Ah Vampires. They seemingly never go out of fashion. Though their depictions may range from the glittery boy band type (I hated typing that) to the rat-like Nosferatu, they endure. It seems that either someone finds a new spin to put on them or they just rehash old ones, but they’re even more popular now than they were back when tonights film was first released.
I love the Universal horror movies. They were my first exposure to horror, being as they’re almost all utterly child-safe. Plus they just appealed. I mean what a lineup you had. Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, all of them classics. As dated as they are now (And some aspects painfully so), they endure greatly. There’s something about matte paintings, California standing in for the smog filled streets of England and hokey special effects that just work dammit.
Adapted from the play, which itself was adapted to the relatively adaptation-unfriendly Bram Stoker book (It’s essentially a series of letters/newspaper clippings), Dracula was the first in the wave of those films, released in 1931 and has seeped into public conscience since.
First of all, it’s easy to see why Bela Lugosi’s portrayal as the titular Count is still imitated to this day. He has an odd inflection (“I don’t drink…Wine”) that was attributed to the fact that Lugosi couldn’t speak English when the film was made, but this isn’t true. He could speak it just fine and instead plays the character like a man who has forgotten how to interact with people.
Also different here is the characterisation of Van Helsing. It was later on (Actually starting with Hammer’s Horror of Dracula) that Van Helsing was versed in Vampire hunting, here as in Stoker’s novel, he’s just a man of science who has an interest in the occult. Though the film does treat vampirism as something that’s ‘known’. Literally, there’s a scene where Van Helsing looks through a microscope and is able to tell what’s going on. The other people are skeptical about it but roll with it anyway, thankfully saving us the whole ‘No one believes him til it’s too late‘ drama that’s so common. It also leads to the funny scene where Van Helsing clocks Dracula the moment he sees him, he knows what’s up. The film isn’t without its problems though. Like most adaptations of Stoker’s story the film starts to drag once the count gets to England. Though at least here we get the faintly amusing scene of Dracula just walking up to a woman and killing her, as if he couldn’t wait to get around to a-murdering. Economical storytelling at it’s finest.
So it’s odd that considering it runs a scant 75 minutes, the film manages to drag the way it does. Weirder then, is that the Spanish version, which runs a whole half hour longer, ends up being the superior film.
That’s right, there was a Spanish version. At the time the film was released, sound in movies was a fairly new thing. So in an effort to save money they would film an alternate language version (Usually Spanish, French or German) at night using the same sets and costumes, while the english versions were shot during the daytime. The story goes that for this production, the crew would have access to the dailies and then try and top it despite having the smaller budget.
And they do, in almost every way. This is a film that’s allowed to breathe and so for a film that’s longer it flows a lot better. The english language version feels like a series of unconnected ideas at times, while this one allows the story to unfold in a much more natural way. It even includes some of the latter-day sexuality that forms part of the Dracula mythos. In this version, Eva – who is the stand in for Mina – is decidedly less repressed once she’s come to know Dracula for instance. Of course the film can’t be too overt with all this, but it’s certainly there.
Sadly it can’t all be great. Carlos Villarías, who played Dracula in this version, is no match for Bela Lugosi. He was encouraged to copy Lugosi’s performance, which I can only think attributed to the poor job he did here. He lacks the steely gaze of Lugosi, and so a lot of scenes have him overacting while he’s supposed to be doing very little at all. It’s a shame too, because with a performance to match Lugosi I feel this version could’ve been the definitive one. It’s still a fair superior film than the english counterpart, but it goes to show how much weight a great leading performance can have.