Friday, October 21, 2011

Wendigo cumpla DRACULA (1931)

"Dracula hasn't had servants in 400 years and then a man comes to his ancestral home, and he must convince him that he... that he is like the man. He has to feed him, when he himself hasn't eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine? ...The loneliest part of the book comes... when the man accidentally sees Dracula setting his table."

Steven Katz, Shadow of the Vampire (2001)

Like many horror-film fans, my friend Wendigo and I were excited twenty or so years ago when we learned of the rediscovery of a long-lost Universal horror film from the studio's classic era: George Melford's Spanish-language version of Dracula. Before its release on videotape the "Spanish Dracula," now probably the best-known instance of the short-lived studio practice of filming alternative foreign-language versions of certain films rather than dubbing or subtitling the originals, was hyped to the skies as a cinematic revelation. At least we were told it would seem like that when compared to Tod Browning's stodgy old Dracula. The camera moves more! The women look hotter! There's half an hour more of the story! We'd heard the legend, and Wendigo had read it long ago in Famous Monsters of Filmland: Melford shot his version at night on the same sets Browning used and, knowing what Browning had done, he and his crew tried every night to top the English-language version. There were wild rumors, too. Could the great F. W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, have been coaching Melford behind the scenes? Could it be true that Melford managed the shoot without knowing Spanish? Could any old film live up to that kind of fan hype? Wendigo's memory of his first viewing is dominated by the camera movement and the sexier vampire brides and victims -- he dug their longer hair compared to the American actresses Browning used. Beyond that, the story seemed to have been performed differently in nearly every way by nearly every actor -- and the differences seemed to make Melford's the superior Dracula in every respect but the obvious one. Bela Lugosi remained unassailable, and we'd also say that Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing remained unchallenged, but technically and artistically Melford appeared Browning's master.

Our viewing of Melford's Dracula this week was Wendigo's third. He's seen the Browning many more times in between viewings of Melford, and over time he's gained a fresh appreciation of Browning's strengths, some of which became still more clear after a fresh comparison with Melford. Wendigo now readily concedes that Browning is the better director, with a far superior eye for framing iconic images. He seems to have had an extraordinary rapport with both Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye and directs both actors for maximum creepiness, while Melford often seems to have no control over his Renfield -- about whom more later. Browning's 75 minutes now seem more efficient and effective than Melford's sometimes meandering 104 minutes. Browning seems to have had a superior instinct for pruning the core script from which both directors worked, while little of what Melford keeps (most of which deals with Renfield) really enhances his version. Some parts of Melford are just plain repetitive, especially the shots we once so much enjoyed of his Dracula rising from his smoke-spewing coffin. Do it once and the point is made, but Melford must have wanted to use every foot of footage of his vampire puttering around. Some other parts are just bad, like the terrible continuity mismatch of Dracula's hand first emerging from a coffin, followed by the vampire rising from an obvious crate, or the borrowing of a stock shot of Browning's brides before we first see Melford's much different vamps. And, as Wendigo must emphasize, Melford's bat effects are crap. When Dracula flies into Lucia Weston's room, the bat first swings in and swings right out again, then crashes into the windowframe and bounces off until it finally swoops drunkenly over Lucia and out of frame for the last time. Was it too late for a retake?

Wendigo is still impressed by Melford's greater mobility, and by his exploration of areas of the classic sets that Browning never examined in any detail. Melford's fluidity, especially during dialogue scenes, sometimes makes up for his lack of dramatic framing. The greater length allows for nuances that are interesting if not significant, particularly during the interviews with Renfield that reveal his academic background. On the other hand, the big confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is protracted and slackened, awkwardly intercut with a scene of Eva Seward and Juan Harker, and finally belittling to both characters. The business of Dracula hiding his face and asking if Van Helsing has obeyed him by putting his cross away makes the vampire look just plain stupid, while the vampire hunter had looked utterly weak until he revealed his ruse. To sum up, the longer script comes with pluses and minuses, and we can mostly take or leave it. And overall the Melford Dracula remains a good, entertaining film in the Universal horror tradition. We wrapped this latest viewing with a better appreciation of some aspects of the film, especially that aspect most often criticized: the star.

We don't think anyone has ever claimed that Carlos Villarias (not Vallarias as in the ad art above) was better than Bela Lugosi, and we're not going to say that, either. But while the consensus has been that Villarias was only doing a failed Bela impersonation -- he alone of the actors, supposedly, was shown the Browning rushes -- we saw something far different this time. If the studio's thought was that he would simply ape Lugosi, Villarias clearly had a different idea. Critics find his performance awkward, with its grimaces, idiot grins and overall leering and mugging, but we'd like to suggest that a good deal of that awkwardness is deliberate. Watching him this time, we were reminded of what Willem Dafoe's Count Orlok says about the literary Dracula in the movie Shadow of the Vampire, as we quote above. Villarias's awkwardness, his tendency to switch from a simpering smile to an impatient frown or a petulant pout, is his way of expressing Dracula's alien, inhuman nature -- the same quality Lugosi expresses with his uncanny stillness, his carefully choreographed hand movements, and his accent. Since we don't understand Spanish, we can't tell whether Villarias is playing the vampire with a "foreign" accent, whether Spanish speaking audiences would hear him as a Lugosi or as a Christopher Lee. Given our uncertainty about his vocal performance, we focus on Villarias's physicality.


Above, Villarias's Dracula impatiently observes Renfield's dinner.

Is Dracula more disturbed by the sight of blood (above) or a cross (below)?

His Dracula is a predator barely capable of pretending to be a human being, who often goes overboard with his goofy smiles while pretending, and his concentration fails easily. While Lugosi is almost always masterful, except when blocked by a cross or thwarted by Van Helsing, Villarias is barely master of himself, and hardly seems in Lugosi's league as a mesmerist. His hand gestures are all wrong; he seems to be threatening to pat people on the head. It's an interesting and even intelligent performance -- Villarias seems to have calculated his every expression carefully -- but the qualities that make him a distinctive Dracula disqualify him as a scary one. If anything, as Wendigo emphasizes, his awkwardness while pretending to be human ends up making his vampire all too human. In the end, it's a performance we can respect without ranking it highly among vampire actors.

Villarias's eccentric performance leaves the film for Pedro Alvarez Rubio's Renfield to steal in a way Dwight Frye could never have dreamed of. Alvarez can match Frye madness for madness, but there are different methods to each. Wendigo hears in Alvarez the laughter of a completely shattered mind, and sees in his performance a more completely fractured, mercurial personality. Alvarez can turn from calm or arrogant to batshit shrieking crazy on a dime, while Frye is in a constant simmer of insanity that occasionally boils over. Alvarez gives a more theatrical performance, while Frye plays more conscientiously to the camera. You remember Frye's face and his thin, simpering laugh above all, while Alvarez is all shouting and arm-waving, effectively often enough but too often playing to the balcony rather than with Frye's creepy intimacy.

Renfield is a test of directorial control, and the final exam is his scene with the fainting nurse. Browning films it with Frye creeping straight ahead in one of his best shots, while Melford has Alvarez come in from the side and turn in her direction in an inferior composition, holding the shot until Alvarez turns the scene into a joke by snatching at a fly in the air. In this tag-team comparison, Wendigo and I agree that Browning and Frye win hands down.

Probably the greatest acting disparity between the Browning and Melford versions comes in the form of Van Helsing. Edward Van Sloan's iron-willed performance remains definitive for many and second only to Peter Cushing for the rest. By comparison, Eduardo Arazomena impressed Wendigo as some bum who got hired while sleeping on the set. He brings no sense of authority or power to a role that demands those qualities. The most he offers is sympathy, and that's not nothing. Wendigo noticed how often Arazomena wears a horrified or baffled expression compared to the imperturbable Van Sloan. That may make Arazomena's a more humane or warm performance, but the language barrier leaves him looking weak to us based on his soft, doughy presence.

In Bram Stoker's novel, Van Helsing describes Dracula's "baby brain." The "Have you obeyed me?" moment from Melford's movie (below) appears to prove the doctor's point.

Wendigo also suggests that Melford may have needed a relatively wishy-washy Van Helsing given the limitations of his Dracula. You can imagine Villarias immolating under Van Sloan's gaze, while Villarias vs. Arazomena is more like a battle of equals -- or as Wendigo proposes, a battle of clowns hitting each other with flour.

On the other hand, if one actor from the Spanish cast surpasses his English-language counterpart, it'd probably be Barry Norton as Juan Harker. He is the superior of David Manners as long as you understand that Harker is meant to be dull and dense, for Norton achieves the miracle of coming off as a duller, denser twit than Manners, Universal's sublimely named embodiment of stalwart dullness. Those plus-fours he wears help make the right impression, though he does get one unexpectedly noirish badass moment when he stands outside the cemetery in a heavy coat, head down, his face shielded by his hat, after he and Van Helsing have dispatched the "Lady in White."

At age 101, Lupita Tovar may be the last survivor, apart from child actors, of Universal's classic horror era. Seeing her in this film, you can believe that she has a life force that keeps her with us today. Perhaps because Melford's Spanish collaborators were less constrained by lingering Victorian sensibilities, the director is able to get a far more vivacious, voluptuous performance from Tovar as Eva Seward than Browning got from Helen Chandler -- especially after she's been halfway vamped.  It's not hard to dominate a Harker actor, but Tovar practically devours Norton in a seduction scene that's far more aggressive than Browning's and topped with laughter that nearly gives Alvarez a run for his money. Both versions of Dracula are pre-Code films of course, but it's Melford's version that really looks and feels like it. Here, too, Wendigo claims, Melford's casting tops Browning's.
Ever since Melford's Dracula returned to circulation, horror fans have wished for the best of both worlds. Some suppose that Lugosi directed by Melford would have made the ultimate vampire film. Wendigo wouldn't mind seeing that theoretical film, which should also import Van Sloan and Frye from the Browning version while employing Melford's art directors, who give the Spanish version more visual variety than Browning offers. Wendigo could have fun fine-tuning the casting, down to the actor in Browning who tells Renfield, "Nooooo...." when he learns of the solicitor's Borgo Pass itinerary and the two crypto-lesbian tourists in Melford. There may never be a definitive cinematic Dracula, but there is a cumulative version out there, made up of bits and pieces of all the famous and infamous versions, and the novel, that's always in production. Once nearly forgotten, Melford's contributions to the Dracula script of our collective imagination should now be permanent.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, this is quite some enthralling piece Samuel. You really go all out in comparing the Browning and Medford versions, and I was fascinated to read so many insights into the performances of Villerias and Alvarez, who you seem to be reasonably impressed with up to a point. But yeah the leering smile would really disqualify him, though I am at least happy to know he was doing his own thing and not look to impersonate Lugosi.

This is really exhaustive and brilliant stuff.