If you want to suck the blood of the youth, YouTube is a great place to start: Enter “Mina Murray’s Journal,” a 21st century update of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” drawing final blood just in time for Halloween.
Told as a series of vlogs — or video journals, as Mina insists on calling them — the new web series puts Mina Murray center stage, giving her the unfortunate task of visiting Dracula’s mansion in Bucharest, rather than her fiancée (updated to boyfriend) Jonathan. Writer-director James Moran wisely makes use of the novel’s epistolary structure in his adaptation, and the episodes flow naturally between Mina’s vlogs and those made by the three secondary characters: Lucy, Jonathan and Jack. Moran takes liberties with the novel’s plot by centering female characters and playing up Lucy’s romantic interest in Mina, but it’s a welcome revision that honors the spirit of its source material.
Moran is a seasoned horror and science-fiction writer, with credits on beloved British television shows “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” He also wrote the screenplay for “Severance,” a 2006 horror comedy starring Toby Stephens (“Die Another Day”). Moran thought of the idea for “Mina Murray’s Journal” a few years ago, but worried it was too odd, he said in an interview with IndieWire. “Every now and again you get an idea, and you think: ‘Is that a really good idea or is that the worst idea I’ve ever had?'” He was encouraged by the success of “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” which gives a similar treatment to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and became the first YouTube series to win a Primetime Emmy.
Moran read the original book as a kid, even though he resisted classic literature. “Anything people said was proper literature that you should read, I avoided because that meant it was boring,” said the writer-director. But even he couldn’t resist the novel’s sinister appeal.
The series has garnered enthusiastic responses from viewers, though no word on how many of those will be picking up Stoker’s work anytime soon. For his part, Moran would be happy “if just one person ends up reading it.”
The series begins fairly mildly; Mina’s job asks her to travel to Romania for one night to deliver something to an eccentric client. At first, she is reluctant to leave John on date night, but her adolescent excitement about an all-expenses paid vacation wins out. The series takes a turn for the scary in episode 7, titled “Live Stream,” when Mina’s live broadcast from inside Dracula’s mansion goes terrifyingly awry. Moran was conscious of striking a balance between letting the story unfold naturally and keeping thrill-seekers hooked: “I had to build up the story and introduce everyone, but at the same time not disappoint people who are expecting vampires, so that meant using a lot of foreshadowing and indication,” he said.
For casting, Moran looked for people who are already comfortable speaking directly into a camera: YouTubers. Mina is played by Rosie Holt, a comedian and actress with a modest YouTube following. “She really stuck out as someone who is similar to the character, and has that mixture of kinda cool, kinda awkward, kinda geeky,” Moran said. Liam Dryden and Matt Hargreaves, who play John and Jack, have larger followings. Neither fellow is a YouTube “star” by any stretch of the imagination, but thankfully, Moran prized acting skills over subscriber count when he cast “Mina Murray’s Journal.”
The actress Kate Soulsby plays Lucy, whose mooning over Mina provides a compelling — though not titillating — B-story. “I’ve always kind of seen it in the book,” Moran said of the romantic tension between Lucy and Mina. “Most adaptations hint at it, but they don’t go as far.” Of course, it’s tricky to show a budding romance unfold in a vlog, much less any non-romantic character interaction. Moran gave the other characters their own vlog channels in order to flesh out the story, with Mina as the main focus. Occasionally, Lucy or John appear onscreen with Mina, but rarely all at once. “We can only push it so far with pretending it’s a web cam with this ultra wide angle,” Moran explained. “That was tricky, and felt sort of like moving puzzle pieces around.”
Growing the story’s scope while sticking to the video journal structure will be a challenge in the second season, which Moran sets up with Mina’s revelation in the final episode of the first season, airing this Thursday. But while he hopes to let the characters out of their bedrooms as the action kicks off, he will be careful to maintain the vlog aesthetic. “You can’t have the whole thing being someone telling you what happened off screen, that’s not going to be satisfying,” he said. “It’s still gotta look like it’s homemade.”
It may look homemade, but “Mina Murray’s Journal,” with its simple execution of a high-concept premise, is all professional.