Netflix’ DRACULA (2020) – New Mini-Series’ Take On Stoker’s Novel Difficult to Digest

1

Dracula - episode 2

DRACULA (2020), a three-part miniseries available now on Netflix, is brought to us by the same folks who brought us SHERLOCK (2010-2017), which starred Benedict Cumberbatch.

Their take on Bram Stokers’ iconic novel, one of the most revered horror novels in the English language, and one of my personal favorites, is one that pushes the envelope at every turn, so much so that for Dracula purists like myself, the end result is not easy to digest.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like DRACULA. I did. Or, at least parts of it.

But there were more parts that I didn’t like, aspects that made it clear that the series’ makers were sacrificing story and truth for ingenuity and chaos. In short, the goal here seems to have been to make as many dramatic and in-your-face changes as possible to make this a fresh and original take on the tale. The trouble is, at the end of the day, there’s not a whole heck of a lot left that resembles Stoker’s original novel.

This in itself I don’t have a problem with. I’m open to re-imaginings. The problem with this reboot is the bold changes get in the way of the story, and that’s never a good thing. It’s like being aware that an actor is acting. Here, it clearly seemed that changes were being made just for the sake of being different. In short, I think the filmmakers were simply trying too hard.

DRACULA opens with a very ill Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) at a convent being interviewed by Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), who wants to know as much as possible about his experience at Castle Dracula. Now, in Stoker’s novel, Harker does convalesce in a convent after he escapes from his horrifying ordeal at Castle Dracula, so I thought this was a neat way to open the mini-series.

The events at Castle Dracula then unfold as Harker recounts his story, and it’s in this telling that we first meet Count Dracula (Claes Bang). This is all well and good until it’s revealed that Sister Agatha’s last name is Van Helsing, meaning that in this interpretation, Van Helsing is a nun.

Okay. Stop right here.

Van Helsing is a nun.

Let that sink in for a moment.

My first thought was, okay, a bit dramatic, but I can live with this. I’m on board. I’m ready for this interpretation. But it doesn’t stop there. Van Helsing in this DRACULA is hardly the Van Helsing we’ve seen before. Sure, she’s Dracula’s adversary, but barely, and like other aspects of this version, as the interpretation goes along, it becomes unrelatable, and that simply gets in the way of good storytelling.

So, Part I is mostly the tale of Jonathan Harker’s ordeal at Castle Dracula. Part 2 covers Dracula’s voyage on the ship the Demeter on his way to London, and then Part 3 gets wild and crazy. Without giving too much away, if you’re familiar with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) you know which direction the third episode takes.

There’s no doubt that Claes Bang’s interpretation of Dracula was meant to be fresh and original, and it is definitely unlike previous takes on the character. Bang’s Dracula has a wise-cracking quip about everything, and he seems to have walked off the set of a Marvel superhero movie. He’d be right at home exchanging barbs with Iron Man and Doctor Strange as he battled them for supremacy of the world. In short, I didn’t like this interpretation. For me, Dracula works best when he is flat-out evil, which is why I’ve always enjoyed every Christopher Lee performance. His Dracula is always evil.

That’s not to say that Bang plays Dracula as a nice guy. His Dracula is definitely a villain, but he’s just a little too colorful for my tastes. That being said, Bang does deliver a powerful performance which grew on me with each episode. So, for me, it’s a case where I thought the actor did a tremendous job but the writing tweaked the character too much for my liking.

Likewise, Dolly Wells does a nice job as Sister Agatha Van Helsing, but again, the writing took this character and did things with her that diminished her impact. For starters, Van Helsing simply isn’t as powerful a presence here as Dracula. That in itself is problematic.

I can’t say then that I was a fan of the teleplay by Mark Gatis and Steven Moffat, where changes seem to have been made solely for the purpose of being different without taking into consideration how it would affect the story. Still, it’s an incredibly ambitious screenplay. There is just so much thrown into this mini-series. That in itself is impressive. But sadly most of it didn’t work for me.

The rest of the cast is okay. The only other cast member who stood out for me was Lydia West as Lucy, who shows up in Part 3. When Dracula finally meets Lucy in Part 3, it makes for some of the most compelling moments in the entire miniseries. I loved this part, mostly because of West’s performance here, as she and Bang share some sensual chemistry, but sadly, this sequence doesn’t last all that long, so as good as it is, it’s far too brief.

Then there’s Mina, here played by Morfydd Clark. Mina is a central character in the novel, and she’s always been one of my favorite characters in the novel. Few movie versions have ever done her justice. In the novel, she’s probably the strongest character, but in the movies, she’s generally reduced to being a victim who needs to be saved by Van Helsing. In this version, she’s barely a blip on the proceedings, which is too bad.

I did like the way this one looked. A lot. Especially the look of Castle Dracula in Part 1. Evidently it’s the same castle exterior that was used in the original NOSFERATU (1922). How cool is that?

I also enjoyed the homages to other classic Draculas, especially to the Hammer Draculas. Early on in Part 1, Dracula is depicted as an old man, as he is in the novel, and the look here resembles Gary Oldman in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). Later Dracula’s guise resembles Christopher Lee, and then in Part 2, while he’s on the Demeter, his costume mirrors that of Bela Lugosi. I appreciated these touches.

And for Hammer Film fans, there’s an Easter Egg for DRACULA A.D. 1972, and for HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), specifically that film’s classic finale. So I give credit to directors Johnny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, and Damon Thomas for these moments.

But overall, DRACULA struggled to hold my attention. I found its dramatic revisions distracting and far less captivating than the story told in Stoker’s novel.

And while I can comfortably say it was not the version for me, I have a feeling that somewhere down the line I’ll watch it again.

Some day.

 

When I’m ready to once more entertain the notion that Van Helsing is a nun and Dracula a comic book villain.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SALEM’S LOT (1979)

1

salems-lot-movie-poster

I read Salem’s Lot by Stephen King shortly after it was first published when I was in the 6th grade, and it was the first novel that ever truly scared me.  More importantly, as someone who spent his childhood watching Hammer Films and the Universal monster movies, it was the first book that ever truly entertained me.  It was that book that got me hooked on reading.

As such, my expectations were high when four years later the film version of SALEM’S LOT (1979) arrived as a TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper and starring David Soul and James Mason.  And while it was well-received by critics and fans alike, I was somewhat disappointed by it.  I just couldn’t shake my feelings for the novel, which I felt was vastly superior.

The biggest disappointment for me at the time was the film’s interpretation of the story’s vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Barlow was creepy and terrifying in the novel, with lots of dialogue to back up his evil presence.  In the film, he was changed to a mute Nosferatu clone, and while he did indeed look frightening, the fact that the make-up resembled the classic 1922 Nosferatu make-up on Max Schreck was a let-down.

Salem'sLot_Barlow

Reggie Nalder as the vampire Barlow in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

Anyway, it had been years since I had seen the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and so I thought it was time to watch it again and place it IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.

In SALEM’S LOT, writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot (Jerusalem’s Lot in the novel), drawn there by the Marsten House, a house that watches over the town like a demonic gargoyle.  In short, it’s the town’s haunted house. Ben has been obsessed with this house his entire life, an obsession that began when he ventured into the house as a boy on a dare and saw the hanging body of a man there, a man who while hanging opened his eyes and looked at him.

This moment is a perfect example of the difference between the movie and the book.  In the book, this scene, this image, although not even a major part of the plot, was one of its most frightening.  Indeed, for me, of all the scenes and images from the novel, this is the one that scared me the most back in 1975 and stayed with me the longest, the hanging man who opened his eyes.  In the movie, it’s mentioned briefly by Ben Mears in a conversation, and it’s nothing more than an afterthought. There you go.

So Ben returns home to write about the Marsten House and seek out old acquaintances, like Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who he starts to date. He’s writing about the Marsten House because he believes the house itself is evil, and as such it attracts evil.

And he’s right, because currently living in the house are two men, Mr. Straker (James Mason) and Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder).  Barlow is a vampire, and Straker is the man empowered with protecting him.  Together, they prey upon the townsfolk of Salem’s Lot, gradually changing nearly everyone in town into a vampire.  Unless that is, Ben Mears can stop them.

It’s a great story, but it plays better in the novel than in the movie, which is hindered by dated dialogue by screenwriter Paul Monash.

I was a huge fan of the TV show STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) back in the day, and so at the time when I first saw SALEM’S LOT I gave David Soul who starred in the show a free pass. Watching it today was a different story.  Soul’s interpretation of Ben Mears has its problems, mostly because at times Soul seems to be sleepwalking through the role.  He also doesn’t do fear well.  When Ben Mears is supposed to be terrified, he comes off as more dazed than anything else.

By far, the best performance in the movie belongs to James Mason as Mr. Straker.  Of course, this comes as no surprise as Mason was a phenomenal actor who was no stranger to villainous roles.  His dark interpretation of Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) was one of the most memorable parts of that horror movie, and his villainous turn as attorney Ed Concannon in THE VERDICT (1982) was every bit as effective as Paul Newman’s lead performance as Frank Galvin.  Both men won Oscars for their performances that year, Newman for Best Actor, and Mason for Best Supporting Actor.  These roles are from the tail end of Mason’s career, which began in the 1930s and spanned five decades.

As Straker, Mason is frightening.  The scene where he taunts a priest is one of the best in the film.

salems-lot-soul-mason

David Soul and James Mason in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

The rest of the cast, which is chock-full of character actors, is so-so.  In the key role of young Mark Petrie, the boy who loves monsters and monster movies, and the character who I obviously identified with when I first read the novel in 1975, Lance Kerwin is just okay.  Like David Soul, his interpretation of fear comes off more like a “deer in the headlights” daze.

Likewise, Bonnie Bedelia is okay as Susan Norton, but Lew Ayres is effective as school teacher Jason Burke, and unlike Soul and Kerwin, Ayres does do fear well.  Ed Flanders is solid as Dr. Bill Norton, and Geoffrey Lewis enjoys some fine moments as Mike Ryerson, especially once Mike becomes a vampire.  Veteran actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Fred Willard are also in the cast.

And while Reggie Nalder does look horrifying as Barlow in his Nosferatu-style make-up, ultimately he doesn’t make much of an impact in the movie because his scenes are few and far between.  Even though I prefer the Barlow character from the novel to the one here in the movie, I still would have liked to have seen the vampire more in the film.

The story, which flows naturally in the novel, with its expansive cast of characters, doesn’t flow as well in the movie, as the townsfolk and their personal issues play like characters in a soap opera.

Director Tobe Hooper, fresh off his success with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), definitely puts his personal stamp on the movie and creates some scary scenes. Chief amongst them is the creepy and very memorable scene- it might be the most memorable of the entire movie— of young vampire Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie’s window, beckoning to be let inside.  It’s certainly one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Another frightening image features Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson as a vampire, sitting in a rocking chair.

But the biggest parts of the story strangely fall flat.  The end, for instance, when Mark and Susan enter the Marston house in search of Barlow, lacks the necessary suspense.  In the book, these scenes were terrifying.  In the movie, not so much.

The pacing is a little off as well.  The film runs for 184 minutes and originally aired on television in two 2 hour segments.  The bulk of the first half is spent introducing all the characters, while Barlow doesn’t really show up until the second part, and then things move very quickly, often too quickly.

The film did very well and earned high ratings, and for a while there was talk of turning it into a television series, but the idea never materialized.

I like the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and even though it hasn’t aged all that well, and is a bit dated— in contrast, the classic TV vampire movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) still holds up remarkably well today— it’s still a fun movie to watch, with some genuine creepy scenes, especially for a TV movie, and we certainly have Tobe Hooper to thank for that.  While the vampire is OK, and the leads meh, you do have James Mason chewing up the scenery as the diabolically evil Mr. Straker.

The biggest drawback is that the source material, the novel by Stephen King, is so darned good, it makes this above average thriller seem much more ordinary than it really is.

SALEM’S LOT is kinda like its vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Scary, but nowhere near as powerful as depicted in the novel by Stephen King.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

Sneak Peak from FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR by Michael Arruda

0

For The Love Of Horror cover8/21/13

 

It’s time for another sneak preview from my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR.

 

This collection of short stories is available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4294076.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR contains 15 short stories, 7 reprints and 8 original stories, plus a wraparound story that ties everything together.  I wrote this with the old Amicus anthology horror movies in mind, films like DR. TERRORS HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971).

 

Today’s excerpt comes from the story “Reconciliation,” a tale of a vampire seeking religious redemption, or is he?  Incidentally, “Reconciliation” happens to be my very first published short story, published back in 1998 in the vampire anthology THE DARKEST THIRST by The Design Image Group.

For your reading pleasure, here is an excerpt from “Reconciliation”—-

RECONCILIATION

By

Michael Arruda

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.  It has been 200 years since my confession.”

The priest, 62, thought his ears had betrayed him.  Leaning over, he pressed his left ear and the left corner of his mouth against the screened window which separated him from his visitor in the darkened confessional.

“How long has it been?”

“Two hundred years,” the dry male voice repeated.

“I’m afraid I don’t under—.”

“I am a vampire.”

“A vampire?  You mean one of those things from the movies?”

“Would that I were just a Hollywood creation,” the man said, “then I wouldn’t need to be here.”

“Why are you here?”

“To confess my sins.”

“Then perhaps I should hear your confession.”

“Thank you, Father.”

The vampire took a deep breath and began.

“I am disillusioned with the world, Father.  It used to be, way back when, that the worst crime, the worst sin, was murder.  Then we had Nazi Germany, and the world went crazy.  They paved the way for the madness we have today with their attempts at obliterating an entire race, an innocent race, and nearly succeeding.  The Nazi legacy is all around us.  Look at `ethnic cleansing.’  The Middle East.  Terrorism.  The tribal wars in Africa, where families are slaughtered daily, where babies are beheaded in front of their mothers.   If I were a horror fiction writer I’d be told by my editors that the things I just described were too sick for print, but these are true atrocities, having happened not in the dark ages, but here and now in the 21st century!

“And things are no better in this gun-happy country we call home,” the vampire continued,  “where we lose 16 children a day and 40,000 adults a year to people wielding guns, from disgruntled men who take out their frustrations on the world by shooting into crowds of innocent bystanders, to playing children who accidentally blow their best friends’ brains out!  Children.  I feel for them most of all.  Abused, sexually assaulted, forced to— I won’t even go there!  Damn pornographers!  Sex and violence, Father.  We’re a nation addicted to both. How else can you explain the fact that women here are raped every day?  Every day!  What kind of a world allows these sort of things?  The kind that makes the types of sins I have committed in my lifetime fodder for a Disney movie!”

The priest shifted in his seat.  The vampire noticed.

“But I digress.  You must think me crazy.”

The priest did not comment.

“I did not come here today to ramble about generalized atrocities, but I cannot help myself, I am so sickened by it all.  I ask you, how can I not be horrified by the world in which we live, a world gone mad?”

“Yes,” the priest said.  “The world is a difficult place to live in these days.  But, the world is not in this confessional with me.  You are.  Is there anything that you have done that you would like to be absolved for?”

The vampire hesitated before responding.

“Yes.  There is something.  Some things.  That I need to ask forgiveness for.”

He did not elaborate.

“Go on,” the priest said, “and rest assured, that whatever these things are, if you are truly repentant, the Lord will forgive you your sins.”

“Yes, the Lord will forgive— it makes sinning so much easier, doesn’t it?  When you can say you’re sorry and have your sin washed away as if it never happened.  Very convenient.”

The priest opened his mouth to disagree with this cynical comment, to make the point that reconciliation is not about condoning sin, but getting past it, when the vampire beat him to the punch and spoke first.

“I have never harmed a child, and I’m certainly not a rapist.  But I am a vampire, and as such, I have done things that I am sorry for.  Terrible things.”

The priest rubbed his chin.  He was disturbed.

Disturbed by his visitor’s repeated assertion that he was a vampire.

It was an assertion he did not believe.  However, it was quite possible that this man believed it, and in all sincerity thought himself to be a vampire.  If this were the case, then this man may have committed acts which he might be sorry for, which would explain his need to seek God’s forgiveness.  For this reason, the priest listened.

And waited.

Waited for any indication that this was merely a joke.  And if and when he received such a sign, the confession would be terminated.

The vampire continued, “I have lied to women.  Promised them anything they wanted. From money to marriage to simple companionship.  I even promised one young lady a book contract.”

“Why did you make these promises?”  the priest questioned.

“Why?  So that I could become intimate with them.  So that I could hold them, kiss them, sleep with them.”

“Are you married?”  the priest asked.

“No.  I’m not confessing to adultery, Father.  I’m confessing to the reason I wanted to sleep with them.”

“What was the reason?”

“I needed their blood.”

For a moment, neither the priest nor the vampire said a word.

“Father?  Are you still there?”

The priest answered with a question.  “Are you confessing to having murdered these women?”

The vampire paused.

“I do not like the term, `murder.’  It makes what I have done seem less from necessity and more from passion, and this, Father, is certainly not the case.”

The priest ignored the comment.

“Have you committed murder?”

“I have taken lives, yes,” the vampire admitted.

“How many?”

The vampire hesitated but then responded, his voice deep, dark, and threatening.  “More lives than you have touched with your sermons, Father.  Many more lives!”

The vampire’s voice suddenly choked with emotion, “I have been drinking the blood of innocents for 200 years!”

The priest was unimpressed.

“Let’s call it quits, hmm?”

“Excuse me, Father?”

“With this performance.  I’ll give you two thumbs up, and then we’ll call it a day, hmm?”

What?

“Come on!  I know why you’re here!”

“What do you mean?”  the vampire asked, sounding very uncomfortable.

“I mean, I know Halloween is just two nights away!”  the priest answered, sounding angry for the first time.  “The joke’s over!  Go home!”

“You disappoint me, Father.  I thought you a wiser man.  You do not believe me then when I say that I am a vampire?  That I need to drink human blood to survive?  That I have drunk the blood of women the world over for 200 years?”

“Let me tell you what I believe.  I believe that if you don’t leave this confessional in the next 10 seconds, I’ll sound the silent alarm by my side, and the police’ll be here before you can say Bela Lugosi!”

“A silent alarm?”  the vampire said.  “I had no idea.”

“Obviously,” the priest said.  “Some people may consider the sacrament of penance a matter for the dark ages, but our security advisor isn’t one of them!  Now, will you please leave?  While you still can.”

“I assure you, I am being completely sincere,” the vampire said, his voice indeed resonating with a clear and honest authenticity.  “I was born in the 18th century, and I am a vampire.  Do you have a light in there with you, Father?”

“A what?”

“A light.  I would like you to look at my face.  Please, indulge me, and do not yet sound your alarm.  I need the forgiveness of God.  Please.”

The priest remained silent.

The vampire squirmed, shifting his position for the first time since the conversation had begun.

“I beg of you, Father.  Look at my face before you pass judgment.  Keep your finger on the button if you so desire, but wait until your eyes have seen the likes of which few men have seen and lived before you press it.  If only for a moment, if you dare.”

The vampire heard the rustling of the priest’s frock in the darkness- he was moving his arm, reaching for something.  The silent alarm, the light switch, or both.

Click.

Both rooms of the confessional were suddenly bathed in light.

The priest, seated in a comfortable chair, turned to his left and gazed into the screened window.  He gasped.

The face staring at him was chalky white, and the pale flesh of the man on the opposite side of the partition contrasted drastically with his combed forward dark hair, hair as black as ink.  His eyes were wide and red, as if the whites had been cracked open like egg shells, spilling bloody yolks into the empty sockets.  His nose was long and straight, like a nail, and his lips were coal black.

“Please extinguish the light now,” the vampire said.   “It pains me.  My eyes.  Please.”

The priest’s habit rustled again, and once more the confessional was draped in darkness.

“Do you believe me now, Father, after having seen my face?”

“Nice make-up,” the priest said, “although, frankly, I’ve seen better.  Must have bought your stuff at Wal Mart, huh?”

“Do not joke!” the vampire raised his voice, for the first time losing his composure.  “Please, Father, you must believe me!”

“Why?  Why do I have to believe you?  Is that part of the prank, huh?  Get the old priest to admit he believes in vampires?  So you can broadcast it to all your friends?”

“No.  It’s not that way at all.”

“Well, what way is it, then?”  the priest asked.

I — have sinned!  I— need— true forgiveness from God!

The confessional nearly shook.  The vampire’s body was vibrating with anxiety.

“True forgiveness from God,” the priest repeated.  “That’s a curious statement coming from a vampire.

**********************************************

Indeed.

If you’d like to find out what happens next, feel free to order a copy of FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4294076.

As always, thanks so much for reading!

—Michael