In anticipation of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the latest review of the series is for the Spanish version of “Dracula” that was made simultaneously as the American version by director George Melford, and premiered on 20 March, 1931in Spain, and on 24 April, 1931 in the U.S.
Instead of the methods of subtitling or dubbing we use so frequently in today’s cinema, back in the 1930’s there were certain film projects that were simultaneously made in different languages featuring completely different casts. The 1931 version of “Dracula” was such a movie and luckily for audiences today, both versions have survived. Amazingly, there is a huge number of fans for this version of “Dracula” who often boast that the Spanish version is the superior of the two 1931 films. While I agree that from a technical point of view this assertion is indeed true, but this version has faults of its own. The story goes that both versions were shot on the same day, with the American cast and crew having access to the sets in the day, while the Spanish the night. The advantage the Spanish crew had was they were able to see what the American’s had done and then attempt to better it (whether this is in fact true, it is still a great legend).
Both versions have the same story so please excuse my following cut and paste job from my (other) “Dracula” review, but again here is a brief summery. After securing the sale of a property on the outskirts of London, Count Dracula leaves his castle in Transylvania and charters a ship to his new abode. Upon arriving in town, he immediately starts to prey upon his neighbours of the adjoining property (which houses a sanitarium on its grounds as well as the residence of the head psychiatrist and his family), particularly that of the young and beautiful Eva. After a number of deaths and strange going-on’s in the neighbourhood, a specialist is brought in, Dr. Van Helsing, to work out what is exactly happening as well as to find what is the cause for the sudden deterioration in the health of poor Eva. Van Helsing, who has a firm belief in the supernatural, comes to the terrifying conclusion that everything that has been happening is due to the presence of a vampire.
Somewhat ironically, I found that the Spanish and American versions of “Dracula” to be complete opposites, by which I mean the elements that were so strong in one, turn out to be the weaknesses in the other. For me, the opening scenes set in Transylvania in this version just did not have that beautiful and macabre atmosphere of the American version. While the majority of the scene looks better, for some reason the atmosphere is lost and the reason for this, I think, has to do with Dracula himself. If you are in any doubt of just how good a performance Bela Lugosi’s version of the titular character was, watching Carlos Villarias’s attempt at the same role will give you a new found respect to it. Sadly Villaria is terrible as Dracula and he is the main deficiency of the whole film. He has no screen presence at all and the way he plays the monster with his wide opened eyes and ridiculous grin makes it hard to ever take him seriously as scary. I will say that he appears to be giving his all in the role, but fails miserably. The best moment (at least from a visual perspective) during the Transylvanian section is ruined by the appearance of the Count and his goofy toothy grin. The moment in question is when Renfield and Dracula meet for the first time on the staircase, and the camera brilliantly glides up the staircase to a single shot of….oh no……..it is a goofy looking Dracula.
However once the film changes locations to London, director George Melford creates a beautiful and rich atmosphere that was not at all present in the Tod Browning version. Sadly, the problems with Dracula are constant throughout the picture but in almost every other aspect, the London sections are drastically improved. There is quite a difference in the running times of both versions of “Dracula” with the Spanish version clocking in at 104 minutes (while the U.S version was 75 minutes), being a full 29 minutes longer, and yet there are really no extra scenes in this version at all. Rather Melford doesn’t rush through the story to get to the finish line but instead moves the film at a nice pace. Unlike the American version, the film does not become a muddled mess towards the end, which is a lot more satisfying here. Melford also does a much better job at disguising the fact that the film is based on a play, it really does feel more like a movie.
During this section of the film I found the majority of the performances to be quite good with the major exception being Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing. He gives such a flat and uninspired rendition of the famous character, there is just no energy there at all. During the main confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula, where the Count tries in vain to hypnotize the professor in an attempt to get him to come closer, it is explained in the American version that Dracula is unable to move Van Helsing because his will is too strong. However in the Spanish version, it appears that instead of a strong will stopping Dracula, the only thing stopping him here is that Van Helsing has nodded off. Seriously, Arozamena just does not handle this scene well at all, and clearly does not know what to do, so choose to do nothing. It is sad really, that the two main roles of “Dracula” have been so poorly cast in this version.
In regards to the girls in the cast, similar to the American version, both come across really well with Lupita Tovar actually being pretty great as Eva. She seems to understand the sexuality of Dracula’s mind control a lot better here and really convinces that she enjoys her new found awakening whilst under his power. It is interesting to note the differences in the way the female characters are dressed in this version compared to their American counterpart with cleavage being very prominent here. In fact this is another main difference between the two films as the Spanish version is definitely the sexier of the two, as well as the grittier. For example, the scene when Renfield cuts his finger at Dracula’s castle, in the U.S version he does this on a paperclip whilst here it is when he slips with his knife cutting some bread. Sure it is a small change, but a significant one I think. Similarly in the American version we are never witness to the famous bite marks a vampire makes, where as they make a number of appearances here.
The differences between the look of each film is also interesting because the Spanish version has some great set decoration making the environment more grander than in Browning’s film. Also the staging of most scenes, as well as camera movement, is significantly better in the Spanish version. However, the way Dracula himself has been shot is nowhere near as atmospheric as what Freund did in the U.S version. The hypnotic eye trick has not been duplicated here; rather Melford has chosen to use a close-up of the vampire’s eyes (when he is trying to hypnotize a victim) which borders on a horror movie look. What I mean by this is that it almost looks like a close-up you see of a victim’s eyes in a slasher film just before they are killed, and personally I found it was not as powerful in this version. The goofy special effects so prominent in the U.S film are toned down here and for the better too.
Overall, this Spanish language version of “Dracula” is a pretty good film and it is true that for the most part, it is actually a better film than its American counterpart. However the fact that the two performers in the key roles of Van Helsing and Dracula himself are so poor really does bring down this great film. Just imagine how much of a classic “Dracula” could have been if Bela Lugosi was in this version of the film. As it is though, this version of the classic tale can hold its head high, as it compares very well to the Tod Browning classic.