Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Spanish Drácula

Drácula (1931). 104 min. Filmed at night on the same sets as the original Universal Dracula with Bela Lugosi. Director[s] : George Melford; Enrique Tovar Ávalos [uncredited]. Cinematography : George Robinson. With Carlos Villarías (Conde Drácula), Lupita Tovar (Eva), Barry Norton (Juan Harker), Pablo Álvarez Rubio (Renfield), Eduardo Arozamena (Van Helsing), Carmen Guerrero (Lucía Weston).

Yes, it is better (more or less). 
Draculophiles are divided as to which of Universal's early Thirties vampire essays is the superior [1], the much more familiar Tod Browning-directed English-language classic or its shadow/mirror image, the Spanish-language challenger [2], directed by Melford/Ávalos. The latter film has developed quite a following and is no longer the novelty it once was: it’s available via DVD and much discussed both in scholarly and popular sources. One of the better blog analyses can be found here. For a more scholarly approach, see Robert Harland’s masterly Quiero chupar tu sangre: A Comparison of the Spanish- and English-language versions of Universal Studios’ Dracula [3].

In the title role of Conde Drácula, the much maligned Carlos Villarías makes a game try, and no, he’s not Bela Lugosi (who is in this role?). But with his tall, aristocratic carriage and rather sinister features he looks the part, and, in this writer's opinion, contrary to prevailing view, actually does a pretty good job of acting. In any case, Villarías’s hopped up, campy performance actually improves, so to speak, with repeated viewings and fits in with the overwrought atmosphere of the film. 

As for the supporting roles, there are similarly varying takes on which is better acted. Much has been made of the women’s sexier wardrobe in the Spanish version, and no doubt the women are more provocatively attired. But their acting is also far more expressive, matching perfectly the film’s sensual, hothouse gestalt, in contrast to the flat, somnambulist quality of the earlier film's über-British female leads. (Speaking of bland performances, we could cite David Manners, too, though in truth he’s no more so than Barry Norton of the Spanish version).

Similarly, the jury’s still out on whether Pablo Álvarez Rubio’s hysterically intense Renfield is a match for, or possibly eclipses, Dwight Frye’s famous turn in the role. Along the way there are a few inevitable clinkers, in casting and otherwise: the mental asylum attendant's comic relief never really works, and nurses wearing high heels is quite the reach, even for a horror film.

It's also arguable whether the latter's greater length, by nearly one half hour, is a plus or minus. And while both films are creaky by today's standards and sensibilities, the Spanish version scores heavily in its more fluidly cinematic look and feel. While there's much to savor in both Dracula's, for me, and for now, Viva El Drácula!  

style ***1/2
substance ***

[1] For all that there is a “rivalry” between the two films, a case can be made that there are far more similarities – historical, setting, technical, costumes, sets, even the acting – than differences.

[2] One of classic film noir’s unmistakable though rarely noted antecedents was the Universal horror film of the 1930s. Likewise, with its gloomily atmospheric photography and mostly Mexican cast, Drácula anticipates the Mexican films noirs which would appear nearly two decades later.

[3] Robert Harland, “Quiero Chupar Tu Sangre: A Comparison of the Spanish- and English-language Versions of Universal Studios’ Dracula“ (1931), Journal of Dracula Studies, v9 (2007), pp. 29-38.

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