Halloween Endurance Test: Dracula (1931; Spanish version)

“Soy Dracula.” Has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it?

After decades of reading about how superior the Spanish version of Dracula is, this year I finally managed to nab a copy. In truth, the Spanish version is clearly better, stretching from the overall direction to the lighting.

Using the same sets, and the same script, the Spaniards outshine Browning’s production on almost every level. The only obvious flaw is Lugosi’s absence, who, due to his year’s spent playing the role on-stage, predictably delivered a commanding performance. A fact made most obvious in the living room scene, where Dracula is confronted with his lack of reflection. The Spanish version’s hit is spectacular, with Dracula smashing the cigarette box with his cane. But Lugosi’s timing is better, as he barely glances at the box. As soon as he sees there’s no reflection he immediately smacks it. Yet one man doesn’t make a movie, even one as iconic as Bela Lugosi, and this movie is eminently more watchable.

First off, the sets. While the sets are the same, as well as the marks the actors used, the direction is anything but. Director George Melford has a fluid style, moving the camera in and out, weaving it between the ruins of Carfax Abbey. Certainly not on a Sam Raimi-esque “shaky cam” level, but apparent enough in that you’ll notice an immediate difference in what should be similar scenes.

Next, the lighting. DP George Robinson manages to provide “depth” to the scenes; allowing the (occasionally cheap-looking) sets a modicum of respectability. This also made the contrasts sharper, a definite asset when shooting a film in black and white.

The next noticeable difference are the costumes. According to Lupita Tovar, who played Mina/Eva Seward, the Spaniards were shocked to discover just how conservative the American casts’ dress was. One doesn’t have to wait for Hammer films to glamorize the plunging neckline, as Director Melford did it here; thirty-odd years earlier.

Lastly, Renfield. Whereas Bela Lugosi clearly outshines Carlos Villar, the Spanish Renfield blows his American counterpart out of the water. In the English Dracula, Renfield always struck me as a slightly less sane Jonathan/Juan Harker. This is possibly due to the script having Renfield visit Transylvania for Harker in the beginning. The same script tomfoolery happens here, but Renfield can scream here. Screeching as one would imagine an asylum inmate would.

“God will not condemn the soul of a poor madman.”

It’s nice to know all those good things I read about this film were actually true.

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