Friday, 29 August 2008

Dracula - the Spanish Version

Back in the days when sound was a new thing in cinema, it was common for studios to shoot foreign language versions of movie 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 belowed, I've 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 coffins. 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, it's 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 liek 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 call and 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...

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Through a Glass Darkly

Last night I finally got around to opening the huge Universal Monster Legacy DVD boxed set. Now, this is a fabulous set containing nearly all the classic Universal horror movies. Note the nearly - though it has all the Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein flicks plus a few other classic such as The Invisible Man, Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Mummy, it doesn't contain the Abbot & Costello last outings for the monsters or any of the various sequels in the Creature, Mummy and Invisible Man series. But hey I can live with that. After all the price tag for this 16 DVD set was big enough anyway and it did come with some beautifully crafted busts of Karloff, Lugosi and Creighton Chaney*.

After much humming and harring, I decided to kick off with Dracula (1931). Now right off the bat, let me say this movie isn't one of my favourite Universal horrors. I first saw it a long time ago in a season of horror double bills on BBC 2.

Quick digression - back in the late '70s and early '80s here in the UK, every summer for several years BBC 2 would screen a season of old horror movie double bills. For a while it was an almost traditional feature in the viewing calendar, much like the wonderful Ghost story For Christmas strand.

Often the format would be an old black and white chiller followed by a colour offering, usually something from Hammer, Amicus or Tigon but also more modern fare such as Romero's The Crazies.

And often they themed the seasons so one year we got a selection of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, and another the complete set of Val Lewton films. Happy days indeed for a budding film buff. And as they showed over the summer school holidays, many a young horror fan could easily persuade the parents to stay up late watching these treats.

Anyhow, one year BBC2 announced the season as "Masters of Terror" and the format for that year was to be a Universal picture followed by a Hammer outing. For me, then a morbid kid who's Bible was Alan Frank's Horror Movies (Octopus Books 1974) this was a terrific news. Up to this point, I'd only seen Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (bizarrely at a cub scout camp!) and one of the last gasp Abbott & Costello flicks. I was over the moon - finally a chance to see a coffin load of all the old classics I'd read so much about.

Needless to say that was one great summer. However the only film that disappointed was Dracula. Now don't get me wrong, I thought Lugosi was great and the first section of the movie set in Transylvania was absolutely top notch. However after that I felt it lost pace and became very stagey. It just didn't live up to how I'd imagined this movie to be. Interestingly, in the excellent Bright Darkness (Cassell 1997), Jeremy Dyson tells of a similar reaction (and I suspect given his age, he first saw this movie in the same screening I saw).

So when I popped the disc into the player, I did so thinking to myself "Well I wasn't impressed back then as a callow youth, so I doubt it's going to impress me now, but hey I intend to watch the complete cycle so let's just get through this". However I then noticed that this disc come with the option of watching the movie with a new score, written by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet (a string ensemble who in my derranged imagination come appropriately fitted with occult gold vampire insect devices).

Now as one of the things that jarred with me on my original viewing was the lacklustre score, I opted for watch with the Glass music. And I have to say, it really transformed the movie. Certainly there are still problems with Browning's directing choices, such as the static camera shots and Dracula dying quietly off screen, but the new score really enliven the film's atmosphere and gave dramatic tension to the aforementioned static scenes.

Phillip Glass said:

"I felt the score needed to evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century — for that reason I decided a string quartet would be the most evocative and effective. I wanted to stay away from the obvious effects associated with horror films. With [the Kronos Quartet] we were able to add depth to the emotional layers of the film."

And for this viewer at least, he has succeeded admirably. The new music gives the movie's second half a more dynamic pace and lends a wonderfully eerie air to many scenes. In his amusingly rambling Danse Macabre, Stephen King notes that one of the problems with this film is "Bela Lugosi's corny Valentino imitation ... which even hardened horror afficionados and cinema buffs cannot help giggling over". Now, I related completely to this on my original viewing, but now with the Glass music playing even those scenes of Dracula fixing his victims with a smouldering stare work appearing weirdly hypnotic and menacing rather melodramatic.

I am amazed how different this film becomes with a new score, and my rating of this movie has improved greatly. i heartily recommend anyone who has had a similar reaction to mine to watch this film again with the new score.

Next stop - the other Dracula made by Universal in 1931. The other Dracula? I hear you ask. Yes, the Spainish version they shot on the same sets at the same time. Now I've not seen this before but I've heard it claimed this is a superior production. Should be interesting!

*Better known to the world as Lon Chaney Jr - a name foisted on him by the powers that be and something the man himself was never happy with. Hence I'm crediting him with his proper moniker.


Originally I planned on doing a blog on the trials and tribulations of the web project I'm currently slaving over. However over the past few weeks I've noticed my friends' eyes glazing over whenever I've started waffling about the various technical issues I've been grappling with, which led me to ask myself - who really wants to read alot of ranting about the nitpicky tedium of coding for different browsers and the like? Not you. Not me. And certainly not my Aunt Nelly.

So instead I'm going to waffle about whatever I've been watching or reading. Expected alot of talk about works that include robots, dinosaurs, vampires and psychos - you know all that high brow literary stuff :).

And what does HYPNOGORIA mean? Well it's the name of the afore mentioned website and you find out what it means when the site finally goes up...