Vampires are a metaphor. What they’re a metaphor for – the parasitic aristocracy, predatory sexuality, Mormon celestial marriage – may shift with the anxieties of the era, but they always represent something.
When Sherlock Van Hellsing asks a cadaverous, sore-covered Jonathan Harker if he has had sexual intercourse with Dracula, you can only wonder if Moffat and Gatiss have made a horrific and tasteless AIDS analogy.
They haven’t; that would imply they had something to say, and their take on Dracula is as drained of thematic richness as Harker is of blood (a joke that Dracula will make and make often, along with pointing out that he does not drink…wine, and no one else…LIVES in the castle. Because they are vampires do you get it)
Even if vampirism is supposed to be an AIDS analogy, it’s not a very good one. Not least because the showrunners are, for all that you can hear them congratulating themselves over the subversiveness of calling Jonathan Dracula’s ‘bride’, unable to shoot or stage scenes with one iota of sexual tension. The actors are stiff, the camera angles are alienating, and Dracula is too unapologetically monstrous to be seductive. Seduction can be blatant and over the top, of course, but often what makes it believable is a touch of subtlety, a concept completely alien to the show runners. In the book, the tension and claustrophobia mount as Jonathan gradually realizes he is a prisoner and not a guest. Here, on the first night, Dracula, in an accent that wouldn’t be out of place on a purple Muppet, says he ‘want[s] to absorb’ Jonathan, smashes his shaving mirror, hisses when Jonathan cuts himself on the shards, rambles about how sexy Mina is without Jonathan ever mentioning her, then does a slasher movie disappearance. It’s not that we don’t know what we’re getting when we sit down to watch Dracula, but the thrill of being privy to terrors that the characters have yet to uncover is a mainstay of the horror genre with good reason.
If it were an AIDS metaphor, it would be a deeply problematic one given the show’s relationship to any possible queerness. Mina Murrey jokes – mostly to titillate Jonathan – about a potential relationship with a woman, but the implicit sexual contact between two men is portrayed as a corrupting, horrific thing. When the nun interrogating Harker on his story presses him on whether he had sexual contact with the vampire, we don’t see a seduction but a flashback of Mina transforming into Dracula as a grotesque old man in a fright wig. When Dracula offers power and immortality to those who subjugate themselves to him, there’s never a moment’s thrill of temptation for any of the characters, because the people he turns are decaying, fly-filled husks. “You could be my bride,” Dracula says to Jonathan, reclining on his cloak like a schoolgirl at a sleepover, and the allure of the offer is about as believable as the set pieces.
(While we’re talking about problematic narrative choices, how about Dracula deciding to go to England because, essentially, he’s a snooty gourmand who wants only to ‘absorb’ the best the world has to offer when it comes to intellect and education? The narrative accepts this at face value, and leaves the viewer to choke down the idea that Britain is the peak of the human charcuterie board like a bride of Dracula choking down her evening flies.)
Strong characterization can redeem an underbaked – or should I say rare? – plot and fortunately Moffat and Gatiss bring the same deft touch to Dracula that they’ve brought to all their previous projects. Fortunate for those of us that enjoy our Two Minutes Hate, anyway. It’s overlong, choking on its own cleverness, and impossibly smug. It breaks the mold from Sherlock in one way, at least – the SFX and cinematography are far weaker (seriously, did they steal that vampire baby doll from a Chuckie set?) Otherwise, Dracula is Moriarty, Von Hellsing is Sherlock and both are – as they banter and one-up each other – as shallow and insufferable as their predecessors. Agatha Von Hellsing is the most obnoxious kind of r/atheist, smugly telling a man whose faith has carried him through a horrific ordeal and is literally undead that god is a fairytale for children, wake up sheeple. The implications of a more interesting backstory are certainly an improvement on Sherlock’s ‘I’m a sociopath’ but Dolly Wells delivers a performance too one-note to evoke any interest. Jonathan Harker is almost compelling as a boring man who, when faced with an immeasurably horrifying situation, finds unknown reserves of strength, but is pretty quickly reduced to a writhing, bald husk of misery to be used and discarded by script and Count and alike. Dracula is Moriarty with fangs, too busy chewing the scenery (to and everything else) to spark interest. Mina Murray’s there too, I guess.
After Dracula, Sherlock, and Jekyll, the only question we’re left with is which 19th-century public domain work Moffat and Gatiss fellate themselves over next? At least Moby Dick is supposed to involve vast quantities of sperm.