One of the wonderful oddities of film history is that, in 1931, Universal produced not one but two versions of Dracula. There’s the version that we all know, the one with Bela Lugosi. And then there was the Spanish language version.
It was a common practice during the early days of the sound era for the studios to concurrently shoot Spanish-language versions of their films. In the case of Dracula, the cast and the crew for the Spanish version would shoot at night, after Lugosi, Edward van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and everyone else had gone home. The crew and the actor cast as Dracula, Carlos Villarias, were allowed to watch the dailies, with Villarias being specifically told to model his performance as much on Lugosi’s as possible.
Most of the early Hollywood’s Spanish films have been lost but Drácula has survived. In fact, among some horror critics, it’s become a bit trendy to declare that the Spanish language version is superior to the English version. While I was preparing for our annual October horrorthon, I decided to watch Drácula and see for myself.
In some ways, Drácula is indeed superior. The film uses the same script as the English version and was filmed on the same sets. But visually, it’s a far more interesting film. Because director George Melford (who was quite an acclaimed silent film director) had a chance to watch Dracula‘s dailies, he also had the benefit of hindsight when it came to making decisions regarding lighting and camera angles. If the English language Dracula suffers because its stationary camera work makes it feel like a filmed stage play, the Spanish-language Drácula feels like a real movie.
As well, there’s a passion to the Spanish language Drácula, a passion that often seems to be missing from the English language version. The English language version often seems to be going out of its way not to offend — the screen fades to black whenever Dracula starts to bite anyone, Jonathan Harker and Mina Seward are both portrayed rather dully, and, with the exception of Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward van Sloan, everyone seems to be a bit too restrained in their performances.
Perhaps because it was specifically being filmed for foreign distribution, the Spanish language Drácula is far less restrained. We see what Dracula actually does to his victims. We see Eva and Lucia’s ecstatic reactions to being bitten by the vampire. As oppose to Dracula, where everyone was very proper and very covered, Drácula embraces cleavage and moaning in the same way that, 20 years later, would make Hammer Studios famous. The actors in Drácula are far more passionate, emotional, and sensual than their English-language counterparts. They’re far more … well, Spanish. Spanish is an exciting language and it’s pretty much impossible for someone speaking it to be boring.
But, unfortunately, Drácula fails where it matters most. In the role of the count, Carlos Villarias never exhibits the charisma that we associate with the best Draculas. I get the feeling that he was mostly cast because he bore a passing resemblance to Bela Lugosi. Since he was instructed to imitate Lugosi, that’s what his performance comes across as being. While Villarias does a better Lugosi imitation than that guy that Ed Wood used in Plan Nine From Outer Space, it’s still just an imitation.
And unfortunately, you really can’t have a good Dracula film unless you have a good Dracula. In a perfect world, we would have a combination of the two versions, with Bela Lugosi starring in the Spanish version. However, we live in an imperfect world but at least it’s a world where we can watch both Dracula and Drácula.