In 1930, Universal Pictures faced an emerging problem. “Talkies” had just surpassed silent cinema as the industry standard, and though sound promised previously unrealized potential for movies, it also promised to shrink audiences. Silent movies were universal in a way films spoken in one language couldn’t be, and dubbing a film into different languages was nigh-impossible in an era where managing to synch sound and image in one language was still novel. Fearing a substantial loss in foreign audiences, Universal did the only reasonable thing and decided to make the same movies twice: once in English and again in Spanish. Filmed on the same sets at night with an all hispanic and latino cast after the now iconic Bela Lugosi film had wrapped filming for the day, Spanish language Dracula is more than just an oddity of the early sound era, it’s a worthy rival to its English counterpart that, in places, surpasses it.
Spanish Dracula follows the plot of its Bela Lugosi equivalent: Conde Dracula (Carlos Villarías) of Transylvania, with the aid of his spider-munching associate Renfield (Carlos Álvarez Rubio) buys an Abbey on the English coast and begins preying on an unwitting populace. When his evil designs turn to the young Eva (Lupita Tovar) and Lucía (Carmen Guerrero), it’s up to Juan Harker (Barry Norton) and Professor Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) to destroy the vampire. While the script the American one translated to Spanish and the basic blocking and staging are the same, the way Spanish Dracula differs is where it commands the attention of film buffs. The unseen benefit of the film’s nocturnal shooting schedule was that the crew got the opportunity to view the dailies from filming of the English language version and make improvements. The camera swoops dramatically through the halls of Castle Dracula in ways that the comparatively stagey English version doesn’t. The German Expressionist-tinged cinematography of the more famous movie is done one better in just about every shot of the Spanish version. Where many shots in Tod Browning’s English production often feel reminiscent of silent horror greats, the shots in George Melford’s Spanish production feel inventive, daring, and frequently ahead of their time.
With a different cast and different language naturally comes a different approach to acting. Frequently, the acting is broader and more exaggerated than Lugosi’s. Dracula contort his face into wild, emotive expressions, and so does the stoic Van Helsing. This serves some actors better than others. Carlos Villarías, undisputed master of Vampire crazy eyes, has the misfortune of being a pretty good Dracula in the shadow of the most iconic Dracula ever. It’d take a bolder (or at least a clickbait friendly) writer to mount an argument that Villarías’ take surpasses Bela Lugosi’s, but his differences make him unique. To be frank, Villarías isn’t sexy the way Lugosi’s Dracula is, opting instead to be a figure of unease, making unnatural expressions, his face contorting into masks of emotion that would rival the 1,000 faces of Lon Chaney. When his face is cast in deep shadow, as the cinematography frequently does, it takes on a monstrousness unique to Villarías. The MVP of the production is Carlos Álvarex Rubio as perfectly unhinged a Renfield as there has ever been. The transition from mannered Englishman to bug-eyed, teeth-gnashing lunacy essentially gives Rubio two roles to play, and in the latter he particularly excels. When Dracula is still a creature biding his time in the shadows, it’s Rubio as Renfield that is the film’s most chilling monster, his shouting blood-curdling and wild fits made even more chilling by his momentary dips back into sanity. Eva is as underwritten as Mina usually is, but Lupita Tovar brings presence and some weight to a role that is written mostly as an excuse for Harker and Van Helsing to spring into Dracula-slaying action. Like most versions before and after, Harker has the charisma of unbuttered toast.
Being shot from the same script as its English counterpart unfortunately means that Spanish Dracula is mired with the same uneven pacing. Like a lot of early sound films, there’s ironically a lot silence, as even seasoned directors adjust to filming in sound. As consequence, scenes are frequently stationary and can feel a bit airless. Expect a lot of characters sitting in parlors talking no matter which version you watch.While the more dynamic cinematography and the more outsized acting alleviate this a bit, Dracula can still make for slow watching.
The Spanish language version of Dracula feels like it should be more than the trivia question it too frequently presented as. It’s strikingly filmed and very much stands as its own movie. While it lacks the crucial element of Bela Lugosi at its center, it more than makes up for it with its distinct vision and interpretation of the story. While it never got to be the cultural touchstone it could have been, its availability as a feature on most DVD and Blu Ray copies of the English Dracula as well as a renewed interest in screenings and broadcasts of the film gives some hope that Villarías‘ Dracula, too, shall rise from the grave.