After what I described as a mixed bag of a first episode, Dracula bites back with a brilliantly claustrophobic and chilling second instalment: Blood Vessel. Those familiar with Bram Stoker‘s original novel will recognise Blood Vessel as a re-worked variation on the Demeter story, which takes up a chapter and is told from a mix of news reports and the Captain’s log but here, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have ingeniously “remixed” this story beat into a semi-standalone horror piece.
Blood Vessel is structured like a murder mystery, albeit one where the audience knows who the murderer really is. Count Dracula (Claes Bang) boards the Demeter, ship of Captain Sokolov (Jonathan Aris), and attempts to integrate himself into British culture by engaging with his fellow passengers: the Grand Duchess Valeria (Catherine Schell); Lord and Lady Ruthven (Patrick Walshe McBride and Lily Dodsworth-Evans, respectively); as well as their “man” Adisa (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett); and Dr. Sharma (Sacha Dhawan, having a great 2020 already with this and Doctor Who) and his daughter.
This is Murder on the Orient Express, but on a ship, and with Dracula manipulating events as both the detective and murderer, hunting down his victims each night and then leading everyone else to suspect someone else on board. It’s a smart set-up, and one I imagine Gatiss and Moffat had lots of fun with after four seasons of Sherlock. In many respects, it felt like an episode of Inside No. 9 – the creation of Gatiss’ League of Gentlemen collaborators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith – which was even referenced with Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) hidden inside cabin No. 9. While we’re on the subject of references, Lord Ruthven is the name of the mysterious gentleman vampire in John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which pre-dates and inspired Dracula.
I do feel that, much like with the first, Blood Vessel could have easily been an intense hour of television and didn’t need the extra half-hour but, saying that, it did manage to fill-up the extra time well. All of the characters felt fleshed-out and there was a wonderful tension as each character was gradually picked-off one by one. It’s also nice to see an adaptation of Dracula in which a male character is seduced by the Count, as seen with Lord Ruthven. The name is a bit of a tease about his true morality, but its refreshing to see the sexual aspects of Count Dracula opened up to men as well as women.
Claes Bang is wonderful, balancing the wit, the camp and the sinister charm. He’s such a happy Dracula too, which makes his scenes even more fun to watch. It’s also great to see Sacha Dhawan in this series, who may not be Dr. Seward from the novel, but is a nice re-working of the character. His backstory is nicely teased in brief glimpses in the episode, which was better than the character just coming out and explaining his motivations. Sharma is a character already troubled by the supernatural and his desire to keep his daughter safe made for a very endearing protagonist. The crew of the Demeter are all very good as well, and it was nice to see Olgaren (Youssef Kerkour) and “Piotr” (Samuel Blenkin) get away at the end. Dracula doesn’t manage to kill everyone but almost everyone.
Praise also has to be given to the eerie direction, the luscious cinematography, the exquisite production design, costumes and suspenseful sound design and music. It’s a very polished production and even the worst effects work still looked movie-quality. Say what you will about this adaptation but it looks and sounds gorgeous. The writing did fall into some familiar traps seen in Moffat and Gatiss’ earlier work, whether it be the “Dracula tells a story” narrative thread in the first half of the episode, or the dreadful cliffhanger ending. Yes, I can’t say I’m looking forward to reviewing the next episode of Dracula when this one was as good as it was. Nevertheless, Blood Vessel was a cracking horror yarn exploring a part of the book rarely touched upon in much detail in adaptations. It felt like a standalone film and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We’ll see how the series concludes in The Dark Compass…