It’s a peculiar thing when a network launches a horror series—the week before Halloween, no less—and there’s one glaring, frightful problem with it: it’s not scary.
That’s the issue facing NBC’s ambitious Dracula, which bares its fangs for the first time Friday night, launching a 10-episode run. The series reimagines the world’s most famous vampire. NBC’s (re)imagination, it appears, has run wild.
The monster with the bulbous head, beady eyes, pointy ears, and menacing widow’s peak that Bram Stoker devised in his 1897 Gothic horror novel has been replaced with, well, a stud. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Match Point)—with eyes more piercing than his fangs and abs so chiseled they keep you frozen and gawking instead of running away and screaming—inhabits the title character, bringing Dracula back to life in steamy, gory, and mysterious fashion. Unfortunately, it’s never really a frightening one.
So when we finally meet Rhys Meyers-as-Dracula several minutes into the premiere, he’s not lurking in a corner about to jump out and spook (as you might hope or expect from a “horror” series). Instead he emerges dripping wet from a bathtub and delicately buttons a dress shirt over his ripped, exposed torso. Gothic horror by way of Harlequin romance. It’s 19th century London, and Dracula is there posing as a wealthy American industrialist named Alexander Grayson. In scenes pretending to be Alexander, Rhys Meyers gives Rebel Wilson a run at most cringe-inducing American accent on TV this season.
Through a series of flashbacks and exposition scenes with Dracula/Grayson’s butler (Nonso Anozie, doing his best Morgan Freeman in The Dark Knight trilogy impression), we learn that the nightwalker is in London on a mission: revenge. Some aristocratic vampire hunters who call themselves the Order of the Dragon killed his wife centuries before, and he’s hell-bent on pay back. The man-on-a-mission conceit is a smart way for NBC to turn a creature whose mythology can only really sustain a feature-length movie or miniseries into one with a narrative tailor-made for serialized drama.
The way he goes about this vengeance, however, is enough a snooze for you to want to close your own coffin for an eternal slumber. He is, as frenemy Professor Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) describes in the second episode of the series, “in London to make geomagnetic power a practical reality and wipe out the Order’s investments in oil.” Huh? For all the sexiness of the actor they cast as Dracula, they could have a concocted a dastardly plan a wee sexier than “devise a new source of electricity and therefore drive down the price of petroleum and financially ruin the oil-baron bad guys.”
Give the wonky subplot credit, however, for setting the stage for the pilot’s most visually stunning scene (shot in Budapest, the Victorian setting is gorgeously authentic and ornate). It’s Alexander Grayson’s coming out party at his London mansion, and the city’s nobles—many of them members of the Order—are in attendance, all manically conversing in a dialect less sing-song-y than we’re used to with British accents on TV. The speech patterns are more in line with “my aren’t we fancy” screwball manner of speaking from a ‘30s Hollywood film, and it takes some getting used to, particularly as so much of the dialogue is cheeky and stilted.
He uses the party to unveil this ballyhooed geomagnetic power with devious grandeur, passing out light bulbs for the guests to hold like candles. This new fangled electricity lights them all wirelessly, turning the ball into a haunting, glowing vigil. The stunt startles the Order/oil magnates who recognize how such electricity would threaten their businesses. They plot against Dracula. He searches—and often kills—them. There’s your series.
“Tonight it is my distinct pleasure to demonstrate a way out,” Grayson says, “out of the darkness.”
The thing is, we don’t really want Dracula out of the darkness. We very much want him in the darkness. The darkest darkening darkness there is. We want him to be creepy and ghoulish and most of all scary, which is why, though many elements of NBC’s retelling of the iconic mythology are intriguing, they’re not exactly satisfying.
The series cleverly turns Dracula into an anti-hero with his pained past, giving him motivation to act in evil ways. But can we truly be terrified of someone when we consider their bad behavior justified? There’s an intriguing romantic subplot, when Dracula/Grayson becomes infatuated with a woman (Jessica De Gouw) who looks exactly like his deceased wife. Will she beguile him into poor judgment, sidetracking his revenge crusade? Do we care?
There is gore and sex pouring through Dracula, joining Hannibal and American Horror Story in pushing the limits on the extent of carnality—both of the grotesque and titillating nature—we’re willing to stomach. When Dracula feeds on a human, the blood sucking is more graphic than on True Blood, even. The sex scenes are both jarringly explicit and problematic. It makes sense that the vampire would have an animalistic sex drive and use the act for manipulation, but this characterization of Dracula is so erotic it counteracts any fear there should be of the character and makes the complicated feelings we should have about this anti-hero decidedly less complicated.
Rather than drive a stake into him you’re more eager for him to drive his…well, you get it.
It’s a bold move to reinvent a character. It’s a bold move to try out horror on TV. But for those two things to work, both elements need to continue the mandate to be aggressively bold. When a horror series is not horrifying, the suspense that keeps you tuning in is gone.
Here’s hoping for a good “Boo!” before the promising Dracula finds itself six feet under in the television graveyard.