Back in the days when sound was a new thing in cinema, it was common for studios to shoot foreign language versions of movies while the main feature was being filming, employing the same costumes and sets.
Now I first heard about the Spanish version of Dracula a few years ago, and the buzz was that this was a superior film it's famous sibling. Has I was originally rather underwhelmed by the Lugosi version, I was intrigued to see this feature albeit with the thought in mind that it wouldn't take that much to improve on the original. However as documented elsewhere, I'd recently reassessed that film in the light of a new Phillip Glass soundtrack, and accordingly the bar was raised for the Spanish language version.
The first thing to note about this production is the longer running time. Undoubtedly this allows the movie to spin a more substanial story. Secondly director George Melford wields his camera with a great deal more panache than Tod Browning, and seeks to make the scenes as dynamic as possible.
It's has been claimed that the Spanish crew would watch the rushes of the Lugosi production before filming and sought to try and top whatever Browning had done. And this become very apparent right out of the gate, with the first scene of the coach bringing Renfield to the Borgo Pass. Melford has the coach rattling and bumping down the road a good deal more violently than in the Browning version. Similarly in the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with his lacl of reflection in the mirrored cigarette box, Melford has the vampire actually lash out with his cane smashing the box to matchwood.
However there is more to the direction than merely increasing the dynamics of the action. Melford shows real flair and imagination is his shooting. In his version of the meeting of Renfield and Dracula on the decayed castle staircase, he pans the camera around the set simulating Renfield's POV finishing with a whirl to reveal the vampire, who has seemingly materialised out of nowhere.
Also worth noting here, is his approach to Dracula emerging from his coffin. In the Browning version, we see the lid lifting a crack and a hand spidering out. Melford repeats this but then adds to the tableaux. He shows us the coffin lid springing open, releasing clouds of fog, out of which Dracula gradually appears. Such flourishes abound; Renfield's demise is a great deal more violent and dramatic. And we actually get to see Mina - renamed Eva in this production, actually attempt to bite Harker.
So on the whole, we do get a much livelier film. Though in fairness, in some shots Browning's still the daddy - Melford doesn't quite manage to top the scenes aboard the storm-lashed ship and doesn't manage to replicate Browning's fantasically creepy shot of a bloated beetle emerging from what appears to be a miniature coffin. However, regardless of the directing style, the original version has three good aces up it's sleeve. And they are the performances of Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Fry and, of course, the legendary Bela Lugosi. Though I feel it's seem a trifle unfair to tally performances between the productions rather than judge them on their own merits, inevitably comparisions spring to mind while watching.
So of the big three, first on the block is Van Helsing. Eduardo Arozamena rocks the same outfit complete with the mad scientist glasses as Van Sloan and provides an equally commanding presence. However his Van Helsing is a good deal warmer and paternal, and these gentle touches give the character a good deal more depth. Arozamena's doctor feels more like a real physician rather than a vampire expert to be wheeled on. And this human touch pays off nicely in the final scene, with Van Helsing leaving to to honour his promise to Renfield, allowing the film to close on a note that brings home the human cost of the story.
Secondly we have Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield. Dwight Fry's performance is justly revered, and Rubio gamely tries to match him. Again though, his Renfield is more human - his performance nuances a more realistic insanity than Fry's villianous mania. Now for me, although he makes an impassioned Renfield, convincingly demented by being in Dracula's thrall, I think Fry still has it. Largely, I think as Fry's performance contains a good deal more menace and his madness is by turns both sympathetic and sinister.
Now before we come to the crux, I'd like to look at other notable cast members. Barry Norton's Juan Harker has as little to do as David Manner's Jonathan, but he makes a greater impression. More impressive is Lupita Tovar. In her portrayl as Eva, she absolutely trouces Helen Chandler's Mina. The scene where we see her attack Juan is stunning, but not because we actually see teeth heading neckwards. Tovar is absolutely magnetic as she shows the change from ordinary girl to vampiress and then collapsing into confusion and remorse in the aftermath. She brings real emotion tothe role. And her Eva possesses a good deal more sensuality while under Dracula's thrall - and that just isn't down to the *ahem* impressive decolletage on show (they ditched Helen Chandler's prim cover-all costumes).
Also worthy of a mention is Manuel Arbo as Martin the orderly. As in the original, his character is the comic relief but his performance is a good deal less broad and so jars less with the overall mood of the film. Naturally, he isn't hamstrung as Charles K Gerrad is with an appalling British accent, which make Dick Van Dyke's Bert in 'Mary Poppins' sound like positively authentic. Comedy accents aside though, his Martin is a more rounded character.
Right, down to the meat of the matter - Carlos Villarías vs Bela Lugosi. Now Lugosi's Dracula is an icon of cinema, set the template for vampires in popular culture and is the yardstick by which all other bloodsuckers are measured. How can Villarías compete with all of that? Well, even disregarding his legacy, Lugosi's performance is still top-flight stuff. According to Lupita Tovar's introduction on the Legacy DVD, its iconic status was recognised during filming and Villarías was instructed to emulate Lugosi at every turn. However despite this he turns in an interpretation of Dracula that is more than a mere facsimile.
With the longer running time and possibly because of Lugosi's difficulties with English, Villarías' Dracula get more lines, and so his Dracula has a more oratory flavor. However the real difference is that his Count is a good deal more suave and charming. With the charm he brings to the role, plus his more youthful appearance, he is a more plausible seducer than Lugosi. This is a debonair romantic Dracula the like of which we would not see again until Frank Langella. You can more readily believe that Lucy and Eva/Mina would be drawn to his Count; Lugosi, although positively extruding old world charm, seems a little unlikely to inspire a crush in the hearts of young debutantes.
However, his charm does come at the expense of menace. Although I feel this isn't due to any failing in his performance; indeed when in full vampire mode, he turns in a rather creepy brooding performance. Rather I think it's a somewhat inevitable dynamic - that the more romantic a Dracula is, the more human the character becomes and this lessens his strength as a creature of the night. Langella also falls prey to this and Gary Oldman's Count loses much of his darkness when the audience realises that most of his wickedness is born of lovesick bitterness rather than satanic evil.
But back to Villarías. His Dracula appears a more hungry, lusty vampire. Although he cannot match Lugosi's other worldly magnetism, his Count filled with passion when both ingratiating himself into polite society and when stalking the foggy night. In many ways the balance of charm and menace he strikes fits very well with the film's original tag line -"The strangest love story of all".
So to conclude, this version of Dracula is well worth seeking out. It's an impressive production with strong casting and exciting direction. There are a few rough edges, but after all this was shot at speed during the night after the main production had stopped for the day. Indeed the confident and elan of this picture are all the more remarkable considering this. The Browning version is so iconic in many respects, I'm not sure the Spanish version will ever displace it even though it is in many respects superior. David Skal in his book V is for Vampire hails it as a must see - an opinion with which I heartily concur.
In fact, my only reservation about this movie, is the music. I just wish Universal had provided the option to watch it with the Phillip Glass score...
Jim Moon, 29th August 2008