To borrow from an old capsule review of a David Bowie album, of the 236 adaptations of “Dracula” I’ve seen (or thereabouts), this would rank as roughly the 185th best. That’s a shorthand way of saying “Masterpiece Theater’s” attempt to sink revisionist fangs into Bram Stoker’s classic bloodsucker is a tribute to art direction and little else — a pale imitator of Francis Ford Coppola’s more ravishing theatrical version, with a few peculiar wrinkles like cult worship and syphilis thrown into the mix. Gothic and moody, this adaptation is strangely unalive for anyone remotely familiar with the undead.
Liberties are almost invariably taken with the florid prose of Stoker’s book, but writer Stewart Harcourt and director Bill Eagles seem caught between a number of past attempts, yielding the worst of all worlds — not as scary or gory as the Hammer versions, as opulent or sensual as Coppola’s, as fierce as Jack Palance on TV or as suave as Frank Langella’s count.
Indeed, the tweaked plot involves a Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens) who discovers on the eve of his wedding to Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles) that he was born with syphilis. Reluctant to consummate the marriage and infect her, he plots to help bring the mysterious Count Dracula (Marc Warren) to England, having been told by a strange cult that the mysterious nobleman has the power to cure Holmwood’s tainted blood.
From there it’s back to the novel, mostly, with lawyer Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall) dispatched on a suicide mission to speed Dracula’s arrival from Transylvania, only to have the count show up and begin draining the local citizenry, starting with Lucy. Then again, given that her husband won’t touch her, she’s grateful for any attention, conveyed via a seduction scene that surely would draw giggles from less-sophisticated palates (starting with mine) if viewed in a crowded theater.
Brimming with atmosphere, the opening sequences plod along before Warren appears, and his take on Dracula — pale, brooding, with wild hair — bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Edward Scissorhands. Left to deal with the threat, meanwhile, are Lucy’s doctor friend John Seward (Tom Burke) and the crazy-looking Van Helsing (“Poirot’s” David Suchet), who doesn’t even arrive until the last act, by which time a glass of something red and succulent — preferably wine, but whatever — is clearly called for.
The production notes say Harcourt expanded upon a Victorian fear of venereal disease that Stoker “dares not state outright in his 1897 novel,” but in reading between the lines, the writer has merely smudged them.
New interpretations aren’t inherently problematic, but a few wrong turns and they risk morphing into “Love at First Bite.” This new “Dracula” isn’t quite that bad, but after the first few knockdowns, you kind of wish PBS had simply let this faux “Masterpiece” stay down for the Count.