Spanish ‘Dracula’ splendid, but inferior to Lugosi ‘Dracula’
Watching the Spanish-language ‘Dracula’ on the big screen was a marvelous experience, for it is a splendid film. But seeing it with the Tod Browning-directed, Bela Lugosi-starring iconic “Dracula” reinforces how much more effective that film is. Browning understood what George Melford, the director of the other “Dracula,” did not — that subtlety was the key to the movie’s immortal impact.
The Spanish “Dracula” is 104 minutes, much longer than Browning’s film. Browning excised much of the film’s dialogue, particularly the Count’s. He understood that Count Dracula was other-worldly, one who had lived for centuries. He moves slowly, talks slowly, always deliberate, often ironic, speaking symbolically, as Lugosi does. The Spanish Conde (Carlos Villarias) moves quickly, with exaggerated motions and often prattles on. He’s of the world, and hence less mysterious.
Also, the horror elements of the Spanish “Dracula” are sometimes forced, laid on the audience. Browning understood that subtlety was needed in conveying the horror of the vampire. “Dracula,” after all, is a G-rated film. To maintain its impact, our imagination must add to what’s on the screen. When “Conde Dracula” prattles on to doomed Renfield, there’s nothing subtle. When Count Dracula merely explains, the spider spinning a web to catch an unwary fly, we fully understand, and internalize, that it’s a metaphor of the Count and Renfield.
Scenes go on too long in the Spanish “Dracula,” particularly the interrogation of Renfield by Professor Van Helsing. Also, most of the acting, in the Spanish “Dracula” fails compared to Browning’s more contained, better-edited cast. There’s too much facial mugging and hysterics in the Spanish version. Browning’s restrained touch captures a more sinister mood than Melford’s “action.”
But I did say the Spanish “Dracula” is splendid; it is, but it’s better appreciated free of the fiction that it’s superior to the iconic Lugosi film. Its best feature is the beautiful Lupita Tovar as heroine Eva Seward. She’s a compelling mixture of virginal sweetness transformed to sexual attraction, particularly in the balcony scene. A late shot of her laying on a stone stairwell, hair cascading downward, is breathtaking; the best shot in both films. Incredibly, Tovar, 20 in the film, still lives today at 105 years old.