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Saturday, July 28, 2012

The 1931 Universal Spanish-language 'Dracula'


Dracula (Spanish-language version), 1931, 104 minutes, Universal, black and white. In Spanish with subtitles. Directed by George Medford and Enrique Tovar Avalos. Starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula, Lupita Tovar as Eva Seward, Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield, Barry Norton as Juan Harker, Carmen Guerrero as Lucia, Jose Soriano Vioscia as Dr. Seward and Eduardo Arozamena as Professor Van Helsing. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

Universal's Spanish-language version of Bram Stoker's tale was shot at the same time the Bela Lugosi classic was filmed. The same sets, props and backdrops were utilized. As the story goes, the Spanish-language version was shot late at night, after other Dracula director Tod Browning's cast and crew shot during the day. This version was out of circulation in the United States for decades before being rediscovered. The film is wonderful, and only the talent of Bela Lugosi prevents it from rating as high as the "conventional" Dracula. In fact, in many ways, this longer, more gothic, version is an improvement on director Browning's too often stagey version. However, star Lupita Tovar, very sexy in the film, is still with us and just celebrated her 102nd birthday!

The Spanish-version Dracula is a very sensual movie. However, unlike Lugosi -- who is the sexual creature in Browning's film -- it's the women in the Spanish-language Dracula who radiate sexuality. Unlike the buttoned-up, Victorian-like Helen Chandler's Mina Seward in Browning's version, Lupita Tovar's Eva Seward (the same character) is a sexual creature whose erotic awakening is brought on by Conde Dracula (Villarias). She's shy and virginal at first, but, late in the film, in a low-cut nightgown which shows a surprising amount of cleavage for a 1931 film, she rises from her bed under Dracula's spell, eager to meet the night. Carmen Guerrero, as Dracula victim Lucia, is also sexier than her counterpart in Browning's version.

Also, the Spanish-speaking version of Dracula is much longer than Browning's version. Sometimes this hurts -- occasionally the film will lag as scenes go on to long -- but mostly it's an improvement. Characters like the mad Renfield, Eva Seward and Professor Van Helsing are more developed, and viewers will care more about their fate. Also, there are wonderfully spooky scenes that are missing in Browning's version. They include: Dracula walking through a spider's web without disturbing it; Renfield's horror at watching Dracula commanding a door to open; the terror of sailors battling a storm who see Dracula on their ship; shots of rats and bugs as Dracula's had reaches out of his coffin; and Renfield repeatedly assuring Dracula that no one knows of his trip to his castle in Transylvania. There is a wonderful scene -- not in the Browning film -- where Renfield, politely relating the history of his life to Van Helsing, calmly stops to catch a fly. Also, Renfield's death at the hands of Dracula is captured in a more brutal shot than in Browning's film. Finally, Tovar's Eva Seward is much more aware of her fate and the possessive spell Dracula has over her. In a memorable scene, she begs Professor Van Helsing to kill her after Dracula is finished with her.

The weakest link is Barry Norton's Juan Harker. He's as mediocre as David Manners in the Lugosi film. Villarias as Conde Dracula does a good job, but he pales in comparison to Lugosi. But in fairness, who can compete with Lugosi? Lugosi is sinister and charming. Villarias is forbidding and creepy. Also, Villarias will occasionally mug too much for the camera, a problem that Renfield's Rubio (who also does a good job overall) has as well. Rubio's madness is a bit more forced that Dwight Frye's Renfield. Instead of Frye's calculating, horror-filled mad chuckles, Rubio periodically breaks into hysterical screaming, which is annoying. Arozamena's Van Helsing is good, but also fails to rise to the level of Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing in the Browning film. His delivery is a little too forced, and his character lacks the subtle wit that Van Helsing utilized while verbally sparring with Dracula. Vioscia is adequate as Dr. Seward.

However, if you're a Dracula fan, you'll love this film. It's a must for any cult film collector and today can be easily found (Amazon sells it online). As mentioned, the story is richer (viewers of this film now know what Browning cut from his Dracula) and Villarias, while no Lugosi, is still better than 90 percent of the rest of the Draculas of filmdom. Also, the "I never drink ..... wine" line is as great in Spanish as it is in English. Co-director Medford was a veteran of many silent films.

-- Doug Gibson

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