As we’ve seen, the first couple years of the 1930s were a unique period in film history. Never before or since has a studio — Universal, for example — gone to the same lengths to be more, well, universal; namely, by shooting the same film multiple times, in different languages. It was a good way to blow a lot of money and did not survive the pre-Code years. But thanks to the work of film preservationists, it’s possible to see some of the forgotten “alternate” films. Most notable of these, perhaps, is the Spanish-language version of Dracula. It appeared in theaters in April 1931, two months after the original — a film that hardly needs any introduction, but here goes anyway: Dracula, the movie that launched the horror genre in the sound era, the first official appearance on celluloid of the bloodsucking fiend who would become the most-portrayed fictional character in the medium’s history. As iconic as that film is, it had a twin. The crew of the Spanish-language film worked the night shift, using the same sets and having the actors hit some of the same marks as the original production did by day. Re-discovered and restored four decades later, the Spanish Dracula has since come to be regarded by some independent thinkers as the superior film.
Experimentation was a hallmark of the period in which these films appeared. Synchronized sound was still a new phenomenon, and integrating it into established film style was a process of trial-and-error. As many have pointed out, the Dracula films are free of non-diegetic music (outside of a snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the credits), for the simple reason that the interplay between music and dialogue was mostly unexplored territory. Musical “stingers” would come to the genre later, which is one reason why Dracula feels like a very different kind of horror compared to anything that came out post-Psycho. The deathly atmosphere is the defining characteristic. Count Dracula strides confidently through foggy London streets. He doesn’t need to hide, from the audience or his victims. The vampire is envisioned for the first time as an amalgam of Don Juan and Jack the Ripper, a monster in a wolf’s clothing. Meanwhile, the horror film is envisioned for the first time (in Hollywood, anyway) as the province of the supernatural, a genre that can stand on its own beguiling possibilities without being boosted by A-list stars. It can also cross language barriers, as was demonstrated from the very beginning.
The story goes that a kind of constructive rivalry emerged between the two productions. The “B-team” would see what the “A-team” had already done and try to improve upon it. The two Draculas follow the same script, adapted from the stage play (itself drawn from the 1897 Bram Stoker novel) wherein the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi landed on the role of his life. The productions shared an art director, recording supervisor and film editor, but otherwise there was no overlap. So, while they were intended to complement each other, they are distinct visions. The directors, Tod Browning and George Melford, were both veterans of the silent era and knew how to add visual interest to the dialogue-heavy scripts. Melford succeeds a little more; the Browning film remains mostly stiff and expository. But Browning’s cinematographer Karl Freund put in as many crane shots as he could, and his technique of shining lights on Lugosi’s eyes to represent their hypnotic power, while less chilling than harmlessly peculiar, is definitely memorable. Melford’s alternative is less distinctive but more potent. He uses tight close-ups of the widened eyes of his Dracula, Carlos Villarías. Where Lugosi is immovable, Villarías is aggressive. Lugosi’s seemingly effortless interpretation remains definitive, but his counterpart sometimes betrays the effort required to match him. Though Villarías falls short, his performance doesn’t drag the film down by any stretch.
The Spanish Dracula is about thirty minutes longer than its predecessor without adding any significant scenes. On the one hand, this makes Browning’s film vastly more efficient, covering all the ground it needs to without lingering anywhere. On the other hand, Melford allows his characters to breathe more, to think through what’s happening so that their actions don’t feel quite so perfunctory. Similarly to Anna Christie, the assumption seems to have been that foreign-language speakers would be less picky with suggestive material. Melford’s film features a close-up shot of the tell-tale puncture wounds; Browning’s does not. The entomophagy of Renfield, Dracula’s servant, is more prominent in the Spanish-language film. Dwight Frye and Pablo Álvarez Rubio are both excellent in that role. In this telling of the story, Renfield is an essential figure, tortured and unpredictable. He brings the two sides (Dracula and the Harkers along with Professor Van Helsing) into conflict with each other, and he inadvertently brings about the conflict’s resolution. The signature moment for each Renfield happens aboard the ship carrying Dracula from Transylvania to England. Rubio’s howling laughter through a porthole during a storm matches, and arguably surpasses, Frye’s feral grin at the foot of the stairs when the ill-fated ship reaches port.
It’s tempting to elevate the Spanish version over the original, because the story behind it is so interesting. The producer, Paul Kohner, was in love with the Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and campaigned to give her more roles in Hollywood. The female lead in the Spanish Dracula was one result. They married in 1932 and remained so until his death in 1988. As of this writing, Lupita Tovar, at 105 years old, is still among the living. Dracula hasn’t gotten her yet, as far as I know. But for all that, and considering that I still find Browning’s film a little underwhelming, I have to rate them about equally. The differences between the two films tend to be minor, sometimes amounting to no more than the decision to shoot a scene from the opposite angle. Neither film is the most engaging or transgressive version of the Dracula story, and both films benefit from the vertiginous castle sets, architecture that’s as ingrained in the genre as any monster. The better final shot, though, clearly belongs to the Spanish-language film. It’s a subtle difference that encapsulates a strikingly different mood. In the original film, we only see Harker and his soon-to-be-bride climbing stairs toward the light of day. In the second film, we see that and, at the foot of the stairs, Van Helsing looking down at Renfield’s corpse. This communicates so much more than a simple “happy ending.” Marriage and death — hope and despair — the young and pure finding a way to survive in the company of demons.