Halloween is imminent and TCM and Fathom Events answered the call with their Dracula double feature this Sunday (with a repeat this coming Wednesday). I’ve watched Bela Lugosi as the infamous Count countless (pun intended) times, but I’d never previously watched the presumed superior version, the Spanish language version filmed on the same sets, at night with a different, Spanish-speaking cast. Watching the two back-to-back shows how inefficient and cost-cutting Browning’s English-language version can be, with the Spanish one being 30 minutes longer and allowing actual plot holes to be filled. Although each will have its fans, the Spanish version lives up to its name as the better version.
Both versions tell the story of the villainous Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi/Carlos Villarias) as he attempts to seduce Mina/Eva (Helen Chandler/Lupita Tovar) into one of his vampire brides.
Let’s start with the one most English speakers know. Unsung master of horror Tod Browning dreamed of filming this with horror star Lon Chaney, Sr., but his early death necessitated a change to Bela Lugosi, who had starred as the Count on Broadway. There’s been a fair bit of debate as to how much Browning filmed (supposedly depressed over Chaney’s death, it’s rumored cinematographer Karl Freund filmed this), but what survives conveys an intense air of suspense, if a bit embellished in the early transition from silent to sound. Though not as technically dynamic as some of the shots in the Spanish version, the set design here is pure Universal excess, and I use that in the best way. The expansive Castle Dracula and the equally murky Carfax Abbey establish all the requisite emotions to creep us out.
With such breathtaking visuals it can obscure how stodgy the original film feels. Because Universal wanted costs low the original script found itself significantly condensed (again, rumors allude to Browning’s unhinged mental state being the reason for continuity errors). At 88-minutes to the Spanish version’s 104, this Dracula can tend to lean towards Cliff Notes. Renfield (Dwight Frye) leads to our introduction to the Count and from there the film briskly moves towards introducing John Harker (David Manners), Mina, and the rest of the group. The benefits of knowing the original story help and harm by filling in the blanks yet reminding of their absence. The glossing over of moments doesn’t present a problem till the third act when Mina ends up being quickly abducted and saved in the span of five minutes. The jumping and cutting becomes evident, as if the editor suddenly realized he ran out of time.
It’s also hard ignoring the stage acting, lending an air of the overdramatic to everything. The English cast are solid, despite moments of unintentional humor like David Manners waving his arms to swat a bat. Helen Chandler is particularly enticing as the bewitched Mina. Although lacking the depth of Lupita Tovar in the Spanish version, and coming off a bit snooty, she’s definitely enchanting. As much as I appreciate Lugosi, his acting is just too overdone. His piercing gaze works, but when the camera closes in on his face it’s hard not to find it a grimace. His sequences with Frye are the best; Frye walks away with the film as the fly eating servant to the Count. His face contains the madness and compulsion the character requires, and watching him crawl on all fours over to an unconscious maid is threatening in itself.
Universal feared Browning would inject too much social commentary or other subversive elements into the film, and he sneaks them in. Dracula demanding his maids disperse so he can feed on Renfield was a scene Universal objected to, but its restoration gives off an air of homoeroticism. Conversely, all of this lends an air of foreign-phobia to everything. The Count’s Transylvanian origins whose seductive exoticism makes him dangerous and a threat to upright, English-speaking society. Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) perpetuates the happy, helpful foreigner who, with his medical knowledge (regardless of location, medicine trumps superstition in these films) gives the audience reason to trust him and save the day.
This segues nicely into the Spanish language version, filmed at night on the same sets. Because everyone is Spanish – all from different countries, but speaking the same language – the theme of fearing the foreign is entirely removed which enhances the terror because the person to fear could be you! Interestingly enough, the film removes the Count feeding on Renfield in favor of the brides, propelling the more lax sexual component of the film, but keeps it strictly heterosexual.
Villarias as the Count eschews the grimace and any type of melodramatic farce in favor of trying to pass for normal. His rat-like features (no offense) already leave you feeling he’s untrustworthy; not to mention, who really trusts the man in the cape? His frozen smile adds further discomfort as it seems like a means of passing for normal. If he can simply smile at people, they won’t believe he’s truly evil. The additional runtime allows for deeper exploration into each character’s psyche, particularly Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio) and Eva.
Dwight Frye personifies Renfield, but Alvarez Rubio, looking a fair bit like a Spanish Charlie Chaplin, turns down the madness in favor of a character whose madness feels authentic. He ranting never exceeds the bounds of logic, for the most part, and the discussion of him being damned for the lives he’s taken – a moment not seen in the English film – heightens his terror at the prospect of dying. Similarly, the magnetic Lupita Tovar astounds as Eva. Eva’s given a healthy dose of narrative, at one point acknowledging that she’s under the Count’s spell and tearfully breaking off her engagement with Juan (Barry Norton) to spare his life. By the end, you want them to be together because their bond is presented strongly. We also find out about Lucia’s (Carmen Guerrero) return as a vampire, a fact completely absent and unacknowledged in the English version.
Directors George Melford and an uncredited Enrique Tovar Avalos also engage in some camera trickery, presenting the film in a way that doesn’t feel as staid as some of the camera shots in the English cut. Different scene angles and tracking shots give us more movement than the static camera of the English version, where things feel a touch stage-like.
In the end, both films have their pros and cons. The addition of thirty minutes of character set-up gives the Spanish version a decisive edge over the English version.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.