Universal Horror: Spanish Dracula Review


Carlos Villarias as Dracula

As I stated in my review of Dracula, a common practice in Hollywood during the early days of talking pictures was to film a second version of a movie using the same sets and shooting script in a foreign language. At the time, dubbing was not a very refined art, and many considered it cheating anyway. Sadly, most of these films have been lost as they were considered secondary to the English language version and less effort was made to preserve them.

Fortunately, one of the few to survive was the Spanish language version of Dracula.

There is no real reason to go over a synopsis of the film’s plot. It is identical to the English language version that I reviewed last week. Go back and reread that if needed, I’ll wait.

A lot of interest has been given to this version over the years, as many people feel it is in fact superior to the Bela Lugosi classic. Are they right? Let’s find out.

The film was directed by George Melford who was already famous for having directed Rudolph Valentino’s silent classic The Sheik. Working for Universal, Melford directed four Spanish language films. Melford did not speak a word of Spanish and had to use a translator.

Melford also had a competitive streak, at least when it came to Tod Browning and Dracula. Melford and his crew would come in at night after Browning’s crew had wrapped for the day. He would get to look at the dailies with the idea that he would mimic what was shot. Instead Melford decided he could do better and chose to try and improve on what Browning had shot.

Watching this version can be jarring if you are familiar with the English version. Many scenes are identical in look and feel. However, as the movie progresses differences start to become more apparent.

First of all is the pacing. The Spanish version is much better paced, shrugging off the theatrical roots of the material. While the camera work is not as fluid at times as the English version, it makes up for it with grander sweeps and faster movement. There are two scenes in the Browning version that go on a bit long, a battle of wills between Dracula and Van Helsing, and a vampiric seduction of Harker by Mina. Melford improves the pacing by having them happen simultaneously and cutting between them.

Another very clear change is on the close ups of Dracula. In the Browning version, it is always a tight shot of his face with a band of light across his eyes. In Melford’s version, it is a tight close up of just the eyes, or a tight close up of the face and then a jump cut to the close up of the eyes.

Of course we also have to look at the performances by the actors as this is the chief difference between the two.

Carlos Villarias plays Dracula. Of the cast he was the only one allowed to look at the dailies, as the studio wanted him to mimic Lugosi. While there are similarities between the two performances, they are still very different.  Villarias plays Dracula more energetically than Lugosi did, and due to less stringent standards for the Spanish audience was able to make the seductive elements of the character more overt. In many ways this is a better performance than Lugosi’s. However, the difference is that Villarias did not have the same commanding presence as Lugosi. So while it might be a better performance technically, it was in no way matching the iconic one given by Lugosi.

Pablo Alvarez Rubio played Renfield. Here I feel that while his performance was equal to Dwight Frye’s, it was different. Manic Frye was menacing, where Rubio was just over-the-top raving. Calm Frye was sympathetic where Rubio became sinister.

Eduardo Arozamena played Van Helsing. Here I feel the performance was flatter compared to the one given by Edward Von Sloan.

The biggest difference was in the female lead. When I reviewed the other version I glossed over the performance of Helen Chandler as Mina. I felt it was just serviceable and did not really stand out. In the Spanish version, Lupita Tovar played the renamed Eva. Her performance was much more dynamic, especially when under Dracula’s thrall. It should be noted that Chandler’s career did not extend beyond the 1930s, whereas Tovar was working through the mid-1940s.

So in the end, I can say that yes, the Spanish version of Dracula is the superior film. Its biggest down fall is that it lacks the iconic performance of Lugosi.

I give it a grade of B-

Hopefully it will not take a year to get back to the Universal Horror movies again. When we do return, we will look at the final member of the Horror trinity, the Wolf Man.

Universal Horror: Dracula Review


Bela Lugosi as Dracula

After nearly a year, I am getting back to my review of Universal Horror classics. So let’s take a look at the 1931 Universal production of Dracula.

Before I get into the review I want to cover an interesting topic.

In the early days of talking pictures, it was common for a version of a Hollywood production to have a second version of a film made using the same script and sets, but in another language. Apparently overdubbing was not that refined a process and many considered it cheating anyway.

Dracula had a Spanish version that was filmed at night using the same script and sets. Most of these foreign versions have been lost, but Dracula is one of the few they were able to recover.

I have watched both. While this review is going to just cover the English language version, next time I will go over the Spanish version, as it deserves its own article.

On to the review.

For years Universal had wanted to make Dracula. Specifically Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle Sr., wanted to make Dracula. Originally as a silent picture with Lon Chaney as the Count. Several factors delayed production. First was just securing the rights, as author Bram Stoker’s widow had sued the producers of Nosferatu for not having secured the rights, and won. Then there was Chaney himself who developed throat cancer and died. Finally, you had the great depression which resulted in the movie having a smaller budget. Originally Laemmle had envisioned a grand film on the scale of the Hunchback of Notre Dame that adhered very closely to Stoker’s novel. Now he needed to tone it down and eventually the film more closely adhered to the Broadway stage version.

The other challenge was casting. Most of the cast came together fairly quickly, except for Dracula himself. At first, Conrad Veidt was considered. He had been successful in horror, both as the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and lead in The Man who Laughed. Unfortuantely Veidt had to return to Europe, so he was out.

Interestingly, the studio was against casting Bela Lugosi, who had played the part to much acclaim on Broadway. Lugosi himself lobbied hard for the part and with choices dwindling the studio decided to give him a shot.

The director of the film was Tod Browning. Browning was a successful silent film director, including having worked on the vampire-themed London After Midnight with Lon Chaney.

The story begins in Transylvania with a real estate agent named Renfield traveling to meet with Count Dracula to finalize his purchase of Carfax Abby in London. After securing the deal, Renfield is put under Dracula’s thrall. Traveling to London, Renfield is institutionalized at the Sanitarium next to the Abby run by Dr. Seward.  The count begins preying on London, with focus on Seward’s daughter Mina. Seward brings in Dr. Van Helsing to look into a rash of anemic deaths which Van Helsing correct deduces are the result of vampire attacks.  Van Helsing suspects the Count, and once confirmed, begins a hunt for the vampire’s resting place in order to bring an end to the menace.

Let’s take a look at what does not work.

Pacing is the number one problem with the film. You can clearly tell this is an adaptation of a play, as that is how it is paced. One striking thing is that the Count almost never moves quickly, preferring to stalk towards his victims.

I suspect that Browning added to this as he was used to silent film and did not know how to adapt the pacing for the inclusion of sound. One reason this is glaring is the lack of background music. This was not the fault of the production, however. In the first few years of sound, the only time music was added was if there were musicians visible. It was assumed that music would confuse the audience as to where it was coming from.

Another oddity is some of the editing choices. There are several times when Dracula is onscreen that it will cut to a close up of his face with a band of light across his eyes. This is an iconic image and I would think perhaps creepy to a 1931 audience, but seems jarring by today’s standards.

On the cast, sadly many of them just don’t stand out. Several of the cast did not have long careers in Hollywood, and you can see why here.

However, moving on to more positive aspects, there were some exceptional performances; otherwise I doubt this movie would have become a classic.

It almost should go without saying that Bela Lugosi dominates the film. He brings, charm, mystery, and menace to the role.

Next to Lugosi is Dwight Frye as Renfield. He starts the movie as a normal, if dull businessman, but as soon as he is under Dracula’s control he is a raving madman. Frye makes him stand out as a man who wants to be free, but cannot escape Dracula’s grasp.

Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing rounds out the good performances as Van Helsing, conveying the man’s will and determination to defeat the vampire.

Of interest is that later in 1931 both Frye and Van Sloan would be part of the cast of Frankenstein, securing their place in horror history.

Another bright spot for Dracula was cinematography. The film was lucky to have gotten ground breaking cinematographer Karl Freund. Thanks to his work, the film looks wonderful even today, and many of his tracking shots were considered ground breaking at the time.

Finally we have to look at the legacy of this movie. It solidified the image of the vampire in the public mind. Even today, the stereotype of the vampire is based on Lugosi’s performance.  It also gave us the image of the haunted castle, with crumbling walls and cobwebs. The tropes associated with a vampire’s minion were set in stone by Frye, just like he would later in the year with the mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant. And the vampire hunter in the mold of Van Helsing would also be influenced by this film.

It is also worth noting that Dracula was the first film made in Hollywood that was overtly supernatural. Until then all Hollywood horror involved the deformed, the deranged, or someone using trickery. Europe had some supernatural elements in their films, but this was the first for Hollywood, and opened the doors for all horror that would follow.

In the end you can see why this made such an impact.

However, I do not feel that it has held up as well as Frankenstein.


I give the 1931 Dracula a grade of C+.


Join us next week when we see how well the Spanish language version holds up.




Star Wars Solo Films


Han Solo

Disney has wasted no time and getting to work with the Star Wars Franchise now that they have acquired the rights to it. On the heels of the announcement that JJ Abrahams will be directing Star Wars Episode VII it was announced that they would also be producing standalone films set in the Star Wars Universe looking at individual characters. The official announcement includes the news that the first set of these will be movies focusing on Yoda, Boba Fett, and Han Solo.

A first glance a lot of fans are going “this is a blatant money grab”, and on some level this is almost certainly true. After all the goal of most Disney movies is to make money. The unspoken addition to this is “a side movie will suck.”

On that last one I disagree, at least with it being a given. After all they are really just following a business plan that is already working for them. Specifically this looks a lot like the model of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With Marvel you have individual movies; Captain America, Iron Man 1 and 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. These movies all lead to one big movie; The Avengers.  Now they are back to the individual films; Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy, collectively known as Phase 2.  These will lead to Avengers 2. After that Disney and Marvel have already announced Ant Man and Dr. Strange for Phase 3 with a rumored Hulk movie.

The advantage of this model is that the individual movies can introduce back story and concepts that feed into the big movie freeing that movie to pick up and run with them.

With as extensive a universe as Star Wars has built over the last several years there is no reason that the some plan could not work for them as well.

And don’t tell me there is no interest in explorer more of that universe. Just look at how well the novels, comic books, and video games have sold, and many of them do not even feature the original main characters.

Right off the top of my head I can see a lot of opportunity in this idea.  You make movies featuring characters like Yoda, Boba Fett, and maybe some newer characters like Han and Leia’s kids, or members of the new Jedi order. You set the stage for episode VII by dropping clues in these individual films. The buzz builds until you have the release of Episode VII. On top of that you can almost certainly lure a lot of top talent to these side films, especially with the knowledge that they do not have the pressue of making the flagship film.

Is it a gamble? Sure, but at least it is following an already proven model.  And I for one would be really excited to see where they take it.

This does raise another question. What other franchises could benefit from this way of making a film series? Imagine if they had done this with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Gender change in a remake


Superman’s New Pal?

It’s geek debate time again.

This debate is brought to us by the upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel. And it is the time-honored debate of how they are altering a character. In this case the alteration appears to be happing to none other than Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, and the change looks like a big one. Fans were noting that nowhere in the cast list was there any mention of anyone playing Jimmy. This is surprising as there has never been a live action Superman project that did not include Jimmy. He even appeared in the Supergirl movie. Minor character Emil Hamilton is appearing in the Man of Steel, so where is Jimmy?

Then someone reading the IMDB listing for the movie noticed that there is a character named Jenny Olsen, listed to be played by actress Rebecca Buller. Jimmy and Jenny are similar names. So the speculation has started that Jenny is a gender swapped Jimmy. And of course the moment that fans got wind of the story the debates began.

This is not the first variation on traditional casting that Man of Steel has done. Laurence Fishburne was announced early on as playing Perry White, thus changing the character’s ethnicity.  There was not really any noise about that casting, however this could be due to the fact that Fishburne is an actor well known to geek fans and well respected, so news of his casting was more along the lines of “they got a good actor to play Perry”. Buller on the other hand is a newcomer, having only one other acting credit listed on IMDB.

I think we as a society are at a point where altering ethnicity of a character is not as big of a deal. It happened to Pete Ross on Smallville and no one made any noise about it. Gender swapping tends to get more reaction as it can more significantly alter a character’s interactions with other characters. Also there can be a certain amount of homophobia or misogyny. Fans not dealing well due to identifying with the original character and not dealing well with the change or the old “a girl can’t do that.”

The best example of this is Battlestar Galactica.  In the original series, one of the main characters was Lt. Starbuck, a dashing rogue who was clearly meant to remind viewers of Han Solo from Star Wars. Starbuck was a ladies man, gambler, and smoked cigars. For the late ‘70s these traits all said lovable rascal. He was the best friend of our designated hero, Captain Apollo. Like Han Solo, Starbuck became the fan favorite character.

Also in the main cast was Lt. Boomer, who was a more level-headed counterpart. He was the intellectual, and more likely to act as a voice of reason.

In the 2003 remake both Starbuck and Boomer were recast as females. Most of the attention when this was announced was focused on the change to Starbuck. As the fan favorite character from the original show, the fans were outraged that such a change was taking place. All through the run of the remake there were some fans who could not get past this, even though once people saw the show it was clear that all the characters were different from their 70s counterparts.

In reality a lot of Starbucks characteristics were retained in the switch. Both were the best pilot in the fleet, both were brash and challenged authority, both gambled, drank, and smoked, and both really liked sex. In fact outside of the gender change, the biggest difference in the characters was that male Starbuck was always well groomed and female Starbuck was always looking rough and tumble, and that change probably has more to do with era difference than gender.  They were both the fans’ favorite character on the show.

In the end, changing Starbuck’s gender opened up storytelling possibilities that the writers took full advantage of.

Honestly, with the number of changes they did with the character of Boomer, the gender change is almost incidental.

Although it does seem that Grace Park, the actress who played Boomer, seems to have a habit of this. On her current show, the remake of Hawaii 5-0, her character is Kono, who was a male character on the original show. In this case the change was clearly an attempt to get a female character in the show where the original was exclusively male.

Another recent example comes from the CBS show Elementary, which is their answer to the British show Sherlock, placing Sherlock Holmes in a modern day setting. On Elementary, Holmes’ partner John Watson has been recast as Joan Watson and is being played by Lucy Liu. In this case, there are several elements of the traditional Holmes story that have been altered, and ultimately the gender change seems more in line with the Hawaii 5-0 one of providing more cast diversity than anything about the character.

So where does that leave us with poor Jenny Olsen? At this point it is hard to tell, since everything we know about this situation is based purely on speculation. Is she just an attempt to put another female on the cast, like Watson or Kono, or is she a way to open up story avenues not available with Jimmy, like Starbuck?

I for one will be interested to find out. Until then I will keep my nerd rage and knee jerk reaction in check.