There's a pretty good chance that when someone says the word "Dracula" you get an image in your head of Bela Lugosi, whether you've seen the original film or not. There's good reason for that. His performance in the film is simply amazing. If you're not used to watching older films, the lack of a soundtrack and the slow pacing may be frustrating for you, but if you can put that aside it's a great film and a classic for a reason. If you've never watched it, you really need to do so.
Bela is everything Dracula should be: warm, inviting, and charming. You want to follow him anywhere, even though he sometimes gives you the willies. Bela's accent and inflection really loan themselves to the character and just feel right. Dwight Frye as Renfield is also a must see. He plays madness excellently and really draws you in and keeps you entertained. He would have made a great Joker. Their performances alone really make the film great. But how does it stack up as an adaptation of the novel?
From the very opening scene, we have a change. It's not Jonathan Harker on his way to see Dracula, it's Renfield. I found it interesting in the novel to discover that there is actually zero explanation within it of how Renfield and Dracula ever met. There are no details at all of who Renfield was before he came to the asylum. It's a detail that Bram Stoker is really remiss in not mentioning and most of the movies which contain Renfield do their best to come up with an explanation. Since he's replacing Jonathan, it's fairly safe to assume he is a lawyer here. Personally I'm ok with this change, as it does a good job of explaining how Renfield became a lunatic. The only issue is that it really doesn't make Jonathan out to be as much of a hero. He becomes just your cookie-cutter hero out to save his lady.
The scenes with Renfield and Dracula are actually pretty accurate beyond the character change. The main difference being that what happens in a few days in the novel gets squeezed into one night. The line Dracula says after hearing the wolves howling, "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make." is actually pulled straight from the novel. Bela's inflection really makes it all the more chilling.
Once we arrive in London, the film takes quite a few more liberties. Relationships have changed as now Mina is Seward's daughter. Arthur and Quincey Morris are no where to be found, and Lucy's role is cut very short. She does die and come back as a vampire, but it's only described quickly by a minor character via a newspaper article and then Van Helsing promises Mina they will save Lucy's soul. What happens to Mina in the movie is actually a bit closer to what happens to Lucy in the book, with all their efforts to attempt to save her from Dracula. We also see wolfsbane used here to ward off vampires, which is never mentioned in the book. Mostly garlic was used instead.
Dracula is shown to have only brought a few boxes to London, when in the book he actually brought fifty. It was actually a really cunning plan that none of the movies ever seem to follow. He brought so many so that he could scatter them all about the large city, preying on as many people as possible and still having a place to return at sun up.
Pretty much all of the changes made here seem to be related to time constraints and what they could or couldn't show you, whether due to censorship or lack of technology. I think they did a great job of getting the main essence of the story while just leaving out some minor details.
Dracula (1931), Spanish version
When they filmed Dracula, they actually filmed two movies at once. The English version was filmed during the day, and a Spanish language version was filmed at night. It featured an all Spanish speaking cast, though interestingly enough an English speaking director who would guide them via a translator. There are a lot of people who are of the opinion that this version is the better one, so I knew I had to watch it to find out.
The biggest problem I had with this version is that I found Carlos Villarías in his portrayal of Dracula to be laughable at times. Whereas Lugosi's stare is full on menacing, Villarías just looks silly. Lupita Tovar, as Eva (Mina), and Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield, however, are excellent. Another great surprise is Manuel Arbó as Martin, a worker at the asylum. The character is there for comic relief purposes, and whereas in the English version he was just ok, I really loved him in this film.
There are a lot of differences that having two separate directors would automatically provide, such as the way scenes are shot. I'm apparently not enough of a film geek for this to really effect me though. I found them to be largely identical in that respect. Citizen Kane was still ten years away from being made, so I found most of the camera angles to be fairly standard. The main difference that most of us would notice is content.
The large differences in content are those that were probably considered too provocative for American audiences at the time. We get to see the teeth marks on Lucy and Eva's necks, and Eva wears a much more low cut dress. We see the brides actually descend onto Renfield and Eva going to and embracing Dracula one evening.
There are two scenes that I find preferable to the English version, and interestingly they both include Dracula and Van Helsing. The first is the scene where Van Helsing discovers Dracula has no reflection. As Dracula knocks the mirror out of Van Helsing's hands, it's much more dramatic and powerfully done. Later, the two of them are alone and Dracula makes an attempt to overpower Van Helsing. Once again, the scene is much more dramatic and powerful here. Overall though I still think the English version is better.
When I rented the disc containing the Spanish version, Dracula's Daughter was also included. This is an attempt by Universal to make a direct sequel and it picks up directly where Dracula left off. Two police officers find Van Helsing with two dead bodies - Dracula and Renfield. Van Helsing (who is listed as Von Helsing in the credits) has to attempt to explain that killing Dracula was necessary because he was a vampire. He gets his psychiatrist friend to help him.
At the same time, Dracula's daughter comes to claim her father's body. She burns it in a ritual, hoping to clear herself of the vampiric curse that also strikes her. It doesn't work and she ends up turning to the same psychiatrist for help, thinking that it is perhaps a mental addiction she can conquer.
If you try to apply logic to this movie, your brain is going to hurt. She's supposed to be his actual daughter, yet Van Helsing says at the beginning of the film that Dracula died 500 years ago, and then at the end of the film that his daughter died 100 years ago. So he could impregnate a women even though he was dead, and then he eventually killed his daughter and turned her just because? Really, I have no idea.
While this movie isn't as much of a classic as any of the original monster movies, I think it stands well in its own right. It's also interesting for a movie made in 1936 to see a female vampire who preys on more women than men. I think the weakest part of the film is the relationship between the psychiatrist, Jeffrey, and his secretary, Janet. They proceed to hate each other for most of the film, but when Dracula's daughter kidnaps Janet to get Jeffrey to follow her, suddenly they are in love. I've always hated this device in movies and is why I normally keep a wide berth from most romantic comedies.
Next up, I'll be discussing two films that star the other most well known Dracula - Christopher Lee.