Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spanish Dracula Movie Review

Carlos Villarías uses this expression about 50 times throughout the film.

First published at Mostly Movies on 29 November 2010

It was a common practice in the early sound era for Hollywood studios to produce a second, nearly identical, version of a film in a foreign language. They were produced in Spanish, French and German most often and very few of the foreign language versions survive to this day. One of the most famous that does survive is the Spanish language version of the 1931 Tod Browning Dracula.

George Melford served as director, as was his station at Universal pictures during that period. He directed Spanish language versions of several films. According to IMDb, he neither spoke nor understood the language, but Wikipedia tells me he got the job specifically because of his knowledge of Spanish. Oh what a perfect example of how unreliable the Internet is. Ten years before Drácula he directed Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, which survives as one of the classics of silent cinema.

All the same costumes and sets were used, but filming was done at night while the English version shot during the day. This gave the film makers the advantage of seeing the dailies before setting up their own shots so they could see what worked and what didn’t. From what I can tell the vast majority of the two films are nearly identical with only a few differences.

The cast is filled out by various Spanish and Latin American actors, including the Cordobés Carlos Villarías in the title role. Supposedly his performance is modeled on Bela Lugosi’s, but there are glaring differences – namely that Lugosi was a much better actor who could even make his campy stylized performance seem believable. Nothing is quite as bad as the actor playing Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio), whose every reaction shot involves mouth agape and eyes wide open. He seems like an actor who has almost no control over his own body – kind of a major failing for someone meant to be portraying another person.

Incredibly enough, the Spanish version is nearly 30 minutes longer than the English version. Remarkable considering they worked from the same script. The extra time is found in the overabundant use of reaction shots. This practice is not only unnecessary, but distracting and inadvertently comical. I saw the film as part of the Seville European Film Festival where the audience sniggered and chuckled throughout the entirety of the film. Granted, much of it was reactions to campy special effects, but there’s no denying how people felt about exaggerated (and repeated) facial expressions. To offer one example that could serve to describe just about every shocking moment in the film: when Renfield first arrives at Dracula’s castle he watches as the Count passes through a net of cobwebs without disturbing them. First we get a close-up of Renfield’s face registering shock and surprise; then cut to Dracula looking...well, a picture is worth 1000 words so take a look at the photo above; cut back to Renfield’s changeless expression; back to Dracula, no difference; back to Renfield; back to Dracula for a line of dialogue. This exchange takes more than five seconds, an eternity when you’re talking about a sequence with no action and no dialogue.

If nothing else, this version stands as a curiosity, worth seeking out for Spanish speakers and anyone interested in studying film form and content. I’ve sort of always wondered what it would be like to see one movie directed simultaneously by two different people to get a sense of just how much the director influences a production. Although in the case of the two Draculas they have different casts so it’s not a true experiment, but close enough I suppose.

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