DraculaFest: Drácula

As experiments go, few compare to a side-by-side review of Dracula and its companion piece, shot simultaneously on the same sets with a different crew and in Spanish. At first Drácula (1931) seems to share so much with its English counterpart they are indistinguishable in all but language. A few differences persist, however. Conventional wisdom among critics seems to consider the Spanish version superior. As we shall see, it’s not that simple.

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Son las criaturas de la noche. ¡Qué música tan maravillosa!

Storywise, both films work from the same script, adapted here by Baltasar Fernández Cué. Aside from a few name alterations (Mina becomes Eva, her fiancé swaps out Jonathan for Juan) this version serves up more of the same. When you’re talking about a cinematic classic, that’s not such a bad thing. Many differences boil down to camera placement, editing and the work of the cast. Drácula–hooray for diacritical distinction!–makes better use of the iconic sets, lingering on the massive stairs to examine cobwebs and allowing the actors to succumb to the negative space. Though legendary cinematographer Karl Freund didn’t man the camera for the night crew, the Spanish film benefits from his lighting setups and use of shadows. (Interviews indicate the alt-cast even hit the same marks on set as their English counterparts.) George Melford directs with a sure hand, holding his own against Tod Browning. The ending improves on the abrupt cutaway that marks The End of the English film, following Juan and Eva up the winding staircase and away from their tormentor. So far, so great.

The Spanish cast brings energy to its production, improving on several of the roles. Lupita Tovar enjoys herself as the ingénue Eva, torn between the vampire and her family. Barry Norton and Carmen Guerrero give more life to Juan and Lucía as they hassle with Eva in her struggle. The youngsters fare better than in Dracula. Pablo Álvarez Rubio offers a very different take on the madman Renfield that works fine, though it doesn’t quite match the seminal performance of Dwight Frye.

Who wants cake and ice cream?

Who wants cake and ice cream?

The only serious flaw in Drácula is, unfortunately, a doozie: the Count himself. Carlos Villarías mugs, apes and bulges his eyes as if entertaining at a children’s birthday party. Decades later he looks and acts disturbingly like Steve Carrell. He is neither scary nor menacing, which amounts to a serious problem. While Lugosi also played it over the top, he constructed a persona that worked so well it etched into the collective memory for generations. Villarías’ theatrics strike a very different chord; just try not to crack up when he gazes into that cigar box mirror, looking like he’s discovered a herniated disc. To be fair, it’s the overwrought style of the silent era, valid at the time but increasingly comical as film found its voice. In this central regard, Drácula falls flat in comparison to its English cousin.

Oh, that and no armadillos. The possum still scurries around the crypt in the Spanish version, but for some reason the armadillos didn’t make the cut. Heresy!

Drácula holds it own with Dracula in several important ways. Both are horror classics, and we are blessed with the opportunity to see what two production crews do with the same sets and material. A goofy Dracula is pretty hard to overcome, however, so the Spanish version remains a bit of a flawed masterpiece.

Drácula earns 1.5 out of 2 fangs out. ¡Muy fantástico!

Up next: Is Dracula Y2K compliant?

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