Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Drácula es para siempre

Editor’s note: this post is a revised and updated version of a blog post which originally appeared in 2010.

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).

style ***1/2
substance ***

Yes, it is better (more or less)

Draculophiles are divided as to which of Universal's early Thirties vampire essays is the superior, the much more familiar English-language classic, directed by Tod Browning, or its shadow/mirror image, the Spanish-language challenger directed by Melford/Ávalos. The latter film has developed quite a following and is no longer the novelty it once was: it’s very much available via DVD and much discussed both in scholarly and popular sources [1]. Moreover, there's even the occasional theatrical screening.

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  - contrary to the prevailing view - in this writer's opinion actually does a pretty good job in the role. In any case, Villarías’s hopped up, campy performance actually improves, so to speak, with repeated viewings and fits in with the somewhat overwrought atmosphere of the film. Partisans of the original counter that Lugosi’s definitive performance is the sine qua non which overrides all other considerations, a not altogether illogical argument.

As for the supporting roles, the jury is still out 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. Likewise, there’s a case for Pablo Álvarez Rubio’s hysterically intense Renfield being a match for, or possibly eclipsing, 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 debatable whether the latter's greater length, by nearly one half hour, is a plus or minus. But as for style and general atmosphere it’s pretty much no contest. The English language version creaks along, looking more and more an antique as the years recede. The more fluid Spanish entry, by contrast, seems relatively modern, not only for its stylistic felicities but also its languishing, pre-Code eroticism. As the first sexy vampire film, Drácula anticipates by decades the current popularity of sexed-up vampire fiction and various other forms of paranormal erotic fiction such as werewolf, succubus, et al.[2]

Desire never dies

Moreover, in its conflating of sex and vampirism, Drácula paved the way for the next two entries in the Universal vampire series which portrayed the undead in, relatively speaking, more sympathetic terms while managing to sneak in a good bit of sensuality and psychoanalysis. With Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and its homoerotic overtones, our heroine seeks release from her vampiric urges, which she refers to as an obsession. It’s tempting to view said urges as a metaphor for her ‘unnatural’ desires which are the true source of her angst [3]. Thus the title character in Daughter is both cinema’s first lesbian vampire as well as and the first neurotic vampire, and her mental state actually looks back to Eva’s conflicted feelings in Drácula.

Louise Allbritton in Son of Dracula
The next entry, Son of Dracula (1943), gives us a similarly offbeat, albeit different kind, of love story, complete with another sexy vampiress, this one with a kinky fascination for the other world and immortality. Likewise Drácula may be seen as the prototype for the more explicit Hammer lesbian vampire films of the Sixties and Seventies. Its prescience might even be seen extending as far as films like The Hunger (1983).

But, as the man said, I digress. While there's much to savor in both early Thirties Dracula's [4], for me, and for now, Viva El Drácula!  

[1] For one scholarly approach, see Robert Harland’s masterly Quiero chupar tu sangre: A Comparison of the Spanish- and English-language versions of Universal Studios’ Dracula, Journal of Dracula Studies, v9 (2007), pp. 29-38.
[2] With its creative use of shadows and lighting effects, Drácula also may well be the first vampire noir, a trend that was followed up in subsequent vampire films like Dracula's Daughter, Mark of the Vampire, and Son of Dracula
[3] Commentators have focused on the notorious scene in which the Countess Zaleska seduces the young model. However, an arguably more overt lesbian context occurs later in the film at Castle Dracula, where the sinister Countess has whisked away Dr. Garth’s Gal Friday Janet. In this brilliantly edited sequence, the Countess longingly and gradually bends over the helpless girl, coming ever closer as she’s about to put the (vampiric or otherwise) moves on her. Not so surprising that the good doctor intervenes just in the nick of time.    
    Similarly, Dracula's Daughter can also been seen as the first vampire film which more or less equates vampirism with drug addiction. 
[4] Right or wrong, with subsequent viewings I further appreciate how good the Spanish Drácula is and regard it as the true first Dracula film. Consequently the English-language version, for all its creepiness, seems more and more a curiosity, a filmed play, if you will, redeemed only in part by Lugosi’s matchless take on the role.

Gloria Holden in
Dracula's Daughter (1936 )

Further reading: Liz Kingsley, Dracula’s Daughter (review); Dracula's Daughters : the Female Vampire on Film, edited by Douglas Brode and Leah Deyneka, Scarecrow Press, 2014; In Search of Lesbian Vampires.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Movies I hate to love : House of Dracula (1945)

It’s no secret that House of Dracula is a silly film which recycles tired, very tired, material. And yet – there’s something irresistible about its campy mix of goofiness and ponderousness. It’s difficult to put a finger on it but for me it’s the combination of good production values, in some cases quite good, combined with a terrible, ultra-contrived story and resultant muddled script. It’s a jangly combination to say the least. Yet despite, or perhaps because of this unwieldy witches brew, HoD has over the years garnered a considerable cult following.

Despite the title it’s really more a Wolfman story than a Dracula story. I recall that the original title was The Wolfman’s Cure. With HoD the Wolfman saga now comes full circle from the original scientific slant of the proto-Wolfman Werewolf of London a decade prior. But the performance of the torpid Lon Chaney, Jr., does the Larry Talbot character no favors. In his entrance he looks more like a mafioso garbed in black suit and white tie and sporting dyed black hair and mustache.

The other nominal leads inhabit their roles competently if in rather somnambulist fashion. An exception in the proceedings is John Carradine’s svelte, oily voiced Count, probably the best Dracula of the post-Bela Lugosi and pre-Chrostopher Lee era (then again there weren’t many others in them years). But for me the best acting is done by Lionel Atwill in one more turn as Universal's resident police chief, and the fetching Jane Addams as the most beautiful – and most sympathetic – hunchback in cinema history. 

But the real strength of HoD is its noirish look and creepy set design [1]. Nary a shadow, staircase or off-kilter angle is missed and it all has a wonderfully murky, echt Germanic feel to it. Most of the scenes take place at night and there’s plenty of fodder for sinister camerawork, especially in the good/bad doctor’s mansion cum castle. Especially effective is the scene of the requisite mob of villagers chasing Dr Edelmann through the streets with plenty of chiaroscuro-esque angst that would do Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari proud. 

Alas, the special effects are not one of the production triumphs, in particular the hokey electronics light and buzzing show that was so effective in films like Bride of Frankenstein. Here they are decidedly minor league. But I do have to give a nod to the nifty dream/hallucination sequence in which among other phantasmagoric images we see a cured, statuesque Nina walking proudly and wearing what appears to be a frilly wedding gown.

The Frankenstein monster appears for only a few minutes and manages to stagger a bit and smash some lab equipment before perishing in the final de rigueur fire and collapsing building.

I'll play if you'll sing.
Deservingly, the most famous scene and probably the best in the entire film, is where Martha O’Driscoll plays the Moonlight Sonata while the hovering, infatuated Count more or less hypnotizes her into playing something far darker and more sinister [2]. Of course she doesn’t recognize the music and has never played it before. But a crucifix serendipitously intervenes and the Count slithers away. Whether this Dracula genuinely had the hots for her or she was merely the victim of convenience – or both – is left a little unclear, as are many of the details of the inter-relationships of the characters in HoD.

[1] Film noir’s debt to the 1930s Universal horror fim has yet to receive the scholarly treatment it merits.

[2] The sequence recalls a similar scene in Dracula's Daughter (1936), only that time the vampire played the piano.