Monday, January 06, 2020

Hammering Dracula

They did again this year - did you notice?  The media effectively ended Christmas with the New Year, cutting off the last four days of the twelve day festival that constitutes Yuletide.  I know that I go on about this every year, but the way the TV schedules abruptly went back to normal on 2 January was, to be frank, fucking depressing.  It was sending a clear message: 'Fuck off back to work, plebs -you've had you bank holidays, now bugger off'.  This was backed up by all the crap in the newspapers about everyone being 'back to work' on the 2nd.  Except that they weren't.  Lots of us exercised our right to take the full twelve days of Christmas  off - which always seems to piss off the Daily Mail.  In my case, as I don't work Fridays any more, there would have been little point in going into work for one day.  Once again, the indecent haste with which a lot of people seemed to want to bundle Christmas out of the door was depressing.  But hardly surprising: once we've spent all the money in the run-up to the event, the establishment's interest in Christmas is effectively over: the holiday itself is simply an inconvenient interruption to their ability to make money.  Still, the BBC did make a slight concession to the fact that last Thursday and Friday weren't just ordinary week days, in that they showed the last two parts of their three part Dracula adaptation across the two evenings.  Clearly seen by the BBC as a prestige production, this certainly divided viewers, with many strongly liking it, others perceiving it as a major disappointment.

Personally, while I didn't love it, I didn't hate it either.  It was pretty much what I had been expecting: a reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's original in similar vein to Gatiss and Moffat's previous Sherlock Holmes reworking.  Just as the latter drew inspiration from just about every previous Sherlock Holmes TV and film interpretation that had come before, particularly the (then) contemporary set Universal Rathbone starring programmers of the 1940s, their Dracula was an amalgam of just about every previous film version of the source material, particularly the Hammer series of the fifties, sixties and seventies.  Like Sherlock, it happily played with all of the tropes of the genre in order to confound audience expectations, creating something which while it wasn't entirely faithful to the original text, was faithful in spirit.  Like the Hammer versions, it drew out the obvious sexual sub-test of the story but, unlike them, also exploring the homoerotic overtones of the text.  Unlike the earlier Sherlock, however, it kept most of the story in period, abruptly moving its narrative to contemporary Britain at the end of the second episode.  It was this sudden flash forward which seemed to cause viewers the most problems.  Yet it was entirely logical in the context of the series' homage to Hammer, mirroring their sudden shift to contemporary settings for their Dracula movies in the early seventies.  Indeed, the homage even extended to the conceit of having Dracula's Victorian nemesis, Van Helsing, replaced in the present day by a descendant played by the same actor.  (Dracula AD 1972 opens with an 1872 prologue in which, after a fight on an out of control carriage, both Christopher Lee's Count Dracula and Peter Cushing's Lawrence Van Helsing both perish.  A century later, Lee's Dracula is revived, only to find himself faced by Lorimar Van Helsing - Cushing again - a descendant of the original).

Unfortunately, Gatiss and Moffat fared little better than Hammer in trying to relocate Dracula in the modern world.  While not confining Dracula's appearances to a ruined Gothic church, as Hammer had in Dracula AD 1972, they still don't really manage to integrate him with contemporary London: at first confined to an underground medical facility, this time the Count is subsequently seen isolated from modern London - he is either in the back of a car, a penthouse or a graveyard, never really integrating with modern life, s they plump for a half hearted re-telling of the latter part of the source novel.  Indeed, Hammer arguably did better in their second contemporary set film, Satanic Rites of Dracula, where he masquerades as a property developer and sits, Mabuse like, at the centre of a web of surveillance cameras, assassins and motorcycle riding thugs.  Ultimately, though, this Dracula founders on the same problem that besets all attempts to bring the character into the modern world of science and rationalism.  While it is easy to accept Dracula's presence as a supernatural entity while he is in superstition-ridden nineteenth century Eastern Europe, or even in late Victorian London, where spiritualism and ghosts happily rubbed shoulders with science and rationality, but it is less easy to do so when he turns up in our contemporary age of scientific truths and rational explanations for all phenomena.  Our age requires explanations of his nature and that is where this Dracula comes unstuck. Moffat and Gatiss succumb to the temptation to try and explain Dracula's aversion to daylight and the cross in rational, non-religious and non-supernatural terms.  Which is all very well, but it still doesn't get around the fact that he is still a five hundred year old undead aristocrat who lives by drinking human blood.  Unless you want to go the whole hog in pseudo-scientific terms and explain his powers by way of a blood parasite, (as in Universal's 1945 outing House of Dracula), you are still left with having to accept the existence of the supernatural.

Sadly, we've never had a successful modern version of Dracula (Hammer's attempts never really cut it, while Dracula 2000 is best forgotten)  - the continued existence of this archaic supernatural figure in the contemporary world always seems to be problem.  Not that it is impossible to do contemporary vampires: AIP's two Count Yorga films in the early seventies did it pretty well, while one of the Dark Shadows film spin offs from the same era made a good stab of integrating the vampire within the world of medicine, with a scientific 'cure' for vampirism being attempted on Barnabas Collins.  Regardless of how frustrating I found this aspect of the BBC's new Dracula, there were plenty of good things in it, particularly Claes Bang in the title role, (even though he disconcertingly sounded like Pierce Brosnan).  Certainly if you were a fan of the Hammer product, there was plenty to enjoy in terms of the many nods to those films,  It even ended with a final homage to the first Hammer Dracula, with Van Helsing running down a table and leaping onto the curtains to allow in the sunlight.  It also, sort of, referenced the last Hammer film in which Lee portrayed Dracula, Satanic Rites of Dracula, with a wearied Count electing to destroy himself, although at least in that film the Count's evil extends even to ending his own extended life, as he plans to take humanity with him. But I must admit that I was most disappointed by Gatiss and Moffat's failure to acknowledge Hammer's last Dracula outing, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires - where were the Kung Fu fights?  Surely bringing Dracula to modern London should have provided the perfect opportunity for confrontations with martial arts trained vampire hunters?



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