even with the quick descent to mediocrity and worse, I’d recommend that fans of campy horror drenched in buckets of blood watch the first 90-minute episode because the story comes second to the fun spirit that shines through, and you can at least be part of the conversation wondering what this show could have been. Watch the second episode on a dare, but only the very bravest out there should sit through the finale.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Dracula is now streaming on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS)