Retro-Musings: Is the Spanish-language version of 1931’s “Dracula” the better bloodsucker?

Monster Mash.

As a kid I loved the Universal Studios monster movies. I was about born about 30-40 years too late to have caught them in original theatrical release, so I used my parent’s old 25” Zenith to get my monster movie fixes. I used to collect the Aurora model kits of the monsters as well. My favorites were Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man and the Mummy, as well as the Creature from the Black Lagoon (who came years later in the mid-1950s, but is still part of the Universal monster brand).

^ These were my superheroes as a kid…

The one Universal monster that never really ignited my pilot light was Dracula. My then-8 year old self just saw Dracula as some guy in a cape with an Eastern European accent. There was nothing outwardly monstrous about him, hence, he simply wasn’t one of my favorites. I certainly enjoyed Dracula in “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) where a past-his-prime Lugosi played his famous character for laughs, but after growing up for so many years with parodic versions of the Count, it was difficult for me to take him seriously. It wasn’t until my teens and 20s where I started to get the gestalt of vampires; they were forever the outsiders, staring with envious eyes into the world of the living. That gave these immortal bloodsuckers an element of pathos, like the best of the Universal monsters. Monsters were the ugly ducklings, with whom many awkward kids such as myself strongly identified. As a teenager, I enjoyed vampire movies such as “Salem’s Lot” (scared the piss out of me when that floating vampire kid scratches the window) and the Christopher Lee Dracula movies for Hammer as well. In my 20s I got into the book and film adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Interview With The Vampire”.

Scenes from 1931’s Dracula, as directed by Todd Browning (clockwise from top left): Bela Lugosi’s key light hypnotic gaze, Dracula kills weak-minded minion Renfield (Dwight Frye), Helen Chandler’s Mina Seward has lust in her heart (oh no!) and Edward Van Sloan as eccentric vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, who is tasked with staking the Count and bringing the lustful Mina to her ‘senses.’

After my recent purchase of an at-home digital projector, I’ve began to fall in love with my vast DVD/Blu Ray library all over again–seeing movies in the dark on a much larger screen has given me a more authentic feel for how these films might’ve been seen in their original theatrical runs (on a larger screen, in the dark, the intervening decades between theatrical release and home video rapidly diminishes). I recently screened 1931’s “Dracula” this way, and while a bit stilted, the atmosphere of the castle and its dusty, cobwebbed crypts began to work on me. I also began to understand the appeal of a much younger Bela Lugosi (he was in his 40s when he first played the role onscreen, having already played Dracula for the Broadway stage). While Dracula is still not my favorite of the Universal classic monsters, I began to appreciate the 1931 film (which was based on the smash Broadway play). While Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and its Todd Browning-directed adaptation are obvious, dated metaphors for the patriarchal suppression of female sexual awakening, I could still place myself back in time and appreciate it in context of its 1931 release date (the year my own late father was born). Despite my earlier disinterest, I certainly ‘get’ Dracula’s appeal now.

Dracula En Espanol (1931).

Years ago, I did a short-lived podcast with a few friends of mine. My old buddy Jesse and I were discussing horror movies of old when “Dracula” came up. He’d asked if I’d ever seen the Spanish language version of “Dracula,” which was shot by English-language director George Melford (with much translational assistance from Enrique Tovar Avalos) on the exact same sets as the Todd Browning version. As a longtime horror aficionado, I sheepishly confessed that I hadn’t yet seen it, though I heard many intriguing things about it over the years. When I finally bought the Dracula Collection DVDs, he had three words of advice for me: “Just see it.” Jesse knew his stuff when it came to horror, sci-fi and fantasy flicks. While it took a ridiculously long time for me to heed his advice, the at-home circumstances of the current pandemic seemed like an ideal opportunity…

****89-YEAR OLD SPOILERS!!****

Opening with the overture to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” (which opens Lugosi’s version, as well as 1933’s “The Mummy”), George Melford’s “Dracula” is a genuine curiosity–like an alternate universe version of the Lugosi film. The film was shot on the same sets after the English version’s crew wrapped for the day, and it even used some of the same blocking and marks for the actors (according to costar Lupita Tovar on the DVD interview).

Note: It would’ve been far cheaper to simply dub the English version into Spanish, but Universal (at the time) believed that creating an alternate language version might better appeal to a growing Spanish-speaking audience. The result was, in my opinion, well worth the extra effort.

Shots from of my recent digital projection of George Melford’s “Dracula” (clockwise from top left): The shot of Dracula’s claw reaching from the crypt is nearly the same. Renfield’s fear during the driverless carriage ride is a bit more palpable. Establishing matte paintings and exteriors of Dracula’s castle and other locations are re-used. The introduction of Carlos Villar’s Count Dracula lacks the dramatic key lighting of the eyes, but is also more shadowy.

The exterior establishing shots (and matte paintings) are, of course, the same as well. One of the differences one immediately notices is that some of the interior lighting is a bit different; a little more shadowy. This is very noticeable in the Transylvanian castle interiors and in later scenes taking place in London. Renfield’s bat-driven carriage ride from the Transylvanian village to Dracula’s castle is virtually identical as well, save for a more comedic style of fear from actor Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s Renfield.

Note: The minor lighting differences and other such changes were, anecdotally, a benefit of the Spanish version’s crew seeing the English version’s dailies and fixing/enhancing any minor issues for their own version, which filmed “from dusk till dawn” (appropriately enough). As a result, the Spanish version has a bit more polish and finesse with regards to lighting, blocking and other touches. There are moments where the English version almost feels like a rehearsal to the Spanish version’s final product.

The Count’s overly gracious hosting masks his wish to turn poor neurotic Renfield into fast food.

When we first meet the Count (Carlos Villar) in his grand, decaying Transylvanian estate, he is more outwardly gregarious than Lugosi’s standoffish Dracula, welcoming Renfield with an overplayed hospitality and broad grin which barely mask his contempt for the mortal. Instead of accidentally slicing his finger on a real estate document for the purchase of Carfax Abbey in London, this Renfield slices it on a generous hunk of shepherd’s bread, courtesy of overattentive host Dracula. Renfield’s seduction by Dracula’s brides is very similar to the English version as well.

Note: Unlike F. W. Murnow’s German silent film “Nosferatu” (1922) which changed names and locales from Bram Stoker’s book to avoid a legal battle with the Stoker estate, the Spanish language “Dracula” has no such restrictions. Despite its characters speaking Spanish, the action takes place in Transylvania and London. Personally, this is not an issue for me. If anything, the romance language of Spanish lends itself very well to the story. But if Londoners and Transylvanian aristocrats speaking Spanish requires too great a suspension of someone’s disbelief, I have to wonder why the notion of immortal blood-sucking beings isn’t as much of a stretch…?

More shots taken from my recent viewing (clockwise from upper left): Renfield revels in outwitting Harker and Van Helsing. Dracula carries Eva down the steps of his castle into his basement crypt just as minion Renfield picks a really bad time to confront the boss man. Dracula snatches Eva from her bed and into his crypt, where he hopes to make her his bride. Gone from Stoker’s book is the notion that Eva is somehow a reincarnation of his lost love.

Much of the extra length of the Spanish version’s running time is in its middle acts. For comparison, the English version clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes, while the Spanish version is nearly 30 minutes longer at 104 minutes. Some of that added material is in dialogue between Eva (aka Mina) and her ill-fated girlfriend Lucia (aka Lucy), as well as lengthier exchanges between Evas father/sanitarium administrator Dr. Seward (Jose Soriano Viosca), his patient Renfield, and vampire hunter Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena). The extra dialogue between the three men acts as a showcase for the talents of Rubio’s Renfield, whose performance of insanity is a revelation–one of the best elements of this version over its English sibling. Other than the added material in the middle act, the rest of the movie adheres almost verbatim to the English version’s script, albeit reworded for the Spanish language.

Note: As this version of the film was thought to be lost until the 1970s, there are parts of the digitally restored surviving copy which are in pretty rough shape–particularly the Count’s arrival in London, which is very faded and full of scratches (the monaural sound is muffled as well), in stark contrast to the rest of this otherwise clean print. I’m not sure if subsequent Blu Ray remastering has fixed any of this (I only have the 2004 issue DVD), but it’s a minor issue which shouldn’t greatly affect one’s overall appreciation of the film.

Van Helsing runs a quick check to see if Eva is still a virtuous Christian woman. Even as a kid, I often wondered if the cross would still work if Eva/Mina were Jewish? Or Buddhist? Or Hindu? Or Muslim…?

The final act is where the movie kicks into high gear, with the Count abducting the sexually liberated, would-be vampire Eva, taking her into his castle at Carfax Abbey (which is across the way from Seward’s Sanitariumconvenient). Impatient with his incompetent minion, Dracula tosses the pathetic Renfield over a staircase to his death (Lugosi’s Dracula pushes the madman down the stairs). Van Helsing and Eva’s fiance Jonathan are on their way to ‘rescue’ Eva. As Jonathan finds a confused Eva wandering in the basement crypt at Carfax Abbey, Van Helsing discovers the vulnerable vampire, recharging in his coffin filled with native Transylvanian soil. Van Helsing plants an improvised wooden stake directly into the Count’s heart (off screen, of course–just like the Lugosi death scene), with only an echoed utterance of pain to signify Dracula’s demise. Harker takes his unsteady fiancee by the arm, away from the creepy castle (the music swell almost sounds like Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”).

So ends the Spanish version of Dracula.

Fin.

Re-Count.

Another round of applause for an under-appreciated cast.

The greatest strength of the Spanish language version lies largely in its cast. The English language version feels a bit stilted and less passionate than its Spanish sibling. Bela Lugosi plays the iconic role of Count Dracula cooler and more otherworldly than Carlos Villar, but Villar adds more of the stylized flourishes that modern audiences now associate with the character–the exaggerated hand movements, and the mercurial facial expressions, for example.

Lugosi on the left, and Villar on the right. On both Counts, I call this one a draw.

In direct comparison, Lugosi’s Dracula feels more commanding and aristocratic, with his height (6’1”) and native Hungarian accent. Villar’s Dracula feels more wolfish and predatory. Yes, Lugosi’s Dracula is the mold for all the imitators to come, but a few of Villar’s stylings can be found in other cinematic vampires, such as Irish actor Stephen Rea’s “Santiago” from 1994’s “Interview with the Vampire”, with his wild eyes, impish grin, and deliberately exaggerated theatricality. Picking a personal preference between the two Draculas is a case of apples and oranges, as both approaches are authentic and valid takes which work equally well for the character.

Mina-Eva.

The character of Mina (Jonathan Harker’s beloved) is deeply saddening. She is the classic horror ‘femme fatale’ victim made largely obsolete in post-Ripley/post-Laurie Strode/post-Buffy horror. In Mina, we see a young woman whose great well of passion is liberated like never before, yet the price of that liberation is the destruction of the very being who awakened it within her. We are told her emerging sexuality is but a “curse” that must be “cured” in order to save her soul. She has to stop this ‘foolishness’ and be a ‘good girl’ (i.e. submissive). Bram Stoker’s deeply patriarchal perspective was the cultural norm for the century in which his book was published. Sadly, that primitive specter of male chauvinism is all-too present today, even as the United States is poised to welcome its first female Vice President.

Lupita Tovar’s “Eva” (top) is more openly seductive than the comparatively chaste “Mina” played by Helen Chandler.

The Spanish version of the Mina character is renamed Eva, and is played by Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, who is more outwardly sensuous than her more chaste anglophone counterpart, portrayed by American actress Helen Chandler. Eva’s costumes are quite different as well, with plunging necklines and even hints of nipple through the sheer fabric. By comparison, even the sexually ‘liberated’ Mina looks fully dressed for a seat on one of the RMS Titanic’s first few lifeboats. All the same, it’s difficult to directly compare the performances of the two actresses, since their different approaches to the character are arguably more cultural than artistic.

Mad Men.

“They’re coming to take me away, haha….”

Wild-eyed actor Dwight Frye would make a name for himself in the Universal horror films, playing Renfield in “Dracula” as well as Igor in 1931’s “Frankenstein.” His wild-eyed performance as realtor-turned-raving mad Renfield became the mold for the character. Frye is quite natural in his early scenes before his transformation, but after he goes mad, the shadings largely disappear. Frye’s Renfield is all about the wild eyes and the raving. Yes, it’s an iconic and often-imitated horror performance, to be sure, but…

Rubio’s is clearly the more nuanced and believably bonkers Renfield.

Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s Renfield is better in every measurable way. Where Frye’s Renfield is largely two-dimensional, Rubio’s take on the character feels more authentically insane. Not relying on ticks alone, Rubio’s Renfield is more nuanced. The actor’s knowing smirks and sly giggles suggest that he is secretly outsmarting everyone in the room, and that he can barely contain his little victories to himself. He’s like a naughty child who is getting away with mischief and knows it. Yes, he’s tormented, but he’s also masochistically enjoying the torment. Rubio’s Renfield is the more enjoyable performance, and he gets more material in the Spanish version’s longer running time.

Final Count Down.

Carlos Villar’s expressive eyes play to the back row.

With passionate actors and a 30 minute-longer running time that allows the material a bit more breathing room, the reputation of the Spanish-language “Dracula” is warranted. While it obviously can’t compare to later horror films for gore or shock value, Melford’s “Dracula” compensates with carefully cultivated mood. The film is arguably a forerunner of later Spanish-language horror cult classics, such as “Tombs of the Blind Dead”(1972) or any of Guillermo del Toro’s horror works, like “Chronos” (1993) or “Devil’s Backbone” (2001).

For horror and vampire purists, the Spanish language version of “Dracula” should not to be missed.

COVID-Safe Viewing.

The Spanish language version of 1931’s “Dracula” is not available for streaming via the usual sources, but I did find a subtitled version of the film on YouTube posted below via Alter Weekly’s YouTube channel (AlterWeekly/YouTube ):

The film can also be purchased directly on DVD/Blu Ray via Amazon.com as part of the Universal Dracula Collection (available as a bonus feature, as it is on my own DVD copy). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around or over 260,000 (over a quarter million Americans) as of this writing.  Meanwhile, there’s no widely available vaccine or proven effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet.   Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe.  So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. 

Sorry this article was a few weeks too late for Halloween, but please enjoy a safe and responsible holiday season!

Images: Universal, Author, Alter Weekly.

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