The Blog Lagoon’s 31 Days of Halloween – Day 23: The OTHER Draculas

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Self-described “vampire fans” get on my nerves. Why? Mostly because they have no sense of history.  I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with digging vampires. I’ll take bloodsuckers over baseball any day, but if you were to send out a call to organize all of the internet’s nosferatu-philes, chances are you’d hear back from a mass of people made up of two-thirds Twilight fans and one-third girls I went to college with who can trace pop vampirism back to its early roots of …Anne Rice.

Blech.

Sure they might know who Bela Lugosi is but I bet you’d be hard pressed to find too many who’d actually ever seen Universal’s original Dracula.

Today’s vampire fan likes to go on and on about how sexy vampires are, rhapsodizing about the erotic themes and sexual subtext of vampire lore. They think of the modern bodice-busting period pieces, the doomed love of immortal teens and the searing look Gary Oldman gives Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola’s craptastic camp-fest. (Make no mistake, I hate Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula…Fuck it and the bogus accent Keanu Reeves rode in on). They can’t imagine the fires Lugosi stoked in the loins of female filmgoers way back in 1931 or how his stately, gentlemanly behavior, was a creation of Lugosi’s performance, fine-tuned and fleshed out in the original stage production long before the first true filmed adaptation of Stoker’s novel. (It was his popularity in the stage role that won Lugosi the starring role in Universal’s Dracula.)

But if it was Lugosi that started the sexual fire in the heart of Dracula lore (And that’s debatable, the Stoker novel, even though it describes the Count himself as more monstrous and ratlike–more in line with F.W. Murnau’s presentation of him in the silent Nosferatu–it has more than one explicitly passionate passage.) that’s nothing compared to what two other Dracula movies brought to the mythology. Those movies are Dracula’s Daughter, the direct sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula, and the Spanish Dracula, which was filmed in tandem with Browning’s on the same Universal set but with different costumes, a Spanish-speaking cast, and a different director, George Melford.

Carlos Villarias (Dracula) and Eduardo Arozamena (Van Helsing)

Carlos pre="Carlos ">Villarias (Dracula) and Eduardo Arozamena (Van Helsing)

The Spanish version of Dracula was a common studio solution to the problem of how to serve Latin markets in the age of talkies. Silent films could easily be repositioned for international markets by simply translating title cards. But before dubbing was efficient or practical, it was not unusual for major studios to shoot second versions of their broad-appeal features specifically for non-English-speaking audiences. (Can you imagine a time when dubbing was LESS efficient than filming a complete alternate film?!)

One thing that makes the Spanish version of Dracula particularly note-worthy is that, in many ways, it’s a far better film than Tod Browning’s. Of the two directors, Melford definitely had a superior eye for visuals, and scene blocking (–even though, he didn’t even speak Spanish! He worked with his cast through an interpreter). Browning’s Dracula has long been criticized by film scholars for clinging too closely to the details of the stage script it’s based on. Much of Browning’s blocking looks stagey and awkward. There’s very little camera movement and most of the moody atmospherics one associates with that version owe more to the amazing Universal sets and Lugosi’s layered performance.

Spanish Dracula, by comparison, is far more artfully crafted and, though it uses the same script, the performances are steeped in sexual expression. Its variation on the character Mina (Eva, here) is turned into a ravenous sexual animal after her encounter with the Count. The innocent Spanish girl from a few scenes earlier becomes a legitimate predator…complete with cleavage-baring nighties and wild-eyed expressions of animal desire.

That's a lot of cleavage for 1931.

That's a lot of cleavage for 1931.

If you’ve ever enjoyed the Lugosi version of Dracula, you owe it to yourself to seek out the Spanish version for comparison. Watching the two films back to back is especially recommended.

Unfortunately, for all of it’s striking beauty, overt sexuality and elegant cinematography, the main weak link in the Spanish version, is Dracula himself. Carlos Villarias’s portrayal of the Count misses the mark in many ways and at times he appears to be performing in a completely different film than the actors around him. It makes you realize how there really is no beating Lugosi in this role. He might not be the greatest vampire to ever grace the screen (I leave that up to you to decide.) but I’d be hard pressed to choose a better actor in the role of Dracula. It belonged to him. (And he knew it. It was widely reported that he was buried in full cape and wardrobe when the Hungarian actor died in 1956). Additionally, there is absolutely no beating Dwight Frye’s portrayal of Renfield. (Tom Waits? Seriously?)

Lupita Tova as Eva Seward in the Spanish "Dracula"

Lupita Tova as Eva Seward in the Spanish "Dracula"

Despite all the things they have in common — sets, studio, script, etc. — the two Dracula’s both leave you with their very own vibe and together they serve as a fine example of how different personalities behind a camera can create two distinct visions of the same tale.

Irving Pichel (Sandor) and Gloria Holden (Dracula's Daughter)

Irving Pichel (Sandor) and Gloria Holden (Dracula's Daughter)

Perhaps even more interesting is the existence of the criminally underseen Dracula’s Daughter. Filmed five years later, as a direct sequel to Dracula, DD brings back Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing, in its opening that takes the reins from Dracula‘s final scene, in which Van Helsing has finally killed the beast with a stake through the heart. Van Helsing is detained and accused of the “murder” of Dracula and Renfield, whose bodies have been discovered by Scottland Yard. No one believes his defense, because no one believes in vampires…that is, until Dracula’s corpse mysteriously disappears and bodies with tell-tale bite marks start popping up.

Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), has come to town, successfully laid her damned paternal figure to rest by setting his corpse ablaze, and now sets her sights on freeing her own damned self from the dark chains inherent in her bloodline. But old habits and bloodthirsty urges die hard, and Sandor, her nefarious henchman, is no help at all. He embraces the dark and wants Daughter D to do the same.

After seeking the aid of Otto Kruger’s Professor Garth, an old student of Van Helsing, who’s also been called upon to help clear VanHelsing’s name, the Countess tries and fails at step one of her twelve-step recovery from vampirism. When Sandor brings in a midnight snack, in the form of a beautiful street urchin, “to model for a painting” she tries to exercise some self-control. But after a scene absolutely throbbing with lesbian subtext, DD can’t contain herself and the quivvering nymphette ends up being just another sucked-dry body on the pile.

Nan Grey (as victim) and Gloria Holden (as Dracula's Daughter)

Nan Grey (as victim) and Gloria Holden (as Dracula's Daughter)

Kruger’s Dr. Garth makes for an interestingly offbeat hero, and Holden is haunting and tragic (probably the first reluctant vampire to grace the screen). Despite some slack pacing in the middle, the first and last reel of Daughter do not disappoint. And watching the pre-code seduction of the young urchin makes you realize just how over-the-top pre-code cinema sexuality could be!

Though there’s a purist in me that hesitates to say it, chances are you’ll find both the Spanish Dracula and Dracula’s Daughter more engaging than the confirmed king of vampire movies. But this is not to say you should skip it. Bela Lugosi’s performance helps you to strip away all the cliche’s that we’ve come to associate with Dracula over the years. Not that I don’t love Sesame Street’s Count, Count Chocula and Grampa Munster (Oh, I DO! I DO!) but it’s refreshing to remind yourself what a truly elegant, devilishly dashing bastard Dracula once was.

The Spanish version of Dracula is a “special feature” on several Universal DVD releases of Dracula. Dracula’s Daughter was an added extra on one of those same releases (as was the follow-up threequel, Son of Dracula, starring Lon Chaney Jr., as the parasitic progeny) but I had no trouble tracking it down online.
Both films: ***

An early scene from Dracula’s Daughter:
Watch the 1936 trailer for Dracula’s Daughter:
Here’s an informative little piece on the Spanish-language production, though, I can’t for the life of me identify the source:

~ by Number5ive on October 23, 2009.

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