“Algo peor que la muerte acecha a los mortales.”
Yes, you read that title right. There was a Spanish language version of Dracula. It premiered a couple months after the Lugosi movie, but lacks the widespread acclaim and public awareness of its counterpart. Once thought lost, a print was discovered in the 1970s. The film has been reevaluated over the years, with some even saying it’s better than the Lugosi version. I say that’s only sort of true.
By the time today’s film was being made in 1931, the headaches of transitioning to the sound era hadn’t gone away. Silent films are an adaptable and universal form of entertainment. Since there wasn’t dialogue outside the occasional title card, it was visuals that got stories, characters, ideas, and emotions across to global audiences.
It didn’t matter if Charlie Chaplin couldn’t speak a world of Italian. His Little Tramp could make moviegoers all across Venice, Rome and Florence laugh and cry. When sound came, this wasn’t the case in English speaking Hollywood. This universal medium was now severely limited.
One would think studios would turn to dubbing or subtitling to save their worldwide profits. Poor technology in both arenas, though, made this impractical for the time being.
So up until around the early-to-mid-1930s, Hollywood (and European studios experiencing the same problems with international distribution) produced alternative language versions of a number of their films.
Sometimes, like in the case of Laurel and Hardy pictures, this meant getting English speaking actors to memorize lines in French, German, Italian or Spanish and having them say the lines themselves.
In other cases, it meant hiring an entirely different cast and crew to produce a foreign language version simultaneously with the English one. This is what happened with today’s film.
Shot at night on the same sets as the Browning production and working off the same script, Drácula’s story is identical to its English counterpart.
Renfield, a solicitor from England played by Pablo Alvarez Rubio, has traveled to the old-fashioned and superstitious Transylvania to close a deal with the mysterious Count Dracula (Carlos Villarías).
Dracula has leased Carfax Abbey in London and plans to travel there the following night. Renfield finds out too late that the strange man is a horrible vampire and is turned into Dracula’s crazed servant.
And blah, blah, blah. You know the rest. The two travel to London on a boat, Dracula killing everyone on board. Renfield gets locked up in Dr. Seward’s Sanitarium. Dracula becomes obsessed with turning Seward’s daughter Eva (this version’s Mina, played by Lupita Tovar) and her friend Lucía Weston (Carmen Guerrer) into fellow creatures of the night. Standing in Dracula’s way are Seward (José Soriano Viosca), Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and Professor Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena).
It’s intriguing to see how two different directors handle the same shooting script. Director George Melford took advantage of the English version shooting before him by regularly looking at the dailies. This allowed him to see what was and wasn’t working, and he made changes and improvements accordingly.
The biggest difference in the two productions is the camera. Like I said yesterday, Browning was partial to mostly static staging. This was unfortunate for the lauded silent film director because it made his film feel far too stage-like. Not something you typically want in a big screen production. Melford employs not only a mobile camera but overall better camera positioning and angles than the English version.
The far more dynamic filming is complemented by a clearer three-act structure not present in the Browning movie. This is partially due to the script remaining more intact in the Spanish version, Browning having cut bits of it out for one reason or another.
With 104 minutes to work with as opposed to 75 minutes, Drácula has more time to take it slow and develop its story. Sadly, Drácula also has more time to take it slow and develop its story.
This movie may have all three acts but my God is it slow going. It just plods on…and on…and on……and ON. By about an hour in, I was hoping the darn thing would just end already.
Maybe I would’ve enjoyed the experience more if the film had been atmospheric and even a tiny bit frightening. It’s not.
Drácula suffers the same fate as its predecessor in that the opening section in Transylvania – with its loud, chilling, creaking doors not present in the Browning film and its overall better atmosphere – is really the only remotely unnerving section of the whole film. Like with the Browning version, once we get to London, it’s mostly dull, brightly lit sitting rooms and offices in the sanitarium.
At least the characters might be interesting, right?…Right? Wrong. There are two styles of acting in this movie. So boring and lifeless that you forget the characters even exist and so over-the-top that you can’t take them seriously.
To be fair, the English version lacked a great cast, as well. The only bright spots in Browning’s movie were Van Helsing, Renfield, and Dracula. Here Renfield isn’t just crazy. He’s CRAZYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!
Renfield’s fits of manic laughter are loud and not the least bit convincing. The conflicted, tortured nature of the character isn’t nearly as well played by Rubio, and the subtlety of Dwight Frye’s performance is mostly absent. Van Helsing is completely uninteresting and too often wears a quizzical look, whether the scene calls for it or not.
Villarías was told to make his performance as Legosi-like as possible and was the only actor in the Spanish cast allowed to watch the Browning dailies. Well, let me tell you, Villarías is no Legosi.
Gone are the fun line readings and strange charisma. They’re replaced with bulging eyes and a ridiculously camp smile. His acting, and that of the rest of the cast, was on the level of a VERY amateurish local theater group that would make grade school plays look like Tony Award winning productions.
So the big question: is this better than the English version? Drácula is certainly technically better than its English counterpart and the story comes across a lot better. But man, does it lack energy and interesting characters. They ruin the film, because what does it matter if your story is good if there’s no life to it?