Houdini & Doyle S01E08: “Strigoi” Review
Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Thursdays at 9pm
Writer: Carl Binder
Director: Robert Lieberman
Essential plot points:
- Bram Stoker is being stalked through London one night. In panic, he drops a glass jar that appears to be full of blood, before pitching up at the home of his friend Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle escorts him home – where they find Stoker’s maid dead, staked through the heart.
- Houdini and Stratton join Doyle to question Stoker, who appears ill, wearing heavy make-up and dark sunglasses to shield his eyes. He refuses to tell Adelaide his movements the previous day, telling her to find the man who followed him instead.
- He reveals the man had broken into Stoker’s house before and threatened him for glorifying evil through his Dracula novel, demanding the forthcoming paperback is not published.
- Adelaide won’t rule out Stoker as a suspect but Doyle finds it hard to believe his socially awkward friend could be a killer. To keep an eye on him, and provide protection, Houdini has Stoker moved into his hotel rooms – something that spooks his mother Cecília.
- Adelaide tells Doyle and Houdini about the warning she received last week.
- As they investigate Stoker’s house, they find a letter the dead maid was writing to a friend, telling how her employer had changed into a bloodless, revolting man.
- Doyle speaks to Stoker’s friend Professor Esmer Havensglin, an expert in vampire cults and hunters, who had helped him research the subject for Dracula. He reveals he warned the author about the danger of digging up the subject, and incurring the wrath of the vanatori – vampire hunters.
- Meanwhile among Stoker’s papers, Houdini and Stratton discover he had been paying his maid a large amount of money – leading them to believe she had been blackmailing him over a secret.
- They venture into a graveyard Doyle’s been referred to by the Professor, where they find three “vampires” who claim they are the only people who can protect Stoker, as he is one of them, before mysteriously vanishing.
- Cecília thinks she sees Stoker sneaking away on the street outside the hotel despite the fact that he’s been locked in the hotel room. But when Houdini returns and they force open the door to his room, the author is still inside.
- Meanwhile one of the vampires from the cemetery, Lilliana, breaks into Doyle’s study and confronts him. She tells him the maid was killed by a vampire hunter called Lauchlan McBride, but because the maid was not a part of “their world” her death should be dealt with by Doyle and the authorities rather than the vampires.
- Stoker confirms the maid had discovered a secret about him, but refuses to reveal what it is, leaving Houdini and Stratton more suspicious of him, but Stratton goes to track down McBride’s address.
- Doyle and Houdini visit her at home later that night, where she reveals she has been going through her husband’s papers and discovered he was within 50 miles of each assassination carried out by the anarchists over the last few years. Stratton is convinced her husband was trying to stop them, but Houdini is more sceptical.
- They head to McBride’s, where they find his vampire slaying gear – and McBride’s corpse, drained of blood. They go back to the hotel after getting word that Stoker has escaped his room – and find him inside a nearby butcher’s, drinking a bowl of blood.
- Stoker denies murdering anyone and claims he is anaemic, which cow’s blood helps with. He also suffers from photosensitivity – but insists he’s not a vampire. Doyle realises his friend is suffering from late-stage syphilis – which is what his maid was blackmailing him about. But while Doyle, Stratton and Houdini discuss the case with Merring, Stoker somehow escapes from his cell.
- They head to the cemetery to search for him, believing the vampires helped him escape, but after splitting up, Houdini discovers Lilliana’s headless corpse, before being knocked out.
- Doyle discovers Stoker locked in a crypt, before being confronted by Professor Havensglin, who reveals he is the leader of the vanatori. He has buried Houdini alive and will only reveal his location if Doyle and Stratton hand over Stoker, who choses that moment to make a break for it. Havensglin and Doyle give chase through the graveyard, while Stratton looks for Houdini.
- The escapologist comes to in a coffin buried under the ground, and starts trying to dig out. Havensglin and Doyle tussle in the crematorium, before Stoker charges Havensglin and they tumble into the flames of a furnace. Doyle rushes to help dig Houdini out before he suffocates.
- Stoker reappears, revealing he missed the flames and fell behind the furnace, with only Havensglin falling into the fire. He and Doyle talk about his condition, with Stoker knowing the syphilis will rob him of his sanity.
- Someone raids Stratton’s home, stealing all her husband’s papers and evidence of the anarchists. Houdini promises to take her to America to follow up on the one clue they have, as he’s returning there with his mother.
- But when he returns to the hotel, he finds his mother has passed away in her sleep.
Russell T Davies, when taking over the running of Doctor Who, famously talked about how he wouldn’t set an episode in the past without some kind of identifiable figure – the so-called celebrity historicals we ended up with during the first few years of the new Doctor Who. “Strigoi” takes that same approach, taking as its starting point the friendship between Conan Doyle and Stoker, but giving us a version of the Dracula author that owes more to romantic fiction than any kind of reality.
By now, eight episodes in, it’s clear that Houdini & Doyle is less interested in any kind of authenticity and concerned more with the weird Disneyland approach to reality that it’s established. That allows the show to take the sort of liberties on display here – in the same way that Doyle is presented as a less sceptical version of Holmes, Stoker here is ascribed the traits that are more commonly seen in his own most successful character, Count Dracula.
Vampires were big business during the 18th and 19th centuries, coming after a genuine scare started in Austria in the 1720s. They run through pre-Stoker fiction and poetry from Southey’s Thalabel and Polidoris’s influential The Vampyre to the penny dreadfuls such as Carmilla and Varney The Vampire. All that before the iconic Dracula was published to critical acclaim (but not much in the way of actual sales) in 1897.
It arrived into a literary scene where tuberculosis and syphilis were rife, and the idea of vampirism as a contagious disease spread through intimate contact hit home at just the right time. The real life speculation about Stoker’s own death in 1912 being connected to syphilis – a matter for contention – is made concrete fact here, allowing the show to portray Stoker as a damaged figure aware he is rotting away – effectively already condemned to the undead status his most famous creation has.
And once you get on board with that, it’s fine, because unlike last week’s brain-numbingly awful rewriting of Doyle’s history and treatment of mental illness, this episode is determined to go all out in terms of visual and visceral impact. We have people buried alive in coffins, stakings, grisly decapitation and exsanguination. All the tropes of horror fiction, and indeed vampire fiction, of the era. For once Houdini and Doyle are both in the main sceptics – Doyle’s credulity more aimed at protecting his friend than investigating the mysteries of the netherworld.
Admittedly, it helps too that the genre lends itself to some great visuals – with Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, shot at night and with suitably spooky effects, creating a creepy backdrop for the final sequences. Director Robert Lieberman seems much more engaged with this material than he was last week. The script also allows for some genuine moments of emotion – notably for Michael Weston, who gets the full range of light and dark to play during the story. In fact, for once, the weakest link isn’t Stephen Mangan but Rebecca Liddiard – who’s occasionally wobbly accent comes off the wheels entirely this week.
It doesn’t help, admittedly, that the only time she’s given any real character development is through the increasingly tiresome arc story about Adelaide’s husband’s death, which feels like it’s wandering dangerously close to being a Primark version of the set-up for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel. Increasingly she’s been written as a generic female cop – something the character and the actress don’t deserve, frankly – and that makes it harder for her to stand out against the colourful figures in the foreground.
The problem with Houdini & Doyle’s loose grasp of reality and storytelling makes getting on board with the pretzel-twisted portrayals on the show less an acceptance, and more a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Thankfully, with just two episodes remaining, and the arc plot accelerating in the background, release may be just around the corner.
- Paul Ritter, last seen playing Jimmy Perry in the Dad’s Army biopic at Christmas, turns in a lovely, nuanced performance as Bram Stoker, bringing a much-needed sense of tragedy to the man.
- As mentioned above, Robert Lieberman’s direction here lands perfectly, selling the story through some at times lovely visuals. The final scene especially transcends some clichés to sell the emotion in the moment. It’s night and day compared to last week, without needing any big either.
- There’s some lovely stuff playing with the nature of fame at the start, with Doyle and Houdini sympathising with Stoker being stalked by his vampires and vampire hunters because of the book – not least with Houdini’s cheeky dig abut Stoker creating the most popular character in fiction…
- The music. Right, let’s address this properly, because while I’ve previously complained about the terrible score for the show from James Jandrisch, it reaches a point here where it’s beyond awful. Not a single scene has the right music – which varies wildly in style from period pieces to weird pseudo-drum and bass, leaving the whole thing feeling random and pretty characterless. If Houdini & Doyle gets recommissioned then they need to fire Jandrisch. Ideally out of a cannon. Into the sun.
- Okay, it’s bad enough poor Harry Houdini’s wife has been airbrushed from history, and his daddy issues have been cranked up, but now his mother has been shuffled prematurely off this mortal coil. Which is genuinely nonsense, even by this show’s standards, as Cecília Weisz didn’t die until 1913. Twelve YEARS after the episode is set. Worse, it robs us of any more appearances from Diana Quick, who plays Mama Houdini. Shame on you, producers. Shame, I say.
- The producers of Houdini & Doyle seem to have a bloody odd attitude to marriage. Houdini’s and Stoker’s are ignored entirely, Doyle’s odd personal life is skirted over, and Stratton’s husband is a plot point.
And the Random:
- The atmospheric graveyard scenes at the end are shot in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery. If you ever have the chance to visit it, do so – besides being the largest cemetery in the UK, it’s also a beautiful place with the North Chapel (briefly glimpsed in the episode) worth exploring. Among the public figures interred there are Manchester philanthropist John Rylands, former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, and Factory Records co-founder Anthony H Wilson, whose beautiful gravestone was designed by Peter Savile.
- Okay, from the top. Abraham Stoker was indeed friends with Conan Doyle, and possibly distantly related through the Irish side of Doyle’s family. However, they weren’t childhood friends – not meeting until Stoker moved to London with his wife Florence to manage the Lyceum Theatre. Stoker was a fan of Doyle’s work, collaborating on a serial writing project together in the late 1890s and Sherlock Holmes providing inspiration for early work on a character in Dracula.
- Florence and their son Irving – named after Stoker’s idol and employer, the actor Henry Irving – outlived Stoker, who died in 1912, just a couple of days after the Titanic sank, which somewhat overshadowed his obituary. The show’s claim he died from tertiary syphilis came via his nephew, who noted Stoker’s death certificate listed Locomotor Ataxy – a euphemism for the STI – but he had also suffered from a series of strokes and conditions such as gout in his later years, although he didn’t have anaemia or drink cows blood.
- Alongside Dracula, he also wrote The Lady Of The Shroud, and the frankly insane Lair Of The White Worm, which was made into an even more insane film starring Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi. He also worked as a journalist and literary critic for the Telegraph – interviewing, among others, Arthur Conan Doyle… Basically, shot version of this is, the Stoker in this episode bears no resemblance to the real man.
- Dracula remains one of the most popular characters to be adapted into films and TV shows. In fact, the only character in popular fiction to have been adapted more times lives at 221B Baker Street.
- The episode takes its name from a type of Eastern European vampiric legend, creatures that could change shape and drain their victims blood – although they tended to be more Romanian and Serbian than Hungarian, despite what Mrs Weisz remembers… (the vampires in The Stain are referred to as Strigoi – ed.)
Review by Iain Hepburn. You can listen to his podcast at www.fromthesublime.com