Halloween Advent: A Tale of Two Draculas
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Count vith me, cheeldren. Vuuun...TWO Draculas!
When most people think of Dracula, they don’t think of the character from Bram Stoker’s novel. The image that immediately comes to mind is that of Bela Lugosi, wearing his tuxedo and cape, face pale, the widow’s peak, and that magnificent accent. While many actors have played the role in such varied styles, Lugosi’s version is the one that has captured the imagination of millions. It’s become a part of pop culture, being the archetype for vampires in film, television, comic books, and just about everything else.
But while Tod Browning was filming his gothic horror classic, there was another version being made. Universal made Spanish-language versions of several of their films for distribution to Latin-American countries. These films would utilize sets made for the original versions, and film at night when the day crew had wrapped. Many of these Spanish versions are now lost, but Drácula is still available, and according to some, a superior movie to the Lugosi version. So which film is really the better of the two?
Now, any horror fan worth his weight in stage blood would never speak ill of Dracula. From the many quotable lines (“Listen to them, children of the night…”), to the gothic interiors of the castle and abbey, to the surrealistic quality the film has, it has rightly earned the title of “Classic”. Lugosi’s Dracula is charming yet dangerous. With one look, he can melt your heart, and in a split second, give you a look that tells you he wants to rip out your heart. Bela started his career on the stage, and it shows here. He is a master of facial expressions and body language. He played Dracula on stage, and you get the sense that he knew the character inside and out. Every nuance and movement is fluid as he goes through the film. He owns this character, which may be why it was so hard for him to separate himself from Dracula over the years. While a gifted actor who did play so many great roles, he would forever be in the shadow of the vampire.
"Dwight Frye would also be typecast as a lunatic in many films after. But after seeing his performance, it’s almost impossible to think he was ever sane"
Dracula is assisted in the film by Renfield – a solicitor who is aiding him in establishing himself in London – who is played by the inimitable Dwight Frye. Another gifted actor, Frye would also be typecast as a lunatic in many films after. But after seeing his performance, it’s almost impossible to think he was ever sane. He is driven to madness by his vampire master, devouring insects and spiders in an attempt to gain their life. There isn’t much of a physical transformation from his early scenes to the rest of the picture, but with just a tussle of the hair, a slight crouch, and the combination of crazy eyes and insane laugh (honestly, it’ll get you to keep the lights on at night), he creates a whole new character. This is probably Frye’s best work, which was his curse.
Dracula’s foil is Professor Van Helsing, played quite ably by Edward Van Sloan (who also played the character on stage opposite Lugosi, making them the only two actors to make the crossover from the two productions). Van Sloan starred in three of Universal’s Horror Classics (the other two being Frankenstein and The Mummy), and is a delight. He brings a certain gravitas to Van Helsing, arguing to the scientific minds of the day that creatures of legend might not just be figments of the imagination. He tries in vain (or is that vein) to prove that there is a vampire on the loose, only to be believed when all seems at its most horrible.
The rest of the cast does an admirable job. David Manners plays John Harker, a very British young man who is level-headed and not overly emotional. His love interest, Mina, is played by Helen Chandler, who at times seems wooden in her performance, but plays up the desire when called for. Herbert Bunston plays Dr. Seward (here, Mina’s father, as opposed to a courtier of Lucy as in the novel), who runs a sanitarium which neighbor’s Dracula’s recently acquired property. And Charles K. Gerrard plays Martin, one of Seward’s keepers, who is good for comic relief in his attempts to keep Renfield in his cell.
"One has to wonder why Dracula’s castle is festered with possums and aardvarks. Apparently, when one thinks of exotic creatures for a supernatural thriller, one thinks of armored mammals from the American south"
The set pieces are fantastic, and have been the basis for countless horror movies sets over the decades. High gothic arches, dark shadows, crumbling walls, treacherous staircases, and cobwebs and debris, which only add to the creepy feel. However, Browning’s piece does have its flaws, I’m sad to say. First would be the camera work, which seems less than inspired at times. Many scenes feel static, and slightly claustrophobic. The editing is also called into question at times, as some scenes feel choppy, giving the viewer the feeling that they might be missing something. And then one has to wonder why Dracula’s castle is festered with possums and aardvarks. Apparently, when one thinks of exotic creatures for a supernatural thriller, one thinks of armored mammals from the American south. But these flaws can be overlooked, especially given the performances of Lugosi and Frye.
But when the day crew went home, the night crew came in and played. Director George Melford took on the task of making the Spanish version, starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Drácula, Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield, and Lupita Tovar as Eva (Mina). The film is noticeably different to the Browning version in many ways. First off, the film is a full half hour longer, even though both films used the same script. This is due to several scenes being extended in Melford’s version, and a few scenes being left in, such as Van Helsing and Juan (John Harker) putting Lucia’s soul at rest. The camera work is one major improvement in this version.
"Villarias was no Lugosi. Where Lugosi could pull off suave and dangerous, Villarias mostly looks like he’s either trying to sell used cars, or he’s on the verge of throwing up"
When Renfield meets Dracula in the Browning version, the camera stays at one angle, giving us a long shot of Dracula descending the stairs. In Melford’s version, we get a sweeping shot up the stairs to introduce the vampire host. Other improvements include the shots where Drácula awakens from his coffin, which include a nice lighting and fog combination that add to the atmosphere. Also, the lighting in general is much better in the Spanish version, although it does take away from some of the shadows that make the English version so creepy. Another major difference was in the wardrobe. Helen Chandler’s clothing was designed to keep much covered up, where as Tovar’s wardrobe let more skin show through. According to an interview with Tovar on the DVD, this was due to the fact that Latin American audiences of the time were more comfortable with their sexuality than American audiences. All of the improvements were due to the fact that Melford and Villarias were allowed to watch rushes of the English version, and were able to make improvements where needed.
But the biggest difference is in the performances. Villarias was no Lugosi. Where Lugosi could pull off suave and dangerous, Villarias mostly looks like he’s either trying to sell used cars, or he’s on the verge of throwing up. Rubio’s Renfield is a far cry from Frye’s interpretation. Frye’s lunatic is tormented when lucid, and downright chilling when taken by madness. When he’s found on the ghost ship, his slow, creepy laugh and maniacal stare are brilliant. Rubio overplays it with clownish laughing and comedic flailing. He seems as though he would be more at home in a Marx Brothers movie than a horror film. The rest of the cast is decent, but there are no standout performances. The closest we get to seeing any real acting is in Miss Tovar’s performance, and even then, it seems uneven, as though she’s not sure of herself.
The last few years, critics and some fans have started to look at Browning’s version as campy, inferior, and over appreciated. But having viewed them back to back, I have to say that it is Browning’s version that holds up better. While the Spanish version is a visual treat, it is the performances in the English version that make it the classic it is today. Lugosi is Dracula, and will be for a long time to come. His performance – along with those of Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye – have made this a film treasure, one that is still loved and well-regarded nearly eighty years later.
SPANISH DRÁCULA (1931) - EXCERPT
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