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The non-Browning version
A region 1 DVD review of the Spanish language DRÁCULA from Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection by Slarek
 

Tod Browning's 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker's seminal vampire novel remains the most famous and most influential vampire movie of all time. Few, however, would claim that it's the best – despite the long shadow it casts over the genre, I would still rate Hammer's 1958 reworking of the tale and F.W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu considerably higher. And there's a third film, little seen and made at the very same time as Browning's version, that in many ways is also a superior work.

In these early days of sound, post-dubbing was an as-yet undeveloped technology, and keen to cash in on the relatively small but still lucrative Latin-American market, Universal began filming Spanish language versions of some of their features at the same time as the more widely seen English language ones. Most of these are regarded now as forgettable at best. Drácula is the notable exception. The arrangement was that Browning and his cast and crew would film during the day and when they headed home for the night, the cast and crew responsible for the Spanish version would come in and, using the same sets and equipment, work on their film. The story goes that the first thing they would do is look at Browning's footage from that day's shoot (given the time it took to process the film rushes, we can assume that they were actually a few days behind) and make a pledge to better it. There has been much debate on this, but the general opinion is, on a technical level at least, that they succeeded. One thing is certain, the Spanish language Drácula is different enough from Browning's film to be considered an important genre work in its own right, and actually foreshadows developments in the genre that English-language vampire films were not to tackle for some considerable time.

Though both crews were working from essentially the same script, the Spanish version was to make enough significant changes to warrant its own place in vampire movie history. Of course, its language and limited market meant that it was not to prove as influential as Browning's film, which was seen worldwide and re-popularised later through TV re-runs. But those responsible for the Spanish version clearly had a good idea where the genre was heading and were far less coy than Browning and his collaborators about expressing it.

Directed by George Melford, a New Yorker with 113 films under his belt and who spoke not a word of Spanish, the film is sometimes credited as being co-handled by Enrique Tovar Ávalos, who was effectively Melford's translator and the conduit between the director and his Spanish-speaking cast. How much Ávalos actually contributed to the look and feel of the film is uncertain, but it should be noted that this was only his fifth film in this role and was to prove his last.

Initially, the two films seem almost identical – the opening title card may be in Spanish, but it's the otherwise almost the same as its English-language counterpart. Even the opening scene seems like a carbon copy, with the same coach ride, opening lines and costumes. But it's not long before the two films part company. In Browning's film this scene is over in 40 seconds, but in Melford's version it runs for twice that length and provides the audience with considerably more information on why the locals live under a shadow of fear. This is a key element of this version of the film – longer scenes in which characters expand on snippets provided by the English language version. The result is a film whose running time exceeds that of the more commonly seen version by a considerable amount – where the Browning Dracula is just 75 minutes in length, the Melford Drácula runs for 103 minutes. The trick is, though, it doesn't feel longer.

The story is effectively the same, as are all the major plot points, and it's in the fine detail that the differences lie. In narrative and subtextual terms, probably the first major change comes when Renfield passes out and is attacked by Dracula's brides. Here there is no intervention from the Count, no moment in which he stamps his authority on the women, and thus no hint of homoeroticism when Renfield is 'seduced' – the fact that all three brides descend on him before the fade-out has its own, most interesting implications. Indeed, the sexual aspect of the vampiric attack is brought much more to the fore here, and in its more direct approach to the sexual response of the victims, the film really is ahead of its time. Whereas in the Browning version Mina mournfully tells Harker that he can no longer touch her, Eva emerges from her bedroom the morning after being bitten by the Count with all the energy and cheer of someone who has had a night of stupendously good sex. It's an aspect emphasised by the costume design, which is far more risque than the more censorship-fearing English language version, never more so than in this very scene, where cleavage is constantly on display, and – for the first part of the scene at least – Eva's top is transparent enough for her nipples to be visible. There is no question here – the whole scene is about sex. It concludes with a moment entirely absent from Browning's film (and the rest of Medford's) when Eva leans forward and bites Harker hungrily on the neck. This is the second key piece of vampire iconography missing from the English language version to turn up here – an earlier close-up of two bite marks on Lucy's neck has no visual equivalent in a film where such marks are only referenced verbally.

Perhaps the only change that plays weaker than it does in Browning's film is that extraordinary moment when Renfield slowly advances on the fallen maid – once again it is very creepily done, but here the action is seen through to its conclusion, where it's revealed that Renfield has merely spotted a fly that had landed on the girl's face and is attempting to creep up on it (it gets away). This is one scene I wanted left to my imagination – I had come up with something much more bizarre.

This kind of thematic enhancement is matched by a technical ambition that often leaves Browning standing (and apparently annoyed the hell out of him). The most famous example is when Renfield first encounters Dracula, where Browning's static camera is replaced by a dynamic crane shot that starts on a distracted Renfield and then flies up the stairs to the Count, who is standing, candelabra in hand, framed spectacularly in front of a gigantic spider's web. Elsewhere Melford counters the oft-spouted theory about the immobility of cameras in these early days of sound by tracking in and out during dialogue scenes. This is at its most effective in the sequence where Dracula attempts to control Van Helsing, only to have the tables turned on him and be sent running from the room, a moment that seems to directly anticipate the energy of Christopher Lee's interpretation of Dracula in the later Hammer version.

Where the Spanish film sometimes loses out to its English language brother is in its lead performances. Carlos Villar's Conde Drácula frankly makes Lugosi look a class act, hamming it up to a sometimes ludicrous degree, especially when he approaches a victim to bite them. Similarly, as Van Helsing Eduardo Arozamena is nowhere near as commanding as Edward van Sloane and spends much of the film looking either wildly surprised or worried to the point of tears (that said, both men some close to nailing it down in the aforementioned confrontation scene, which really works). Far better all round is Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield, who genuinely gives Dwight Frye a run for his money as the demented madman of the second half and for my money is actually superior as the supposedly sane lawyer on his way to meet Dracula in the opening scenes. He underplays the role nicely here and comes across as a sensible man not persuaded by superstition and keen to conclude his business, as opposed to the exaggerated, wide-eyed naivety of Frye's interpretation. Equally convincing is Lupita Tovar as Eva, especially the morning after her seeing-to by Dracula, in which her energy and allure completely sells the sexual aspect of this sequence.

Melford's attention to detail includes the soundtrack. Though also lacking a music score in the traditional sense, there are music cues for a couple of the key appearances of Dracula and the use of sound effects is sometimes memorable, from the castle's monstrously creaking doors to the wind and insane laughter on board the ship to England, a scene that has a very real sense of terror-induced madness. Even more impressive is the sometimes striking use of composition and lighting, courtesy of cinematographer George Robinson. Though many of the wider shots are straightforwardly (one is reluctant to say blandly) lit, some close-ups and medium-shots are beautifully done – Eva's head lying sleeping on her pillow, Renfield in his cell illuminated by a single shaft of moonlight, and night-time exteriors that use smoke and backlight in a way that prefigures the gorgeous work done by Ted Scaife on Jacques Tournier's 1957 Night of the Demon.

Whether Melford's film is actually better overall than Browning's is ultimately a matter of personal taste. It lacks Lugosi and Van Slone's commanding presence, but otherwise is dramatically every bit its equal, and from a technical standpoint is an easy winner. It remains an essential companion piece to the more famed English language version and a key work, sometimes for different reasons than Browning's film, in the development of the vampire genre.

sound and vision

Although the same age as the English language Dracula, the print on display here is noticeably superior; there are still plenty of dust spots, a lot of flickering and the odd bit of damage, but the detail level is very good and the contrast is excellent throughout. Created from a quality nitrate negative that Universal had stored in their vaults, it really does look good, save for one reel, which had to be transferred from an inferior, multigenerational source because the film print had severely deteriorated over time. This covers just a small section of the film, but the drop in quality here is very marked. The picture is framed in its original aspect ratio 1.33:1.

As with the English language version, the sound is a tad fluffy and there are very noticeable shifts in background noise when dialogue suddenly kicks in, but there are no violent pops or crackles, and on the whole this is perfectly serviceable and easily the equal of its English language cousin.

It should be noted that the English subtitles here are for the hard of hearing, and the subtitles appear directly under the person speaking, which can see them darting about the screen a little and include announcements of sound effects. On the original release the subtitles were as normal, at the bottom of the screen, and with this option now removed and only the HoH subtitles available, the original disk remains my preferred version on that score alone. The French subtitles are standard issue.

extra features

Previously released as a feature-packed two-disk set, this version has now been withdrawn and has been replaced by a quite superb 2 disk set that features this film, the English language version, Dracula's Daughter, Son of Dracula and House of Dracula, plus all the extras from that original release, most of which relate to Browning's film. There is only one extra specific to the Spanish version.

Introduction to the Spanish Version by Lupita Tovar Kohner precedes the main feature and features a 4 minute interview with the star of the Spanish language version, who gives a brief but intriguing insight into the production to this edition of the film. I could have done with a lot more of this.

summary

For anyone familiar with both the Tod Browning Dracula and (especially) the development of the vampire genre over the course of the next fifty years, George Melford's Spanish language Drácula is a revelation. The performances of Carlos Villa and Eduardo Arozamena as Count Dracula and Professor van Helsing lack the commanding presence of Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan, but Pablo Álvarez Rubio is fine as Renfield and Lupita Tovar makes for a sometimes erotically charged Mina. The film's exploration of the sexual aspect of the story is far bolder than in Browning's version and still looks years ahead of its time. Urt's also faster paced, more technically accomplished and more adventurous than its English language cousin, and has to be the key inclusion on this excellent 5-film set. The only down side is the lack of a standard English subtitle track, which was on the original release and really should have been included here – hard-of-hearing subtitles are a worthy inclusion, but for those of us who merely need a translation of the Spanish, having the subtitles jump around the screen and being told that there is a bell ringing when we can plainly hear it is a little distracting.

Drácula

USA 1931
103 mins
director
George Melford
starring
Carlos Villar
Lupita Tovar
Eduardo Arozamena
Pablo Álvarez Rubio

DVD details
region 1
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
Spanish
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
French
extras
Lupita Tovar introduction
distributor
Universal
review posted
10 May 2004

Dracula: The Legacy Collection
This Universal region 1 box set contains the following films. Click on the appropriate title to read a detailed review of that film.
Dracula
Drácula (Spanish language version)
Dracula's Daughter
Son of Dracula
House of Dracula

See all of Slarek's reviews