10.09.2012

Dracula (1931) [English & Spanish Versions]


DIRECTED BY
Tod Browning [English]
George Melford [
Spanish]

STARRING
Bela Lugosi/Carlos Villar - Count Dracula
Edward Van Sloan/Eduardo Arozamena - Abraham Van Helsing
Helen Chandler/Lupita Tovar - Mina/Eva Seward
Dwight Frye/Pablo Alvarez Rubio - Renfield
David Manners/Barry Norton - John/Juan Harker
Frances Dade/Carmen Guerrero - Lucy/Lucia Weston
Herbert Bunston/Jose Soriano Viosca - Dr. Seward


Genre - Horror/Vampires

Running Time - 75 Minutes [English]/104 Minutes [Spanish]

While I'm proud of running this blog for as long as I have by covering horror, sci-fi, B-movies, and action/fantasy films, I do regret not touching a certain era of movies until this month. I've been blogging for six years this month, and I have yet to touch upon any of the classic Universal Horror movies that modern horror films owe a lot of debt to. And if I'm going to start reviewing this iconic films, I have to begin where it all started: 1931's immortal DRACULA.

DRACULA is obviously based on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, which was adapted into stage production in 1927 that this film fashions after. DRACULA wasn't the first cinematic adaptation of the novel, as 1922's silent film classic NOSFERATU. However, Bram Stoker's widow hadn't allowed the rights of the title and characters for the 1922 film [she sued for copyright infringement], which is why the name was changed. Yet, its masterful presentation resonated - especially in 1931's DRACULA, which has many nods to its predecessor.

Universal hired Tod Browning, who had been a popular silent film director with 1925's THE UNHOLY THREE, and 1927's THE UNKNOWN and LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT [a film he would remake in 1935 as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE]. Browning had taken the assignment after being that Lon Chaney, who had starred in his silent films, would be playing the title character. However, Chaney was sick with lung cancer, succumbing to the disease in 1930. Browning then wanted to hire an unknown European actor who could carry a sinister presence on screen. But Universal Studios interfered with the project, cutting the budget somewhat and making cast and narrative changes. Universal, seeing the Broadway production of Dracula, hired Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi to reprise the role on the silver screen. And the rest is history.

DRACULA was released on February 12, 1931. Universal was afraid that audiences would want to sit through a feature length talkie, especially one about Dracula. But people were curious and word of mouth grew, becoming a box office sensation and making DRACULA the first successful horror talkie. This may a star [and also typecast] out of Bela Lugosi and made Universal the studio for quality horror films, further helped along later in the year with James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN [which is a much better film, in my opinion].

What many American audiences didn't know was that Universal had also filmed a Spanish language version at the same time as the iconic DRACULA, using the same sets and the exact same script - but with a different director and cast. It was widely seen once DRACULA hit DVD [as it's now part of the film's legacy in each release] and many consider it superior to the English version. Even Universal hated the English version, preferring the Spanish one.

So is that true? Is the Spanish language version of DRACULA much better than the Bela Lugosi version? I know I have my opinion. And you may, or may not, be surprised.

PLOT
Renfield (Dwight Frye/Pablo Alvarez Rubio) is a British real estate agent who travels through Transylvania to arrive at the creepy Castle Dracula. Looking for Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi/Carlos Villar) to lease him some property in London, Renfield falls under Dracula's spell, not realizing that Dracula is really a vampire. Dracula and Renfield arrive in England on a ship, where they are the only two survivors. Renfield is committed in a mental asylum where he eats spiders and flies, acting like a maniac. Dracula, however, makes a new home in his London estate, ready to spread his vampire ways onto new victims.

Introducing himself to some well known people in the area, Dracula finds his first victim in Lucy Weston (
Frances Dade/Carmen Guerrero) - who he turns into a vampire quite easily. He then focuses on Mina Seward (Helen Chandler/Lupita Tovar). However, Mina's transition into a vampire is more of a challenge since she's protected by her father, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston/Jose Soriano Viosca) and her fiancee John Harker (David Manners/Barry Norton). When Mina starts feeling sick and reveals bite marks on her neck, Dr. Seward's friend, Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan/Eduardo Arozamena) speculates that Mina has been bitten by a vampire - and points the blame at Count Dracula.


REVIEW

DRACULA isn't the best vampire film out there. It isn't even the best film that involves Dracula. But the horror genre wouldn't be what it is today if it wasn't for this movie, even if NOSFERATU had preceded it and was actually a creepier film. A lot of respect must be given to this movie - as the character still remains popular today, especially in its Bela Lugosi version of the character. Hell, every Halloween you'll spot a person dressed up as a Lugosi Dracula somewhere. It's classic status is well earned and well deserved. Still, it has issues [both versions do] that don't hold up as well today as they probably did back in 1931.

A lot of people have issue with the narrative of this version of DRACULA. Like I stated before, it's less based on the Bram Stoker novel and more on the 1927 Broadway stage production. Obviously, it's a truncated version of the actual Count Dracula story that doesn't elaborate on many things that fleshed out the legendary novel. It's not like that Universal didn't want to film an epic movie that was based on the novel. It's just that they didn't want to spend money on what they considered a "financial risk", especially during the time of The Great Depression. So realizing that many of the novel's scenes wouldn't be presented well on screen without a sizable budget, the studio decided to work with the less involved stage version narrative instead. It's not like the major players aren't in the story. And it does help that Dracula is more front-and-center here than he is in the novel. But many people expect a true adaptation when it comes to books and other forms of media. That's respectable. But it shouldn't cloud judgment on a film that takes the story and presents it in a different way. If it works, it works. Lucky for DRACULA, it most works on a story level.

Is DRACULA weak in story due to its source? Sure. Should some of the characters have had more emphasis? Absolutely. Lucy, for example, barely has time to make herself present before Dracula does what he does to her and she's found dead. Dr. Seward is just around to be a small obstacle in Dracula's way of Mina and tend to Renfield's manic actions. John Harker is just the naive boyfriend - his character is nothing like the more interesting one from the novel or other adaptations. Abraham Van Helsing knows about vampires and no one questions it. Mina is Dracula's last victim and is devoted to Dracula, although you barely see their relationship. She also tries to seduce John, but even that is underplayed. The only two characters that really get material to chew on are Renfield and Dracula himself. Renfield is an awesome character - someone who is a proper real estate agent who turns absolutely crazy due to Dracula's control over him, to the point where his loyalty often gets Dracula into trouble. Dracula is more of a presence than an actual character, but he's suave and mysterious, instantly making him an interesting villain. While I wish the supporting characters were fleshed out more, at least they're here and all have a role to fill within the story.

The truncated narrative also is easy to follow and understand, which is good. I do wish Dracula's origins were a bit more mysterious in its storytelling [you pretty much know he's a vampire from the start], but I'm sure audiences already knew who Dracula was. Its short running time allows the film to move briskly, never really wearing out its welcome.


However, the Spanish version is 29 minutes longer and expands on some of the dialogue and expands certain scenes. This allows the film to tell the story in a more natural way, never feeling as rushed as the English version. From what I hear, the Lugosi version was a bit longer, but edited due to the Production Code of 1934 since certain scenes were considered too explicit for the time. Still, the Spanish version is a lot stronger in terms of its story, even if both films used the same exact shooting script, due to its longer length. Did it need to be 29 minutes longer? Probably not. But at least it helps the story some.

And of course, the dialogue in the film has become iconic - especially anything Dracula quotes here. From Dracula's intro, "I am...Dracula," to "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make," - it's all memorable. I love Dracula's "I never drink...wine," line as well. It's probably the reason why DRACULA is still considered mandatory viewing Halloween time.

The set pieces in DRACULA are quite beautiful and stunning, especially for its time. The shots of the stagecoach traveling through the mountains of Transylvania look pretty cool, even if they still somewhat look a bit flat. Plus Dracula's castle has a ton of atmosphere. I also liked the exterior shots, especially when Dracula would seduce Mina with his hypnotic stare. I believe Karl Freund [who also worked on METROPOLIS, THE GOLEM, and THE LAST LAUGH] did the cinematography and these shots look great. The special effects only of a fake flying bat, but it looks better than any cartoonish CGI effect. It's a nice looking film - both versions are.

The real difference when it comes to both DRACULA films are in the direction and the cast. Tod Browning, who directed a masterpiece with 1932's FREAKS, doesn't really do this film justice visually. Now Browning doesn't do a terrible job. He did listen to Freund's tips and advice at times, as the film looks nice and there is some camera movement that helps certain scenes. But Browning had his problems here. For one, Browning wasn't used to directing "talkies", not realizing that silent film techniques weren't going to work as well here, especially for a DRACULA adaptation. Also, Browning had to struggle with Universal Pictures interfering with his film, telling him what he couldn't shoot and how to shoot certain scenes in certain ways so the film would appeal to the mainstream. That being said, Browning didn't do himself any favors by just shooting static shots for much of the film. I understand DRACULA was based on a staged play, but it shouldn't look like one on film. The shots look awkward at times, especially in how characters are framed within a composition. The editing is a bit weird too, but the studio did that after the fact. And the pacing is a bit off at times, especially during the middle portion of the film where it's mainly just people discussing Dracula. It didn't help Browning with James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN was released months later with more compelling and exciting direction. Not Browning's finest hour.

As for the Spanish version, George Melford bests Browning's work in almost every way. The shots move more in this version, as there's some nice camera style going on here. The film also looks nice. The editing is better. The framing and composition is more compelling. The special effects and atmosphere is more prevalent in this version [love the smoke any time Dracula rises from the coffin]. There's more depth in Melford's visuals than in Browning's. Yeah, Melford had an unfair advantage in that he was able to see the dailies of Browning's work, seeing where the flaws were to direct a better film. Also, Spanish media wasn't as conservative in terms of violence and sexuality as the American culture was at the time [which allowed for scenes with Dracula's Three Wives with Renfield to play out more, as well as Mina really being forward with Harker and not cutting away from the act]. Melford was allowed to do more in his direction than Browning was able to. Still, I feel that Browning's work is really dated in 2012, but Melford's work is still appealing today.


The acting is also different in both versions. While the cast is decent in Browning's version, I felt the acting was much better overall in the Spanish version besides one person. I thought Barry Norton made a better John/Juan Harker than David Manners. Manners is pretty wooden, while Norton was more lively. Helen Chandler is a pretty woman as Mina, but Lupita Tovar really captured the sensuality and sexuality of the character. I also dug Edward Van Sloan's performance as Van Helsing, who made his speeches about the supernatural seem very convincing. Eduardo Arozamena was pretty good as well. I though both Dwight Frye and Pablo Alvarez Rubio were very good as Renfield, although I think Frye had the better performance slightly.


Where the English version tops the Spanish version is the casting of Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Carlos Villar is a decent actor, but he never really convinced me that he could pull off playing Dracula. It didn't help that Melford told Villar to watch Lugosi's performance and imitate it. Instead of being mysterious and acting creepy, Villar's performance is a bit more comical. This is no more true than when Dracula does the hypnotic eye trick. Villar looks like he's constipated each time, making me laugh whenever he would do it. It's like watching a spoof at times.


Bela Lugosi, however, definitely makes Dracula a classic and iconic character through his fantastic performance. His Hungarian accent is awesome and gives the character personality. His eyes are mesmerizing and I love the way they're lit each time. The way he moves is also quite great. If there's anything eerie about DRACULA, it's Lugosi in the role. Unfortunately he was so good as the character that he ended up being typecast. But I hope he was proud that he would always be immortalized as the king of the vampires.


THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE LISTENING TO THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT


- Count Dracula's horse carriage was navigated by a bat. It's sad when a small animal is more eligible for a driver's license than Amanda Bynes or Lindsay Lohan.


- The captain of the ship that Dracula and Renfield traveled on was dead against the steering wheel. Maybe he shouldn't have bought that vowel after all...


- Renfield enjoys eating small living things, mainly flies and spiders. Seth Brundle, Martin Brundle, and Peter Parker are not fans of this story.


- Dracula is able to mind control others to do his bidding. That explains it - Uwe Boll is a freakin' vampire!


- The once former Mina/Eva is now acting a lot freer and more sexual. I guess she's now turning into a vampire. Or she's getting screwed by someone better in the sack. Either way, she's doing a lot of sucking.


- Dracula had a stake driven into him while he slept. In modern times, this would be called rape.


THE FINAL HOWL

Watching both versions of 1931's DRACULA back-to-back was an interesting experience. The English version is a classic in the horror genre, and cinema in general. It put Universal on the map and they never looked back since. However, it's a very flawed film, especially when you compare to its slightly superior Spanish counterpart. George Melford's direction for the Spanish version bests Tod Browning's. The longer length for the Spanish version allows the narrative to resonate a bit more than in the English. And the acting in the Spanish is slightly better overall, except that the English version has the powerful performance by Bela Lugosi - who stands out amongst everyone else in his movie. Still, one can't call themselves a horror fan if they haven't watched the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. And I think the Spanish version deserves a look as well. Vampires are still as popular today as they were in the early 20th century - thanks to Bela Lugosi and DRACULA.



SCORE

ENGLISH

2.5 Howls Outta 4



SPANISH

3 Howls Outta 4





ENGLISH TRAILER




CINEMASSACRE'S LOOK AT DRACULA [SPANISH]

2 comments:

  1. Fantastic look at both movies - and a very fair assessment I completely agree with! It's wonderful to see these 80+ year old movies getting some love!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Expect more classic horror within the month.

      Delete

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