Tuesday 31 October 2017
Tod Browning’s Ghoul Days
Directed by Tod Browning
Original and also rescored version.
Dracula (Spanish audience version)
Directed by George Melford & Enrique Tovar Ávalos
Blu Ray Zone B
Okay, it's about time I got around to writing about my beloved Universal Horror films for this site. The time seems about right what with Universal launching their shared universe movies which they have rechristened their Dark Universe franchise, albeit with a somewhat shaky start with their new version of The Mummy (reviewed here). Of course, their intended first film in this series was Dracula Untold (reviewed by me soon on this very blog) but the box office on that film meant that it was pretty much a false start for them, though it would be very easy to add the Dracula character from that production into the 'modern times' mix, given the last scenes in that film.
Of course, it's pretty obvious with these first, recent attempts at stand alone movies that the company is wanting to cash in on what I shall call the ‘Marvel Effect’ in terms of box office. The teaming up of established cinematic characters to grab a large, almost unhealthy dose of box office cash. They're certainly not the only company to be doing this (DC's Justice League will be with us in November) but of all the companies going for the gold in this manner at the moment... and this is something I've said before in an earlier review... it’s Universal who can perhaps be forgiven for jumping on the multiple monster bandwagon when you take into account that they already started doing this in the early 1940s (although not, interestingly, with their established Mummy character).
And, though this cross pollinating idea doesn't quite start with their 1931 production of Dracula (pretty much the first horror talkie and a big influence on the output of their competitors at the time)... it actually kinda does, in a way. The monster rallies to come just over a decade later were very much incorporating this character in their cinematic DNA. This marks pretty much the first 'official' version of Dracula on screen... not including the very famous, unauthorised German Expressionist classic Nosferatu, which Bram Stoker’s widow had won a legal case against and for which all the prints were supposed to have been destroyed as a consequence of this legal action (fortunately for us, a couple survived).
The film itself is not based on Stoker's novel as such... and neither are very many of the film versions of it either, it has to be said. Instead it is based on his somewhat simplified stage version which he wrote for his boss Henry Irving. I say “somewhat” because it was filtered through a couple of other writer's versions before it was adapted for Universal... the Hamilton Dean version and the John L. Balderstone version, which he subsequently revised for the screenplay here.
The casting was always supposed to be very different. Various actors had been bandied about for the role until the dream team of director Tod Browning and "man of a thousand faces" Lon Chaney as Dracula were signed. Unfortunately, Chaney died of cancer before the production was due to start shooting and, when there was no one left to cast, Universal snapped up Bela Lugosi... who was really lobbying for the part... for an insultingly small salary. We are fortunate that they chose him though (eventually), because he knew exactly what he was doing with the role since he'd been playing the Count to good reviews in the Balderstone play for an astonishingly large number of performances and, indeed, was instrumental to Universal in acquiring the film rights to the play from Mrs. Stoker in the first place.
Joining him from the phenomenally long run of the stage play were Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward and the inimitable Edward Van Sloan as Dracula's famous nemesis Van Helsing (easily my favourite screen rendition of Van Helsing and I couldn't imagine this film without his amazing presence as much as I couldn't imagine it without Lugosi's Dracula). Like Lugosi, Van Sloane would play his character for a second outing but, whereas Lugosi had to wait until 1949's Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein before he had another crack at his most famous role, Van Sloan would reprise his role of Van Helsing in the first direct sequel to Dracula, the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter. That being said, Van Sloan also turns up in Frankenstein in the same year as this movie and also has a very similar, 'Van Helsingish' role in the 1932 production of The Mummy.
Rounding out the most important members of the cast were Helen Chandler as Mina, Frances Dade as Lucy, David Manners as Jonathan Harker and the absolutely fantastic Dwight Frye as everyone's favourite fly eater, Renfield. Frye's dialogue delivery in this, like that of Lugosi and Van Helsing's, seems almost deliberately slow and stilted, even considering talking pictures had only been going for two years (a silent, intertitled version of Dracula was also released for theatres that hadn't yet had audio equipment put in). This might put off some modern viewers to a certain extent but, if you can get used to the line delivery, it makes for a very rewarding viewing experience totally appropriate to the subject matter and it’s worth giving it a second look to if you couldn't get into it the first time around.
Considering it's the first talking vampire picture (with the lead vampire in question being a very different 'beast' from Stoker's disgusting old man of the novel who was closer, perhaps, to the Nosferatu version of the character) the film never shows the vampires possessing the fangs they are now known for and it never once, in this version shot for English speaking audiences where censorship restrictions were a little more rigid, shows the double puncture marks left in the vampire's victims... although it does, at least, describe them in the dialogue so the audience can get the idea.
There is, of course, no music in this save for the opening titles and the diegetic music (source music from on screen instruments) due to the belief in this period that it would distract from the dialogue. It wasn't until Max Steiner's score for King Kong in 1933 that producers realised the power of the film score in regards to talking pictures (please see my review of King Kong here for the 'strings attached' part of that statement). This, coupled with the unusually pronounced dialogue gives the film a certain eerie quality which it might not otherwise have (and I'll say a little more about 'underscore' in regards to this motion picture in a little while).
In terms of the richness of the visual design of the film, this version has always been viewed as second best when compared to the Spanish language edition shot with a different cast and crew on the same sets and with the same shooting script, through night time shoots when the first production had gone home for the day. I used to adhere to this opinion too but, looking at the two films side by side now, I think they are just very different and the Browning version, shot by cinematographer Karl Freund, is every bit as rich at a visual level, if not more so in some places. I'll get around to talking a bit more about the simultaneously shot Spanish version in a little while.
There's not as much moving camera as in the Spanish version here (as was typical for sound film at this period, the camera was still learning how to be free again and mask the equipment noise) but even where there is fluid camera movement, the Browning version will often cut to a more staged, not quite matching close up version of a character (often Lugosi himself) in much the same way that Sergei Eisenstein used to single out static shots of a character rather than zoom in on them in films such as his classic Battleship Potemkin.
There are many little visual gems in this movie and here are a few of them that I noticed on this viewing:
There's a wonderful scene in the early stages of the film where Dwight Frye's Renfield is standing framed in front of some full length windows in roughly the centre of the screen with his back to us as he looks out. This is intercut with a shot of 'the brides of Dracula' framed in a big open doorway directly opposite that position, echoing the shots both proceeding and succeeding it.
Later on, as Renfield is seen in the hold of the good ship Vesta (actually the Demeter in Stoker's original novel), there is a kind of slightly moving spotlight in the background to give dramatic lighting as he speaks to Dracula in his coffin/crate. This is clearly meant to be the light shining through from an unseen porthole magnified onto the background and utilised for stylistic effect.
There's a particularly beautiful composition in Lucy's bedroom where Lucy and Mina, who is some distance behind Lucy, are sitting in front of a large mirror. In the reverse shot we see Lucy sitting on the left with her back to us, her reflection facing us in the mirror as she talks, slightly taller because of the angle and distance captured in the mirror... and then Mina's relection a little higher still facing us, again due to distance and angle from the reflecting glass. The three bodies in space make an upward diagonal line from left to right, framed by two lamps on either side of the upward frames of the mirror. It’s a pretty amazing composition, as it goes.
In addition to some startling visual designs, there's also the odd moment or two when the editing is just as poetic. My favourite example would be a scene when the main characters are discussing what could have made the two puncture marks on Mina's neck. One of them says, "What could have caused them, Professor?" Suddenly the housekeeper exclaims "Count Dracula!" as if in response to the question but, in actual fact, she's announcing Dracula’s arrival at the house and Lugosi enters in the next shot. It's a nice little touch and it's just these little, electrically charged juxtapositions of interacting elements that make films worth watching in the first place.
The 1998 re-release of the film with a specifically commissioned score composed by Philip Glass is not my preferred choice of viewing, although I have long been an admirer of the music of Glass and, if nothing else, this version serves to illustrate the benefits that having a score can bring to a movie. For instance, the soundtrack detracts greatly from the stilted feel of the dialogue and makes it maybe a little more palatable for audiences not used to such a degree of aural stylisation. Also, the leitmotif quality of the orchestral textures (rather than the melodies, in this instance), clue the audience in to things which the non-scored film was arguably lacking.
As an example of this, there's the shadow of an unrevealed character on a wall intercut in one scene a little before he enters and it’s revealed to be Renfield when he walks on but I don't really think the intention of this shot was to surprise or wrong foot the audience in any way. I suspect it was literally just an insert shot to clue the viewer in to the fact that Renfield has been listening in for a while. The addition of Glass' score makes it a little more implicit that it's Renfield's silhouette because the 'plucking' style of the orchestration which the viewer will have subconsciously associated with the character is used when it appears. This is exactly the kind of thing music in film is good at and Glass demonstrates it very well here.
When I first saw the score performed live against the screen it was in the same orchestration used here, performed as then by the much celebrated Kronos Quartet. However, when I saw it performed a few years later it was reorchestrated for four different instruments (not just strings) and I remember thinking it was a far superior version of Glass' score than the original one issued for home video and on CD. Alas, I've never been able to track down a recording of that version of the Glass Dracula score.
Okay, so the Spanish version, although using the same sets as the English language version, is very differently shot and staged... in some places it's far superior and in others... not so much. It also includes a scene or two not present in the other but, by a similar token, has other key scenes missing. Of the cast of this version, which still uses footage of Lugosi for some long shots to save money, the only three actors really worth looking at are Carlos Villarías as the Count himself, Lupita Tova as Eva (aka Mina) and Pablo Álvarez Ribio as a Renfield who certainly gives Dwight Frye a run for his money but in a much different style (and really, nobody does it better than Frye). The Spanish version of Van Helsing, for example, doesn't possess the same electrical presence as Van Sloane's delivery of the same role, who's stern visual style with the harsh, blonde widow's peak and the thick, milk bottle glasses adds another level of weight to the role which makes his Spanish counterpart seem a much softer, less satisfying variation of the character.
There are a great many differences, far too numerous to mention in an article of this size, in the Spanish movie. Indeed, apart from the same sets and mostly similar dialogue, it's like watching a completely different movie which, in fairness, it is. However, I'll highlight a few of the more interesting comparisons I’ve noticed next.
In the US version you never really see Lugosi rising from his coffin. Instead, the camera moves away and it's implied that’s what’s happened before it either returns or cuts back to a shot of Lugosi standing next to said coffin. Presumably the sight of Dracula groping his way out of his coffin in shot and messing up his immaculate cape was not seen as a desirable element of the film. I can see that. However, all the 'coffin release' shots of the Spanish version are a lot more interestingly handled. Here you see the, usually already half risen, lid of the coffin opening with a mist floating up from within. Then, when the lid is fully raised, Carlos Villarías pops up from behind the coffin lid (which presumably puts no strain on his cloak) and there you have it. Job done and it's much more effective than the English language version in this respect.
There's also much more made of the supernatural manipulation of objects, such as the self opening and closing doors which gave Dwight Frye so much concern in Castle Dracula. In the Spanish version, even the doors on the second coach that carries Renfield to his Transylvanian rendezvous open and close at will with a disturbingly loud groaning. Similarly, there is more emphasis on the title character flying into people’s rooms as a bat before changing into human form. Although you still don’t see the actual transformation, it’s much more heavily reinforced as an idea whereas, in the other one, you may be forgiven for thinking this is not really covered all that well at all.
In the scene where, in the US version, the brides of Dracula go to attack the feinted Renfield but are waved back by Dracula so he can claim him for himself (in a strangely homoerotic subtext found within the trappings of the vampire genre quite often), the Spanish version shows the brides themselves going down to 'vamp Renfield up'.
The differences continue but, some of them are quite odd.
A little more is made of the implied violence as Dracula eats his way through the crew of the Vesta while he journeys to London. However, these sequences include a little less dialogue from Renfield but include a quite incredible, memorable shot of him laughing his head off maniacally as he is framed by the circle of a porthole. A quite menacingly disconcerting shot, as it happens.
That being said, the following scene of Dracula murdering/drinking the Covent Garden flower girl is completely absent from the Spanish version, which is kind of strange. It says a lot about the difference in pacing of more or less the same scenes in the two versions when you consider that the Spanish edition is a full half an hour longer than the US counterpart. However, although the implied violence of this scene has been left out entirely in this version, the twin puncture wounds in the necks of the victims in this are very much a visual presence whereas, as I stated earlier, they were absent in all but dialogue references in the US version. Of course, the costumes on the ladies in question are a lot more racier and low cut than in the US movie so their necks are pretty easily visible all the time (not to mention other bosomy details which their almost transparent attire reveals in certain scenes).
That being said, the scene in Lucy’s bedroom which still does technically take place in a mirror is, while less static, a much more mundane affair in this Spanish version and doesn’t match the visual poetry created in the counterpart scene in Tod Browning’s daytime shoot. Neither is the scene where Renfield crawling across the floor to the unconscious maid as interesting as the version performed by Dwight Frye, which is more dementedly focused as he comes from the back of the shot to the front, rather than what Renfield does in the Spanish version, which just has him crawling in from the right hand side of the frame.
There also seems to be an incredible amount of expository dialogue coming from Van Helsing’s character towards the end of the picture. Much more than the English language version. This is not really a good thing although the ‘hypnotic confrontation’ scene between Van Helsing and Dracula seems a little more elabourate and is intercut with the scene where 'vamped up Eva' is trying to bite Jonathan Harker (or Juan Harker as he is known in this one) and get him to take Van Helsing’s crucifix away from him. Both scenes play out as single scenes in the US daytime shoot version. Likewise, the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with the reflecting box has a much more embellished reaction on the Spanish version of the Count. Bela Lugosi is content to knock the cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hand but Carlos Villarías uses his cane to smash the box from Van Helsing’s hands here.
Another highlight of the different places the directors took their respective versions to includes the final death scene of Renfield. In the Browning version, he is silently strangled to death and then rolls down the big, circular staircase (which would be reused again in films like Frankenstein) to drop off the last bit out of sight behind a chest. In this version, Renfield is screaming as he is half choked to death before being tossed off the same stairs from the top. He’s also not forgotten by Van Helsing as the movie closes, either... his body is still very much visible and the focus of the Professor's attention in the last moments of the film.
A very important difference, to my mind, would be a scene in the Spanish version which follows the story in which we are treated to a conversation between Van Helsing and Juan that makes it quite clear that the former has driven a stake through the resurrected Lucy’s heart. In the US version, her menacing figure is left undealt with by our heroes. So that’s very interesting because one imagines that these scenes were in the script to be filmed by the other crew... they just chose to omit them, for some reason.
The ‘new’ Universal Legacy Dracula Blu Ray collection contains almost all of the extras from the similarly titled US DVD release of over a decade ago. The films look as spectacular as ever and, in the case of Dracula, have a lot of supporting material including film and Universal Horror historian David J. Skaal’s commentary track for the US version, the alternate Glass soundtrack and the Spanish version of the film... although this last item is as annoying as the previously mentioned set as, if your Blu Ray played doesn’t have a subtitle toggle, there are a lot of shenanigans to be performed to get the English subs up for this. It also doesn’t help that, if you pause it for five minutes and the disc’s screensaver kicks in, it resets the default to stop playing the subtitles when you resume. So that’s not good. However, it is a lovely set with these films looking pretty much better than they ever did before. If you’ve never seen the first authorised versions of Dracula before then this Blu Ray set is a great place to start. Not all the films in the interpenetrating sequence are there (you’ll need the Frankenstein and The Wolfman legacy sets for that) but these are relatively inexpensive sets for the amount of content on them and, unlike the previous Universal Legacy versions, also include Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and Abbot and Costello Meet The Mummy on the The Mummy legacy set). It’s a great release and it comes highly recommended from this particular audience member, I can tell you that... give them a go while they’re still out there. Besides, where else can you see a Dracula film where the title character actually has Armadillo’s running around his castle? Not that many, that’s for sure.