The James Clayton Column: The spirit of Spanish Dracula

James spent his Halloween watching a Dracula movie. And not just any Dracula movie...

Feeling the need for some old-school horror movie magic to mark Halloween, I found myself digging out the Universal Monsters DVD boxset and sticking on a Dracula flick. This time round, having opted to pick a film that I’d somehow managed to ignore or never got around to actually watching, the classic chiller choice for this year ended up being Drácula.

Note the accent: that’s Drácula, not Dracula. Not Bela Lugosi in the Tod Browning-directed vampire tale that provided the fang-feature blueprint and cast a cloaking shadow over all that followed, but the Spanish-language version produced in the same year by the same studio.

Previous reasoning had decreed ‘don’t bother watching a foreign language take on a film you’ve already seen. Watch something different’. This time, however, with Halloween in the air and no desire to see another schlocky Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man Meets Abbott and Costello Meets Kiss Meets the Phantom in the Park supergroup flick, I settled for the definitive Dracula. No Boris Karloff cameos in sight, just straight-up Count Dracula, albeit played by a man from Córdoba with a touch of Latin charm.

Legend has it that studios used to simultaneously produce foreign-language versions of movies as standard, though few of these alternate reels still exist. The Dracula doppelgänger produced to appeal to the Mexican immigrant demographic is a rare surviving exception, though, and was shot with an alternative cast on the vacant sets at night by director George Melford, whilst Tod Browning’s Hollywood classic was completed during the day.

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Essentially, what this means is that we have the same story and the same scenery; it’s just that the people chewing it are a bunch of unrecognisables speaking in an incomprehensible tongue (unless you speak Spanish). Measuring up the two, Señora Lupita Tovar – the actress who plays Mina Harker stand-in ‘Eva’ and provides the prologue to the Spanish cut – states that Bela Lugosi had longer fingers than his Hispanic counterpart. Because a good horror villain needs creepy hands, this is crucial, but Drácula makes up for its leading man’s diminished digits as it boasts a running time of 104 minutes where Dracula can only manage a humble 75. Stubby fingers perhaps, but you can’t fault the foreign-language alternative’s stamina…

Carlos Villarías – Lugosi’s equally sublime and sinister opposite as Count Dracula – unfortunately, not only needs Nosferatu hands but also looks like Wallace, friend of Gromit and cheese-loving leading male in The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. No matter how hard I tried, every time the Transylvanian terror slides onto screen I can’t help but thinking of the plasticine protagonist who graced The Wrong Trousers.

Despite that, Drácula is great. It’s just as striking as its more famous twin and there’s something nice about seeing a film you know acted out by a substitute cast. The Spanish-sideline also raises an interesting idea as we inch on through these ‘difficult times’ of recession, credit crunching and global downturn despair. If the economic climate is pretty crappy for filmmakers at the moment, entrepreneurial audience-targeting endeavours along such lines could be a considerable aid to the film industry as it battles the flotsam and jetsam on turbulent financial seas.

Economically-speaking, using empty sets, leftover props and production downtime to knock together quick and easy movies makes sense. It’s practical and – if the resultant sideline flicks are configured to cater for a foreign audience – presents appealing products for non-English speaking viewers. This means happy audiences, happy filmmakers, happy movie moguls and happy accountants in Hollywood.

Ultimately, everyone is happy apart from the poor fella who has to stand in for the much-loved A-lister in the non-English version, only to be mocked for having short fingers or some other superficial flaw by the fanboys nerdy enough to see all seven different dialogue edits.

The idea of roping together a foreign language retake alongside the main feature is also a wise move when we consider the marauding pirates and pilfering ‘third world’ filmmakers out there who do despicable things to Hollywood products. There’d be no chance of another pointless court battle claiming that Hari Puttar comes too close to Harry Potter; a ‘Bollywoodified’ adjusted effort made in conjunction with the main feature would save both the squandered legal fees and lost audiences.

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Are the studios feeling threatened by the Thai bootleg import of unedited Iron Man 2 that’ll spoil things before the finished reels have been distributed to multiplexes? You wouldn’t need to worry if you had a studio-sanctioned piece with – if I dare to dream – Tony Jaa saying Robert Downey Jr.’s lines, wearing the iconic red costume and flying around the same set. With synchronised sound, completed special effects and essentially the same major blockbuster movie with bespoke bits as appropriate for the cultural climate in question, we know which flick the average consumer is going to go for.

But what about all the big budget flicks crafted in front of greenscreens or bluescreens and digitally rendered in the editing suite? The fact that there is no physical set or tangible artefacts lying around ready to use needn’t be an obstacle. There’s still a mass of objects and environments that have been created, even if they are only pixels.

What becomes of all the computer-generated places and props once they’ve been used? I’m sure that cyberspace is clogged with mothballed multimedia files and that the studio vaults are stuffed with hard drives creaking under the cumulative data and digital designs required for thousands of movies.

These are tools ready to be used. Look to, say, the upcoming Avatar and the lush land of Pandora that James Cameron’s crack troops have spent eons envisaging. Why waste all those hours sat staring at computer screens painstakingly putting together an immersive world through digital graphics just to forget it all once the film is complete? Approached with economic sensibility and a spirit of resourcefulness, the graphic magic can be recycled and continue to give again and again.

The ‘tiger economies’ of India and China – not to mention the rest of the globalised planet – are there to be harnessed. If Hollywood wants to consolidate its grasp on foreign markets, maybe it would be a smart idea to observe Drácula and summon the spirit of classic Hollywood multilingual production. With some foreign vocab and international fill-ins, the film industry’s creepy fingers may find themselves removing the coffin lid, revived to fresh life once more.

James’ previous column can be found here.

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