It’s no surprise that we at Castle Burchfield would watch the opening episode of the new Dracula miniseries, broadcast on NBC on Friday nights. Since then though, I have failed to take a second look. Not much surprise there either.
Dracula the series is definitely a lavish, eye-filling concoction. The producers chose to set this one during the time of Stoker’s novel, the opulent peak of the Victorian era. The first hour resembles the perfect coffee table book—with accompanying slides and viewfinder--you might buy for a history buff relative. Lovers of Victorian bric-a-brac will sigh. To the eyes, this Dracula is gorgeous.
Dracula fans, though, may find the rest to be pretty thin-blooded. Oodles of changes have been made to Stoker’s narrative; nothing wrong with that, but the changes, while interesting to ponder, turn out rather uninteresting in practice. Some of them play to woo-woo Twilight fans. Others are willful and arbitrary rather than thought through.
Among the most significant is that Van Helsing the Vampire Hunter is now Van Helsing the Vampire’s Ally (played by Thomas Kretschmann). It seems both he and Dracula have one epic bloody axe to grind with a secret society called The Order of the Dragon and have teamed up to destroy it. The Order is a centuries-old Hellfire Club that has evolved from wielding power with the sword of the supernatural to wielding it with the sword of Gilded Age capitalism and new technologies borne of the Industrial Revolution, such as gas and oil.
Not one to stay behind history (which he always has before), Dracula has refashioned himself—peculiarly, I have to say—as a wealthy Gilded-Age, Andrew Carnegie type American—really, what is up with that?—named Alexander Grayson.
Grayson is developing wireless electricity as a means to not only achieve the power and wealth he needs to destroy his enemies—why an American fer chrissakes?—but also to enhance his nocturnal existence, so he will no longer need rely on moonlight and candles to find his way around. His future will be a world sorely lacking in shadows, that’s for sure. Not one any serious supernatural being would care to haunt.
Jonathan Harker, meanwhile, has become a crusading investigative journalist while Mina Harker his fiancé, is an ambitious medical student, her sights set on breaking the glass ceiling into the then exclusively man-castle of professional medicine. No sign of flailing Quincy Morris, yet; or Dr. Seward.
Where Mina and Dracula are concerned, the show hearkens back to the 1990s Coppola version by making Mina the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife from 1490s Transylvania—wait a minute’s he’s an American? I guess it’s a disguise, but . . . .
Most interestingly, the series solves the Renfield Problem simply by making Renfield into the most dutiful—and clinically sane and competent--African-American butler any wealthy white American of that time could wish for. At last, Dracula has found his Jeeves.
Given its backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern science—and the powers it brings—what is Dracula, who should always have the Greater Powers of Darkness at hand—doing here in the first place? He’s never needed no stinkin’ electricity, that's for sure. Why does he need it now and what does that do his supposedly supernatural powers? To me, it diminishes them to near irrelevance. This a Dracula who embraces modernity, absurdly I think and becomes even smaller. He should be turning on the lights by simple force of will.
Stylistically Dracula is as sleek and cinematic as we could wish, but the first episode made gestures that seem merely distracting. The grand opening ball sequence features the guests dancing like stick figures to an avant-garde tarantella-like waltz as might be conjured by Ennio Morricone instead of Strauss or Tchaikovsky. Cute, but how proper Victorians could even dance to this without breaking their spines requires explanation.
We’re also treated to a slow-motion, acrobatic wired sword fight, derived from Chinese action cinema, which has devolved to an annoying tic used in movies with no real excitement in them. It’s a trick to keep that young demographic from switching over to Highlander reruns. No real thrill or urgency here at all.
Finally, there’s the star of the show, the great compelling void whose cruel whirling gravity drains the light from the whole world around, namely Dracula. The show falls short here, too. Real short. Jonathan Rhys-Meyer as Dracula is more than dourly handsome enough for Twilight fans, but he’s also a cool cipher with little power and presence. Dracula needs more than sexual allure. He needs a compelling fearsomeness that Mr. Rhys-Meyers, who tends to fade whenever he shares the screen with anyone else, lacks. Not even the wolves would heed his call.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield