George Melford, 1931
Starring: Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Alvarez Rubio
When I first saw Drácula, I was fascinated by the film’s production history and wondered how many times in cinema a film had been simultaneously shot in two languages with two different directors and two separate casts, but on the same set? It turns out this happens more than you would think. Universal practiced this a few times in the ‘30s, including on a remake of The Cat and the Canary, The Cat Creeps, where a duplicate Spanish-language version was filmed at night as La Voluntad del muerto with the same director as Drácula, George Melford, and star Lupita Tovar. (It also happened in the ‘60s occasionally with German krimi films, but dual language movies these tended to have overlapping casts and the same director.)
This somewhat complicated history makes the Spanish-language version of Drácula an interesting experiment and worthy of at least one careful viewing, particularly by fans of Dracula. Shot at night on the same set as Browning’s Dracula, the Spanish Drácula is generally considered to be a sexier and more emotional version of its English language counterpart, supposedly due to its Latin flavor and the advantage of looking at Browning’s film every day. This is an opinion shared by many fans and critics since the film was rediscovered in the ‘70s.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I agree with this. The film is, unavoidably, very similar, so similar that I'm not going to bother providing a synopsis. There is the same plot, almost the same dialogue, the same set and the same cues for the actors. In a way, the fact that this was replicated so closely is kind of astounding. It is an interesting experiment in cinema, but undoubtedly suffers from some glaring flaws. While many films have remakes and sequels, Drácula is one of the few that is almost exactly the same film as its predecessor, if it isn’t fair to refer to Dracula that way.
So how is it actually different? There are four major things. First of all, we have the Count. In her introduction to the film, Lupita Tovar, who plays Eva, the Spanish-language version of Mina, notes how similar Bela Lugosi and Carlos Villarias were. I completely disagree. While they are somewhat alike in appearance, they play completely different Draculas. Villarias has hypnotic, captivating eyes, and he is a much more physically expressive, theatrical Dracula. So physically expressive, that most of the time it comes across as ridiculous and hammy. One of my favorite scenes is in the beginning of the film when Renfield accidentally cuts himself during dinner. Excited by the sight of blood, Dracula leans in for the kill, but sees the crucifix around Renfield’s neck. Instead of recoiling with a look of demonic terror/fury on his face, he simply looks like he’s eating something that tastes TERRIBLE.
The second difference in Drácula is that this physical exaggeration is mirrored by everyone, particularly when it comes to their facial expressions. Sometimes it almost seems like we're watching a pantomime or a silent film, which is likely to be distracting to modern film viewers who have little familiarity with early cinema and its unique acting techniques. On the other hand, this may delight viewers who find Dracula too talkie and static. The third, very welcome difference is the heightened level of eroticism. There are sexier costumes and more beautiful women, particularly the gorgeous Lupita Tovar. She is at once alluring and innocent and waves away some of the parlor room dust that settled over the English-language Dracula and it female lead, Helen Chandler. Tovar is a fascinating figure. This Mexican actress and beauty wound up marrying Paul Kohner, a producer at Universal and starred in a number of films directed by George Melford, such as East of Borneo (1931), as well as Mexico’s first talkie, Santa (1931), and in a strange crossover she appeared in The Veiled Lady (1929, now lost) with Bela Lugosi. At 102, she is one of the oldest actresses still alive from the silent film era. Director Melford was known for a number of films, including To Have and To Hold (1916), The Sea Wolf (1920), and Rudolf Valentino vehicle The Sheik (1921), in addition to an acting career.
The final difference, which doesn't seem possible if you watch the original Dracula first, is that Spanish-language version has much more exuberant rubber bats. For example, if you were to play a rubber bat drinking game, I feel certain that it would impossible to get through the entire film without alcohol poisoning. The major reason I don’t like this film as much as the English language Dracula is because it is so over the top in parts. I don’t want to give the impression that it is a bad film. Really, it is nearly the same film, but minus the element (Lugosi) that makes Dracula stand the test of time.
The Spanish-language Drácula is available in Dracula: The Legacy Collection box set, which also contains the original Dracula and its three sequels, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. There is an original documentary, The Road to Dracula, which is narrated by Carla Laemmle, niece of the great producer. It discusses both the original film and the Spanish version. Not a terribly exciting documentary, but I guess it would be interesting if you are new to Dracula. An introduction by Tovar that provides a quick run down of Drácula’s history is the only extra specifically for the Spanish-language version.