Sure, everybody knows Dracula can transform himself into a wolf or a bat or a creeping mist. But were you aware he once transmogrified into a Chinese kung fu master? Didn’t you see the 1974 British movie The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula, if for no other reason than to be able to brag you’d seen the film with the most unfathomably stupid title of all time?
Then there’s Dracula as cuckolder of Old West outlaws in 1966’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. (John Carradine, what were you thinking?) And Dracula as priapic pile-driver in the paperback novel The Adult Version of Dracula. (If you didn’t snap that up in 1970 for the $1.95 cover price, it’ll set you back $150 on Amazon.com, though — bless you, technology — there’s an e-book available for just four bucks.)
Yet NBC’s transformation of the ageless, epochal vampire may be the strangest yet. From a parasitic Transylvanian nobleman who sucks his peasants dry of both blood and treasure, the network’s new series Dracula turns him into a heroic opponent of the British plutocracy, a kind of fanged embodiment of Occupy London.
Not that the show is lacking in the customary appurtenances of the vampire genre. Bodices plunge, jugulars spurt, hunkiness abides — Jonathan Rhys Meyers is drop-undead gorgeous, radiating carnality like a Chernobyl of human sexuality. Barnabas Collins, Lestat de Lioncourt and Bill Compton would all feel perfectly at home here.
But its political dimension is what makes this Dracula interesting. Lead writer Daniel Knauf was the creator of HBO’s Carnivale, a tale of a creepy circus caravan meandering across Depression-era America that imagined the ideological storm clouds of the 1930s, fascism and communism, as the birth pains of the Antichrist. He’s given NBC’s series a similar twist, recasting bits of Bram Stoker’s novel and the actual history of the man who inspired it, the depraved Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, into an odd but entertaining populist political fable.
Dracula and Tepes are one and the same in Knauf’s screenplay, which opens with grave robbers breaking into the vampire’s tomb in Romania in 1881 to revive him. Their goal: to enlist his aid against the Order of the Dragon, a secret society of British industrialists who control the world’s oil supply and, hence, its economic future.
Dracula is only too happy to oblige; their malign little club, he says, raped and slaughtered his country hundreds of years ago. They are “readily identified by their grotesque sense of entitlement,” he says of the 1-percenters. “Their corruption and their hubris is unbridled.”
His strategy is two-fold: Kill off the Order’s economic clout by introducing a new, clean form of wireless electricity (Dracula, Prince of Green-ness!) and kill off its members the way vampires usually do. Posing as a New York entrepreneur (“as American as God, guns and bourbon,” he brags, though the haughty Brits regard him as a “colonial interloper”), he arrives in London to do just that.
His plans are complicated, first by a grimly efficient cadre of vampire hunters led by the sultry Lady Jayne Wetherby (Irish TV actress Victoria Smurfit), and then by an unexpected romantic triangle involving Dracula’s top lieutenant, a sleazy, social-climbing reporter named Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Faster).
It seems Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw, Arrow), is a dead ringer for Dracula’s wife, murdered centuries ago by the Order of the Dragon. Oddly, being the object of vampiric obsession is not necessarily Mina’s biggest problem; she’s a medical student who grows faint at the sight of blood. (Come to think of it, that’s not much of a recommendation for being a vampire’s girlfriend, either.)
Watching this conspiracy, class warfare and romantic indiscretion collide makes for a hugely engaging show, all the more so because of the lushly photographed Victorian settings and droll dialogue. (Perhaps not coincidentally, one of Dracula’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, also works on Downton Abbey, which is just as pretty but would profit immeasurably from the occasional gashed neck or staked heart.)
Dracula is likely to amass a strong secondary audience of literary detectives and connoisseurs of politically correct revisionism. The former will feast on the way it slices and dices both literature and history, shuffling characters from Stoker’s novel (mostly amusingly, his nemesis Van Helsing has become his staunch populist ally) and toying with historical figures (both Lucretia Borgia and Jack the Ripper, it seems, were vampires).
The latter will laugh out loud to hear Dracula claim that that the barbaric looters of his country were British mercantilists. In real life, the invaders of his little corner of what would become Romania were the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire. Apparently “Islamic imperialism” is one of the Seven Things You Can’t Say On Television, Millennial Edition.