by David Cornelius
In the early days of talkies, Universal practiced the short-lived habit of churning out duplicate versions of their main attractions. By night, using the same script and same sets as the daytimers, a whole new cast and crew would shuffle into the studio to film Spanish language counterparts. Considering how much recycled material was used, the cost of making these entirely new productions was greatly reduced.The most popular of these alternate versions (these days, at least) is the 1931 Spanish “Dracula” - popular, no doubt, due to the interest in seeing a different take on one of the most famous and influential of all horror movies. The Spanish version’s popularity has only grown since the mid-1990s, when Universal restored the film and released it onto home video (and then, with DVD, it became a standard bonus feature for every release of the English language original).
"An impressive curiosity."
Film buffs, loving a good debate, leapt at the chance to dissect the Spanish version, comparing and contrasting. Does its star, Carlos Villarías (credited here under the shortened name Carlos Villar), outdo Bela Lugosi’s legendary performance? Does director George Melford (who, incidentally, spoke no Spanish and had to rely on an interpreter) find new ways to out-chill the work of director Tod Browning? Does the movie’s longer running time (at 104 minutes, it bests its counterpart by a cool half-hour) allow for a more complex, complete story?
One thing is clear in watching this “Dracula:” the tone is most certainly looser. The mere notion of a midnight crew brings to mind images of filmmaking rebels crashing a big money set and seeing what they could pull off. Of course, things were far more professional than this (and far more upscale - this isn’t the same as Roger Corman recycling expensive sets on the cheap for movie after movie), but still, with nobody watching and nobody caring (minus the money men, of course), there’s a lot more room to play.
In addition, differing societal standards allowed for differing presentation. Compare the role of Mina, played in the English language version by Helen Chandler, with the role of Eva, Mina’s Spanish equivalent, played by Lupita Tovar. Mina’s necklines are high and covering. Eva’s are low and revealing. This slight difference in the mores of the time allows for the Spanish version to add just an extra pinch of sex; where Browning’s film dances around, Melford’s film simply comes right out. Tovar’s Eva becomes, in this film, quite the sexual being, far beyond anything Mina had to offer.
(Side note: it is said that the only reason Universal made these alternate Spanish versions was because producer Paul Kohner fell in love with Tovar. Not making enough money in Hollywood, she was preparing to return to Mexico. Kohner quickly whipped up the idea of a low-cost Spanish double for the studio’s “The Cat Creeps,” with Tovar in the lead role. Isn’t Hollywood gossip fun?)
As hard as one might try, it’s impossible to view the Spanish “Dracula” without resorting to comparison. Which is unfair, of course, but still, it exists these days more as a curiosity piece than as a standalone feature. Unless you’ve never seen the Browning film, you’re destined to spend most of your time thinking about how this version fits with the other. Even in the moments in which Melford’s film greatly expands the story - most noticeably a vastly improved follow-up with the Renfield character - your mind is busy rocketing between the two films. So with no pretense on giving this “Dracula” a fair shake, here’s how it sizes up:
For the title role, Lugosi has a vast leg up on Villarías. If nothing else, Lugosi’s strange accent separates him, makes him all the more alien. Villarías, on the other hand, is foreign only in the notion that he is a Spanish actor working among Mexicans; his accent may be different, but not at all in the haunting manner of Lugosi.
To be fair, Legosi is the benchmark here, the Dracula against which all other Counts will be forever measured. To watch someone not only in the same role, but in the exact same version of the story, reciting the exact same dialogue, filmed at the exact same moment in history, well, it’s sure to be a blow-out. On his own, Villarías brings a mysterious charm, but compared to Lugosi, he’s just some tall guy in a cape.
Faring much better is Pablo Álvarez Rubio, taking over the Renfield role. His spin on the character has the same demented creepiness that Dwight Frye brought to the screen, only Rubio one-ups him, going for louder, crazier, more sinister. Rubio is unquestionably the best thing about this “Dracula,” a twisted, unsettling primal scream of a performance.
Fortunately, then, the Spanish version brings in much of the Renfield material not found in the English version. We get more of Renfield in Dracula’s castle, and more of Renfield in the sanitarium - including a long, wonderfully fascinating scene between him and Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena, who, by the way, is just as interesting a screen presence as Edward van Sloan).
The entire script is fuller, with Melford reaching to flesh out his characters far more than Browning, who offered up a bare bones version of the tale. As such, each version brings with it pros and cons. Browning’s version, while chaotic on a story level, makes up for it (and how) with dazzling imagery and a spooky fever dream quality. Melford, meanwhile, goes for the more complete story, losing the dream tone (while keeping the effective haunting aspects), opting instead for more character detail, the longer scenes adding a different kind of pacing to the project, less manic, more logical. While the latter is more satisfying as a story, it also loses that all-important nightmarish quality.Still, Melford’s version is still well worth a look. The basic script is so solid that it sails in any language. Rubio’s Renfield is a maniac for the ages. And Melford’s direction still manages to pile on the chills. Even if viewed only as for the curiosity factor, the interest is enormous, a chance to see a what-if? alternate to a horror classic, a chance to see a lesser director take more chances (his impressive work with crane shots and mobile cameras in these early days of the talkie is of note), a chance to see something old and familiar become new and daring again. This “Dracula” may be nothing but a DVD bonus feature these days, but it stands as a noteworthy part of the long history of Dracula on film.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13250&reviewer=392
originally posted: 10/12/05 08:24:58