FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Dracula (2020)

Netflix’s New Dracula is Downright Frustrating to Watch.

by Kristin Battestella

Initially, I was excited for the BBC/Netlfix 2020 co-production of Dracula featuring Claes Bang (The Square) as the infamous Transylvania count terrorizing lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) before sailing to England on the subsequently cursed Demeter. Unorthodox nun Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) tests all the legendary vampire elements in a cat and mouse battle against Dracula. His survival into the twenty-first century spells doom for fun-loving Lucy Westerna (Lydia West), and unfortunately, the poorly paced, uneven back and forth between the Bram Stoker source and intrusive contemporary changes make for some terribly torturous viewing.

The Rules of the Beast” opens with annoying extras already calling attention to themselves as nuns surprisingly blunt about faith or the lack thereof try to make sense of this Mr. Harker and his monstrous experience. Beginning with the convent rescued is an interesting place to recap the preceding horror, so there’s no need for weird questions on whether Harker had sex with Dracula. Such sensationalism underestimates vampire fans familiar with the tale and lures new audiences with the wrong notes. After the opening credits, snowy Carpathian prayers, crosses, and howling wolves restart the story with the more recognizable coachmen creepy and ominous castle. The full moon, booming door knocker, and fluttering bats build toward famous introductory quotes as Carfax Abbey paperwork and tutoring in English etiquette force Harker to stay with Dracula. Sadly, the actors don’t have much room thanks to the orchestrated frame – the convent interrogation intrudes on the castle tension while extra zooms or hisses over blood and broken mirrors point out the obvious. Rather than letting the audience enjoy the eerie for themselves, the harping voiceover undercuts any ominous with “So it struck you as strange? And so your search continued. Tell us.” minutia. The womanly phantoms and gothic explorations take a backseat as we’re told how Dracula gets younger and Harker grows gruesome – ruining the sinister irony by giving away gory discoveries, bodily contortions, and spinning heads. Viewers anticipate the funhouse horror shocks and laugh as the undead leap out at the screaming Harker before another monologue ruins the quiet reveal of Dracula’s crypt. Spinning panoramas and intercut, fast-talking plans over-edit Dracula in that British heist movie or clever case closed Sherlock tone. Dollies into the mouth of the biting vampire are special effects for the audience instead of painful for the victim, and everything stalls for “You were about to explain how you escaped from the castle.” redundancy. It takes ten minutes to explain how sunlight reflected from a cross burns the vampire as if it’s some shocking revelation, but at least the nuns are ready with stakes when Dracula begs for entry at their gate with severed heads and convent slaughter tacked on in the final fifteen minutes.

Crawling hands, ship-bound nightmares, and onscreen notations introduce the captain, crew, and passengers of the Demeter in “Blood Vessel” alongside ominous cargo boxes, buried alive scratches, and dead deckhands. However onscreen chess parallels, unfortunately, fall prey to typical attractions between Dracula and our female Van Helsing. Characters wax on how books must immediately engage the audience and today’s horror loves a frame narrative, yet editors would ditch the prologues, bookends, and flashbacks. Once again, the episode restarts with one and all coming aboard – including Dracula and a Goodfellas freeze-frame to point everything out for the audience. Despite the Demeter disturbia, the back and forth setting is ambiguous, and flashbacks again disrupt the point of view. Humorous questions about going to the dining room when one doesn’t eat food fall flat, and intriguing passenger opportunities go unexplored in favor of baiting homosexual mixed signals. Dracula roughly attacks men from behind before wiping the blood from his mouth with the closeted newlywed’s napkin. Bram Stoker already wrote of the bite as sex metaphor, so treating the vampire suckling, flirtatious nods, and knee squeezes as a disease to demonize gay men comes off wrong. If this Dracula was going to address more sexual topics, it should have done so properly instead of toying with both characters and viewers. The turbulent ship is a superb locale, yet there’s no sense of space. Is Dracula attacking people and oozing blood in the crowded dining room or leaving bodies above deck in front of everybody? The disjointed editing doesn’t disguise the muddled scene, for key pieces of action that should be shown in real-time are withheld for later spooky flashes. Lackadaisical live-tweeting style voiceovers with a lot of “I don’t understand” and “but I assumed” interfere with the locked cabins, unseen travelers, and tantalizing murder mystery. Searching the ship, suspect evidence, and pointing fingers on who can’t be trusted are delayed for mind games and let downs from the first episode nonsensically tossed in here. Dracula toys with the crimes so he can solve the case with winks on what a great detective he is, detracting from Van Helsing’s book quotes and passenger tensions. At first, it seems so cool to see Dracula up to no good aboard the Demeter, but once the episode backs itself into a corner, one almost wishes we had just seen the passengers on the vampire deduction themselves.

Contrived answers as to how Dracula got out of his watery grave in “The Dark Compass” aren’t shrewd, just gimmicky – pulling the rug out from under viewers with chopped up, non-linear storytelling. After Dracula labors for over two hours on adapting the beginning of the novel – albeit with new intrusions – the series up and decides to move into the present, restarting again with trailer park terrors and in world inexplicable. The vignette style disarray encourages audiences to half pay attention to fast-moving scares with no time to ask questions as the beach raid seriously gives way to Dracula laughing at technology and playing with cameras. Underwater preservation, diving teams, accidental fresh blood revivals, and science briefings studying Dracula are treated as less important than his being down with the lingo or telling doctors his blood connections are like downloading memories. Dracula has a grotesque reflection showing his age, police bulldoze a house so he won’t have a roof over his head during the day, and seeing inside the bite reveals a unique abstract limbo. Poisoned blood makes him vomit and this vampire research foundation was founded by Mina Murray in Jonathan Harker’s name, but any intriguing background or choice horror gets dropped for deadpans like Dracula wondering why his jailers gave him a toilet and “Who gave him the wi-fi password?!” Phones, photos, and raves introduce viewers to a whole new set of characters, and where Dracula painfully dragged out earlier episodes, now the cemeteries, supernatural, and undead move at lightning speed. Problematic cancerous blood, suspect scientific organizations, and ill characters drinking the vampire samples stall thanks to sassy emails from Dracula read as a voiceover – avoiding one one one confrontations for glossed over montages skipping to three months later where there’s no longer any pretense at this being a gothic novel adaptation. Existential wordy on flavor, being in love with death, and suggestions that Dracula has lived so long simply because he is a coward afraid to die are thrown at the screen in the final fifteen minutes alongside Hammer knock offs and a stake through the heart dusting ripped right from Buffy. The “Children of the night…” quote finally comes in a fascinating sequence about hearing the still conscious dead knocking in their tombs, but the lack of paranormal follow through, forgotten up to no good foundation, and barely-there medical crisis are infuriating when this science meets occult agency versus new to the millennium Dracula could have been a series in itself.

It’s a lot to ask for the audience to like an unlikable protagonist with no redeeming qualities thanks to glowing eyes, gross nails, and tasty babies in bags. Claes Bang’s Count is white-haired before being re-invigorated as a well-spoken Englishman – he has the gravitas in serious moments inspired by the novel, but the jolly good clever retorts replace any menace. Dracula need not explain anything, yet our mustache twisting, almost camp villain wastes time mansplaining into the new century even as sad crescendos suggest we should be sympathetic to his crocodile tears. His powers are more cinematic convenience than supernatural, and the glib gets old fast as Dracula complains about exercise while he swipes left for his latest food delivery hook-up. Bang deserved to have a faithful adaptation to sink his teeth into, but the script has the character patting himself on the back before giving up just because the page says so. It’s also obvious Dolly Wells (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is our Van Helsing when we see her. Using the Stoker text as she explains the undead and waxes on having plans not faith when dealing with those denied salvation are strong enough characterizations, yet Dracula sacrifices her action with too much reflective talking. Agatha doesn’t believe in God but stays in their loveless marriage for the roof over her head, but her serious study is hampered by super sassy bordering on ridiculous. She stands face to face goading Dracula over his invitation status when she isn’t sure of the no vampire entry rules, and their debates are played for temptation. Agatha admires and encourages Dracula, but her lack of undead information leads to deadly consequences. How can she be both bungling sardonic and grandstanding with not today, Satan speeches? It’s not seeing the actors acting per se, but the scene-chewing intrusions are too apparent as Agatha tells Dracula to a suckle boy before her great-great-grand niece Zoe swaps hemoglobin with him for some cryptic ancestral conversations – which could have been awesome if they weren’t tacked on in the last twenty minutes. Despite spending the first episode with John Heffernan’s (Dickensian) pasty, deformed, and desperate Jonathan Harker in an unnecessarily drawn out account, we never really know the character because so much of his development is given to others. His outcome is also significantly different than in the novel, and Morfydd Clark (The Man Who Invented Christmas) is surprisingly almost non-existent as his fiancee Mina Murray. Glittery Lucy Westerna loves selfies and making the boys jealous, but I wish we saw Lydia Wells (Years and Years) in Victorian frocks instead of modern cool and cliché party girl garb. Viewers are tossed into her pretty snobbery before skipping to her down low Dracula feedings, and the pointless cremation screams versus skin-deep beauty wears thin fast. Writer and producer Mark Gatiss (Coriolanus) as Dracula’s lawyer Frank Renfield Skypes with the Count over his human rights being violated. This awkward self-insert calls attention to itself with fast-talking legalese tut-tuts. Renfield asks questions the viewer has, but the answers should be in the story, not told by the writer onscreen.

Steeple silhouettes and gray skies open Dracula with gothic flavor, but sweeping CGI panoramas and bugs squashing against the fourth wall are irritating when we’re here for the flickering torches, winding staircase, stone corridors, and heavy drapes of Dracula’s castle. Echoes and shadows accent the candles, lanterns, portraits, creaking doors, and scratching at the window as boxes of dirt, rats, and undead adds grossness. Hidden laboratories and crosses would suggest medieval hints, but the snarling at the camera is lame and the should be disturbing vampire baby is as laughable as that delicious lizard puppet from the original V. Raw, furry black wolf transformations are much better thanks to birthing contortions, blood, moist oozing, and nudity. Likewise, the congested, ship bound Demeter scenery is superb with all the proper maritime mood, moonlit seas, foggy isolation, and claustrophobic horror tension before fiery explosions and underwater spooky. The present, however, is extremely colorful – purple nightlife, teal laboratories, dreamy red visions, and jarring pink filters. Enchanting abbey ruins contrast the high tech prison rotating toward sunlight to keep the vampire in his place, and the organization’s Victorian roots could imply a steampunk mix with the modern technology, but any older aesthetic is sadly dropped for rapid shutter clicks, strobe headaches, and onscreen text speak. YOLO! For once I’m somewhat timely on reviewing a new series – rushed to beat spoilers because social media compatriots were already talking about not finishing the First Episode here. Unlike Sharpe and Wallander, the three ninety-minute television movie-style episode season does not work for Dracula. Maybe this format is good for a Netflix binge where we just let the whole smorgasbord play, but if Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat (Doctor Who) had designed Dracula as six forty-five minute episodes instead of lumping everything together, it would have helped heaps in organizing the story between adapting segments from the page and adding new material or time jumps. Rumors suggest Netflix tracks viewing duration rather than series completion, so maybe bowing out after the initial ninety minutes goes further in their algorithms than if audiences had tuned out after a forty-five-minute start? The bang for instant viewing buck shows in the mess onscreen, and the only thing that could have made this worse was if it had actually been named Dracula 2020.

Narrative interference and deviations from the novel make this Dracula terribly frustrating to watch. This is the first time I’ve felt reviewing was an obligated chore, and at times, I had to take a pause because I was so aggravated. The Transylvania start and Demeter ride imply a novel retelling, but the convent shenanigans and Van Helsing ladies past or present suggest new adventures. Attempting both in a back and forth, short attention span frame only insults audiences looking for new vampire spins, experienced horror viewers, and teachers who can tell when the student has only read the first few chapters of the assigned book and just makes up the rest. Dracula isn’t scary – the Netflix and chill model is designed to make us awe at something creepy now and again, but the try-hard gore is dang common with little sense of dread. There’s so much potential for a faithful book interpretation as well as new vampire direction, but this transparent seemingly cool ultimately ends up being the same old horror same old and Dracula wastes most of its time on nonsensical absurdities.

I feel so scathing but I started with fourteen pages of complaints and made it down to six so I guess that’s an improvement? ¯\_()_/¯

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Odds and Dead Ends: Doctor Who’s Sci-fi – Horror Masterclass

When Doctor Who revived on March 26th, 2005, I was seven years old, a few months away from my eighth birthday. I was the perfect age to have my mind utterly blown by the galactic voyages, the heritage, the sets, the monsters; everything about it was just cool. Russell T. Davis’ era of Who was one of the things that made me the genre fan I am today. Now that I’m older, I look back on it and wonder which episodes, stories, stand out most. One day I will certainly do an article analyzing speech and identity in the Series 4 episode Midnight, an underrated gem of an episode. Blink gave me a phobia of statues for months, and I remember coming home from school pretending to be a Cyberman (complete with stomping sound effects) once the new incarnations came through in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel.

Yet for me, the more I think on it, the more I affirm my beliefs that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, episodes 8 and 9 of Series 2 respectively, are the best episodes of the show’s now 13, nearly 14 year, revival. A blend of cosmic horror, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller, and possession horror movie, this storyline is an immaculate blend of multiple genres, pushing the boundaries of Saturday-night family TV, which retains the ability to chill even the hardiest of adults. The Halloween special Waters of Mars was a very successful episode along a similar vein, but despite the claustrophobia in that episode, it doesn’t have the imagery, the scale, and grandeur, that comes with being stranded on a planet orbiting a black hole. This article is my attempt to analyze, decode, and understand just why this storyline is sci-fi/horror perfection, through the physical and emotional squeezing of the episode, and the theological darkness of The Beast.

 

Isolation

Sometimes horror tries to overload your senses with something vast and grand, such as the infinite size of the cosmos and the beyond, stuffed with elder gods and creatures unfathomable. This is most definitely the Lovecraft tradition of horror. One of the other approaches is to make the whole thing feel claustrophobic, and to put the pressure on the audience, tighter and tighter and tighter. This, perhaps, could be considered a Hitchcock tradition. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (which I will abbreviate as TIP or TSP throughout the rest of this article), manages through its sheer concept alone, to accomplish both a physical claustrophobia and tension, and a grand intellectual, mythological scope.

In TSP, a sequence sees Rose, Danny, Toby, and Jefferson, trapped in the vents underneath Sanctuary Base 6 being pursued by the possessed, murderous Ood. As if this isn’t bad enough, Captain Zachary has to manually shift the oxygen to them from each section of the tunnel each time they move on to the next section.

For me, this is the ultimate moment of claustrophobia in the two episodes, and it’s a careful appreciation of each turn of the screw (pun intended) that makes us feel so tense. Here’s my quick run-down of the beats up to this point that apply the pressure.

  1. The Tardis, the time-and-space ship, lands on a base, not feeling well. As The Doctor says, it’s like “‘she’s worried.’”
  2. The Doctor announces that they’ve arrived on a sanctuary base. The word ‘sanctuary’ implies a safe haven, but from what?
  3. ‘Welcome to Hell’ is scribbled on a wall, along with an indecipherable ancient language.
  4. After an earthquake, the revelation of their situation is made. The base is on a planet orbiting a black hole, held by a strange, unknown energy source that could plunge them into it at any moment.
  5. An earthquake plunges the Tardis into the depths of Kroptor, the planet. Their usual escape route has been lost.
  6. The base’s electronics, and Toby, come under the influence of The Beast.
  7. A hull breach loses one of the crew members, and they watch her drift up into the black hole. A constant reminder of mortality perched on the edge of the abyss.
  8. The Doctor and Iva descend down into the bowels of the planet in a small cable lift. The Doctor, the main intelligence and rationale of the galaxy, is physically distant from those above.
  9. The Ood become possessed; their translators changed into devices capable of electrocution.
  10. The Satan Pit opens down into a further unknown dark.
  11. The lift cable snaps, trapping The Doctor and Iva down below.
  12. Their electronic communication is temporarily stopped.
  13. With Ood all around, the crew have to shuffle through the underfloor ventilation tunnels to reach Ood habitation, the den of the things trying to kill them, in order to cut the possession of The Beast.
  14. Zachary, holed up in a room with Ood cutting their way in, has to manually, time-consumingly, shift their oxygen after them.
  15. The Ood are after them in the tunnels.

There are several aspects I’ve excluded for my later discussion on the Satan aspects, but it is easy to see even from this simple breakdown, how the episodes add layer upon layer of threat and danger. This sequence in the tunnels is perhaps only 2/3 of the way through the episodes’ total runtime, and there are sequences with danger in the rocket at the finale, but I believe the ventilation chase to be the best example of pressure-cooker isolation I’ve seen in Who.

In Doctor Who Confidential S2 E8, the set designers acknowledge Alien (1979) for inspiration in the base’s design. Indeed, the walkways are hemmed in by pillars that crowd the crew as they duck and scamper down the corridors. Similarly, the Nostromo’s corridors in Alien were designed so the actors had to crouch through the ship, complete with constant vents of steam and smoke from the walls that are also constantly shown in Sanctuary Base 6 coming from the floor. Far more than just the base, however, the civilisation in the interior of the planet also seems to have a touch of the Alien franchise about it, with the large sculptures something you’d find on board the Space Jockey’s ship. The abseil of The Doctor into the pit isn’t too dissimilar to Kane’s descent into the egg room. And you can’t watch the ventilation chase sequence without thinking of Dallas’ search through the Nostromo’s vents after the Xenomorph. This time, they can’t even see the threat as the Ood don’t register as life forms, and the opening of the final door to reveal the Ood there ready and waiting for them is so reminiscent of Dallas’ demise in Alien that you have to accept the homage.

Part of this story’s mastery, then, is of the sense of claustrophobia, of danger pressing in on you. Taking inspiration from its predecessors and finding new ways to tighten the vice, the whole scenario feels like you’re being slowly crushed. If the lack of air doesn’t get you, the Ood will. If they don’t, The Beast will plunge you into space. If he doesn’t do that, he’ll ensure the base doesn’t let you out. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll plunge you into the black hole. The noose gets tighter and tighter with each passing moment.

Satan Unbound

When, in TIP, the Doctor calculates the amount of energy needed to hold the planet in orbit around the black hole, he reels off a load of numbers, to which Rose replies, “‘all the sixes.’” Specifically, there are three of them. 666. The story deals with the iconography of Satan and a fairly unique discussion of language and communication to discuss the mere concept, the idea, and the horror, of the devil.

Perhaps the most obvious point of contact with this is the ancient language. The connection between this writing and an ancient evil are immediately apparent, with the ‘Welcome to Hell’ sign being scrawled above a copied passage of writing. That the planet they have arrived on is equated with Hell is subtly reinforced with several shots through doors and over shoulders, one such example being when Rose gets food from the Ood, where the ‘Hell’ on the sign is clearly visible.

The ancient language is also our main visual clue that Toby is possessed/himself. The writing jumps from the pottery to his hands, and later vanishes into the Ood. That this language is that of The Beast and not of the ancient civilisation is apparent from the pictures depicting the capture of The Beast down in the pit itself. These people used images, whereas The Beast uses words. Images exist purely in a visual form, whereas language can exist in visual or audible forms, or even touch if you think of Braille. This makes The Beast’s method of communication much more effective and potent for expanding throughout the universe, perpetuating his image throughout the countless civilisations.

That language is the myth-maker of The Beast’s choosing is made apparent when Ida discusses the planet’s name, spoken of only in scripture, and labelled as a demon when the Black Hole spat it back out. Not only is it through text that the story of the planet’s evil, and by extension its resident, perpetuated, but ‘scripture’ implies a religious text.

Despite a brief flash of The Beast on the hologram in the main hub, it is through words and speech that The Beast’s rising is foreshadowed. The computers announce that ‘He is awake,’ and Rose’s phone is hijacked to deliver the same message on a phone that can’t get a signal. Also, The Beast’s targets for possession are those with the closest links to language and words. Toby is an obvious choice because he is closest to the language as the archaeologist. However, the Ood are important thematically because they require the translators to communicate with their human masters. Before we get the hijacked message, the ‘we must feed’ interference and joke following TIP’s title sequence puts language at the forefront of the terror.

These translators are important not only for The Beast to use as weapons (language being used to kill and carry ideas of death), but it is also through the Ood that we get our longest pre-possession hints, “‘The Beast and his armies shall rise from The Pit to make war against God’”, and the lengthy discussion with The Doctor. The concepts of The Beast and his mythic perpetuation through language and words are inescapable. Language is how we view, understand, and construct the world around us, and that The Beast would use this as a means to attack us is perhaps more terrifying than anything else.

The Doctor’s incredulity and vehement rejection of the idea that The Beast can have existed before the universe is little relief for the audience, for The Beast knows so much that he can’t know. He sees into the minds of all the crew, and even predicts Rose’s future several episodes later. This complete knowledge of all, traversing the realms of possibility, puts the possibility of The Doctor being wrong into question. Is he right that The Beast is lying? After all, one of the names for Satan is ‘The Father of Lies.’ On the other hand, everything The Beast has said occurs in actuality, so who is to say he is wrong? That something is impossible isn’t an issue for The Beast; The Doctor describes his language as being ‘impossibly old’ upon first seeing it.

And then, in the final scenes, we have possessed-Toby’s ravings that the idea of him (The Beast) will always live on, despite being launched into the black hole, lingers, ‘I shall never die. The thought of me is forever.’ The Doctor himself says that ‘an idea is hard to kill’. The Beast’s final words that ‘nothing shall ever destroy me. Nothing’, hang in the air long after the episode concludes. In addition to this damning statement, The Doctor comes away with no conclusions as to what he believes he found, ‘I don’t know, I never did find out.’ We are left none the wiser. After escaping possessed aliens sent by a Satanic beast, who claims to have been from beyond time and space, eternal and forever in the hearts of men, and managing to escape the snatching jaws of a black hole, a horror still resonates. The idea of evil will never be killed. They don’t defeat evil in the end, they just manage to escape its wrath a little longer.

 

Conclusion

Sometimes, when it gets it just right, Doctor Who manages to push all the right buttons. In an impossible situation, isolated and trapped, claustrophobic, yet opening up the theological, philosophical, and personal horrors of belief, thought and language, these two episodes deliver a truly captivating, yet terrifying 90 minutes of television. Ignore what anyone says; this episode arc is the most horrifying, devastating, and yet hauntingly beautiful storyline the show has had in its revival.

Article by Kieran Judge

You can now follow him on Twitter at @KJudgeMental