It’s a Hallowe’en double bill with teeth. Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment are bringing a “Dracula” double-feature event to cinemas nationwide for a two-day event. On Sunday, October 25th, classic movie fans paid contemporary movie prices to see the iconic 1931 Bela Lugosi version, followed by the lesser-known Spanish language version shot at night on the same sets with a different cast.
The event will be repeated on Wednesday, October 28 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. local time.
Seeing the Bela Lugosi version, directed by Tod Browning, on the big screen is a rare enough treat. Most modern audiences have seen it, if at all, only television, and they’re missing the real experience. “Dracula” is a masterpiece of mood, thanks to Karl Freund’s masterful black and white cinematography and gorgeous production design. The sets, periodically augmented by matte paintings (they used the same technique extensively in “Gone With the Wind”) are far more impressive on the big screen, but that’s only part of the story. In an age before television, directors assumed their films would be seen only on big screens. That freed them to indulge in nuance that is often lost on television screens, let alone smartphones. Browning provides a striking example in “Dracula,” when the title character is introduced to his future victim, played by the lovely Helen Chandler. Pinpoint spots are focused (with inconsistent accuracy) on Lugosi’s eyes. As the scene fades to black, a single, lingering point of light remains for a moment, a sinister star in a firmament of black.
Lugosi, though, remains the movie’s centerpoint and anchor. There aren’t that many performances in film history you can really call iconic, but this is one of them. Almost everyone has heard imitations of Lugosi’s genuine Hungarian accent, most of them unbelievably bad. But remember – Transylvania is a real place in central Romania, bordering Hungary. Lugosi’s accent was actually perfect for the character. And the six foot one, blue eyed actor, only in his late thirties when he played the part, first on Broadway and then for Hollywood, certainly had the physical equipment for the role.
Yes, modern audiences are probably more used to Christopher Lee (who was even taller), who played the part in Technicolor with red contact lenses and fangs, and leaped over tables in the action scenes. But Lugosi deserves more respect than he’s gotten in recent years. The well-known Tim Burton film “Ed Wood” depicts an elderly, decrepit, drug-addicted Lugosi eeking out a living in Wood’s poorly executed cheapies. And it is true that Lugosi’s last movie was “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But in 1931, Universal wanted to capitalize on the runaway success the stage version of “Dracula” had enjoyed on Broadway, and wouldn’t have anyone else in the title role.
Watch the movie and you can see why. Lugosi’s iron elegance is riveting. Even on gigantic sets he dominates. And that voice! When he quietly and slowly says: “There are far worse things awaiting man…than death,” I defy you not to feel a shivers down your spine. By the way, when he delivers the famous line “I never drink…wine,” he does not pronounce it “vine.”
“Dracula” also had one of the screen’s best Van Helsings in Edward Van Sloan, for many years the only actor of Dutch ancestry to play the part. And Dwight Frye as Renfield, driven mad by his encounter with Dracula, is mesmerizing.
Thought to be a lost film for decades, the Spanish language version is an even rarer treat. In the early age of talkies, it was not all that uncommon to shoot an entirely different version of the film for foreign markets. In the case of “Dracula,” director George Melford shot at night on the same sets Tod Browning was using during the day with an entirely different, Spanish-speaking cast. Carlos Villarías played the title role, with Lupita Tovar as Mina character, now renamed Eva, and Carmen Guerrero as Lucy, now called Lucia. Barry Norton plays “Juan” Harker. Van Helsing, played by Eduardo Arozamena, and Renfield, played by Pablo Alvarez Rubio, are not renamed.
Villarías was shown dailies of Lugosi’s performance and encouraged to imitate it. Some long shots appear to actually be Lugosi. (Matte shots from Browning’s film were also recycled for the less expensive Spanish version). Villarías is no Lugosi. Although undeniably creepy in his own way, he does not have Lugosi’s aristocratic bearing and chilly power. But the Spanish version offers its own rewards. Melford, his cinematographer George Robinson, and the crew, also had the opportunity to see the dailies of Browning’s version. And that apparently gave them the opportunity to improve upon it. The camera angles used are often different and better maximize some of the sets, particularly in Castle Dracula. The lighting is often better and moodier, with more intense blacks in the shadows. The action is more intense, and the direction of the climax is light years better.
Interestingly, although Melford had, if anything, less time to shoot, his film is longer. The plot seems better developed, the flow of the film is smoother, less choppy, and the transitions are more natural. And though still tame by modern standards, the eroticism implicit in the vampire legend is stronger here.
It should also be noted that Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s performance as Renfield is powerful and heartbreaking, and seeing both Frye and Rubio on the same bill offers a wonderful comparison for filmgoers. Lugosi may take the crown in the duel of the Draculas, but in the rumble of the Renfields, it’s pretty much a draw.
Local horror fans still have an opportunity to take advantage of the rare “Dracula” double bill at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX on Wednesday, October 28 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. local time. Tickets are available at the theater or through fathomevents.com.