Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) is rightly hailed as a horror classic while the Spanish-language version directed by George Melford was assumed lost and went largely unseen by modern audiences following its initial release until it was restored and distributed on home video in 1992.
Among horror buffs there’s been much debate about which version of DRACULA is superior and when I watched them back-to-back again recently I found myself making a case for each in my head but both films have much to recommend them. Browning’s DRACULA is one of the most beloved horror films of all time and is in no danger of losing its regal position in the Universal Horror pantheon but in the words of film historian David J. Skal and author of Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, watching the Spanish language DRACULA is “Like discovering fascinating new rooms in a familiar old house.”
Both film adaptations have a wonderfully macabre and menacing atmosphere that can still unsettle audiences but they differ in numerous ways. History tells us that both pictures were based on the hugely successful 1924 Dracula stage play produced by Horace Liveright while taking plenty of inspiration from F. W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922) and shot back-to-back at Universal Studios with 23-year-old wunderkind Carl Laemmle Jr. overseeing the productions. Browning’s DRACULA was filmed in the daytime hours and Melford filmed at night. This gave Melford the opportunity to study Browning’s directing choices and duplicate or alter them as he saw fit. The outcome was two exceptional films with different strengths.
The Spanish language DRACULA is a highly stylized picture that benefits from George Melford’s creative direction. It includes impressive scene compositions, sweeping crane shots and the generous use of fog effects that engulf Dracula every time he rises from his coffin. The director also streamlined the script by tying up loose ends that seemed to dangle like mysterious threads in Browning’s film adding another 30 minutes to his final cut. In comparison, Browning’s direction appears somewhat static (some blame cinematographer Karl Freund for this and he is often credited as a second director) but his film is equally dramatic and the brisk pacing keeps things lively while the nebulous script allows the audience’s imagination to run wild.
Melford’s DRACULA is also an overtly sexier and brasher film where the female vamps wear reveling lingerie and their long locks look like wild manes while Browning’s DRACULA benefits from its sexual ambiguity that transforms the Count into a genuine creature of the night whose prey includes both men and women. But the films different strengths might be most apparent in the casting.
Browning’s film starred Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan. The two men would eventually have essential roles in many Universal horror films and replay the roles of Count Dracula and Van Helsing that they had popularized on the New York stage. At 6’1” Lugosi was an imposing figure and his awe-inspiring performance as Dracula generates genuine fear. His throaty Hungarian accent sounded particularly exotic to American ears and in 1931 audiences swooned and trembled at the mere sight of him. Edward Van Sloan makes an acute Van Helsing and their costars included the undistinguished David Manners as Johnathan Harker and a rather sedate and vulnerable Helen Chandler as Mina.
Besides Lugosi’s iconic turn as Dracula, the most striking performance in the film belongs to the indelible Dwight Frye, another important recurring figure in Universal horror films, who plays the doomed Renfield. Frye gives a spectacularly ghoulish and off-kilter performance accompanied by an unnerving laugh that can still send chills down your spine.
The cast of Melford’s film was made up of accomplished Spanish speaking actors from different countries who spoke with varying dialects including Spain’s Carlos Villarías and Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Dracula and Renfield, Argentina’s Barry Norton as Harker and Mexico’s Eduardo Arozamena and Lupita Tovar as Van Helsing and Eva aka Mina. Since Melford could not speak Spanish himself, he had to rely on an interpreter to relay his directions to the cast but they benefited from being able to watch the day’s filming or look at rushes and take cues from their Hollywood counterparts.
Generally speaking, the cast is very good but falls short when compared to the cast of the English language DRACULA. This is particularly noticeable in Carlos Villarías’s interpretation of Dracula, which can seem somewhat comical at times. He simply does not have Lugosi’s powerful screen presence or his command of the role. If you have ever questioned Lugosi’s acting skills watching his performance as Dracula back-to-back with Villarías’s will make you a Bela believer.
Pablo Álvarez Rubio interpretation of Renfield also cannot match Dwight Frye’s. Frye is twice as menacing and appears genuinely disturbed while Rubio’s performance occasionally feels like a second-rate ham-fisted reproduction. The one performance in Spanish DRACULA that truly stands out belongs to the talented Mexican-American actress Lupita Tovar as Eva aka Mina. While Helen Chandler played the role close to the bone, Lupita Tovar’s uninhibited performance is a revelation. She is passionate and provocative, bringing a real ferocity and unmatched feral beauty to the part that makes me wish she’d been cast in the English language version as well. Tovar and Lugosi would have made a compelling and potent screen duo.
Interestingly, Tovar and Lugosi did appear in an earlier film together titled THE VEILED WOMAN (1929) that is believed to be lost. The actress additionally starred in George Melford’s Spanish language version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY aka LA VOLUNTAD DEL MUERTO(1930), the prototype for “old dark house” films, which is also thought to be lost. These credits make Tovar a fascinating but illusive figure in classic horror films. With her long tousled black locks and savage grin she is a stunning predecessor of modern day scream queens.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on October 22, 2015 (written for the Turner Classic Movies screen presentation of Dracula in association with Fathom Events)