Almost from the moment of its emergence from ‘lost film’ purgatory in the early 90s, it has become received wisdom among many horror fans and cinéastes that George Melford’s Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931) is actually the superior film to Tod Browning’s celebrated original. Despite its magnificent opening third, Browning’s film itself is generally held in adulation less for what it actually contains and more for what it stands for: being the first ‘purely’ supernatural American horror film, or at least the first film to be referred to as such, and unequivocally the catalyst of the genre’s first ‘Golden Age’ of talking pictures from which we’re still feeling the reverberations to this day.
However, while such estimations of relative quality are of course for the most part subjective, a close look at the two versions, perhaps unsurprisingly, finds that matters are by no means so clear-cut. For the uninitiated, the ‘Spanish Dracula’, more accurately Drácula, was an alternative version produced for the then-lucrative Spanish-speaking market (it premièred in Cuba just under a month after the US version debuted in New York), using the same sets and script, with completely different sets of actors and crew working a ‘graveyard shift’ after their counterparts had clocked off for the night. While nominally produced by Carl Leammle, Jnr like its progenitor, this work was in fact undertaken by Paul Kohner (The Man Who Laughs, 1927), who would eventually marry the female lead, Lupita Tovar. Taking the director’s chair was George Melford, an erstwhile actor who, despite not speaking the language, had been overseeing the bulk of Universal’s Spanish language output, including a version of the lost film The Cat Creeps (1930), La Voluntad del muerto, also starring Tovar. Legend has it that the crew watched the rushes of the Browning film before starting work every night, and were resolved to improve on what they saw there.
Since Universal finally exhumed Melford’s version in 1992, the big revelation is that, far from being a shot-for-shot retread with different actors hitting the marks, it very much possesses an identity and atmosphere of its own, and in a number of ways represents a more ‘cinematic’ experience than Browning’s infamously stagy (and stodgy) production. One of the first things to strike the viewer is the much longer running time – Melford’s version runs at 104 minutes as opposed to the original version’s slender 75. It does perhaps go without saying that it inherits by default the major problem that hampers the Lugosi version; namely that after the sublime first reels the proceedings are bogged down with padding and limited to a few indoor sets. This being the case, the fact that Melford’s version is so much longer may not necessarily be a good thing, but it does lead to few surprises.
Even the opening titles ring the changes, with the stylised bat graphic of the English version replaced by a live-action shot of a flickering candle surrounded by cobwebs. As Tom Weaver has put it, this brings the suggestion that “this version itself is more real and immediate, something strangely more alive.” Then, as the hapless Renfield (here Spanish actor Pablo Álvarez Rubio) journeys to Castle Drácula, we find a more animated group of extras, along with a number of new shots along the way, including one with an ominous bonfire burning by the roadside.
However, one of the most frequently commented on shots comes where Renfield first encounters this version’s Drácula, in the form of Carlos Villarías (listed as ‘Carlos Villar’ in the credits). To see this most iconic of movie moments rendered differently is one thing. To see it actually improved upon is another. As in the original, Renfield is distracted by a bat and turns around to see our Count at the top of the stairs, a huge spider’s web forming his darkly beautiful backdrop. But whereas in the original this was all but static, here we have a magnificent crane shot following Renfield’s sight line in rushing up to meet Drácula, candle held aloft, with a disconcertingly toothy grin fixed on his face. The extra impact Melford’s camera movements have on the scene is immeasurable. The original seems almost moribund in comparison.
For all this, though, the same cannot be said for the moment when we the viewers first spy the Count, emerging from his coffin in the castle’s crypt. Despite the fact we have the exciting bonus of smoke rising from the coffin with Villarías as he steps out, we sorely miss the original version’s sublime and historic camera move towards Lugosi, wrapped in his cape, glaring balefully and seductively out at us through the fourth wall. However, for the most part, the camerawork does seem generally more fluid and ‘alive’ in Melford’s version, and as such constitutes one of the main arguments of those who would declare it the ‘better’ film. It is often considered that Browning and the other key figures in the making of original version deliberately kept the action relatively ‘stagy’ to ameliorate the horror; to highlight the narrative’s artifice out of trepidation around how audiences would receive this new kind of film. Melford and his crew, it appears, had no such compunctions.
Another major advantage that Drácula enjoys is its leading lady, Lupita Tovar, as this film’s ‘Mina Seward’, here renamed ‘Eva’. She outshines the original’s Helen Chandler in every way. The obvious passion she brings to the part not only enlivens every scene that she’s in, but also makes the sexual overtones of the situation more fully apparent. The female cast in general are far less reserved than their English-speaking counterparts, as one might expect bringing a dose of Latino passion to the proceedings, cliché or no. Helen Chandler’s vampirised Mina appears a somnambulist next to blood-loved-up Eva. Compounding this sensual state of affairs massively is another result of differing Latino mores – less strict censorship sees the female cast dressed in far more revealing, sexier clothes. Their wardrobe here would have raised eyebrows in pre-Hays code Hollywood, never mind in 1930s London.
While Drácula‘s ‘Juan’ Harker (Barry Norton) is equally as dull as his equivalent David Manners (and sports some ridiculous trousers to boot), Pablo Álvarez Rubio’s Renfield is another stand-out. While ultimately not as good as Dwight Frye in the role, he certainly throws himself wholeheartedly into it, that’s for sure. “We thought he was going to go crazy,” recalled Tovar, in a filmed introduction for the DVD release. However, his demented laughter when coming up the steps of the Vesta’s hold isn’t anywhere near as hauntingly, blood-curdlingly memorable as Frye’s. Frye will always remain the definitive Renfield.
But what of Conde Drácula himself, Carlos Villarías? Aside from this version’s inherited plot problems and unnecessary extra length, here lieth the major rub. While Lugosi’s iconic performance itself isn’t perfect – he’d refine his ‘Dracula’ more in later entries like Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Return of the Vampire (1943) and even, yes, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – Villarías, unfortunately, comes across as a pale pantomime imitation. To the viewer of the Browning film, Lugosi is Dracula; not an actor but a mesmerising supernatural creature himself. Aside from in the early scenes, the film only really ignites when he is on the screen. Villarías pulls lots of faces, including a rather silly fixed grin from time to time, but has nothing of Lugosi’s sensual animal magnetism. His face often resembles nothing so much as that of the drink-and-drug-addled Nicholas Cage of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).
Without the iconic presence of Lugosi at its core, Melford’s Drácula feels as though it’s had a huge hole punched through its middle, its main ‘special effect’ subtracted from the mix. To declare Melford’s version to be ‘hands down’ the superior film seems in this light a fairly specious argument, even if it does outshine Browning’s in a number of other respects. Of course the greatest version, as is often suggested, would be a combination of the best elements of the two, but all we can do is enjoy each one separately for its own respective merits. Both are deeply flawed and both remain a joy to watch. And, well, is it really necessary to decide categorically which one stands superior? All things considered, the only people likely to seek out and watch Melford’s version will be already admirers (or at least critics) of the Lugosi version, viewing it in terms of what is done better by Melford’s cast and crew and what isn’t. It’s an alternative version and hence will only ever be seen in terms of its relationship to its progenitor. The Browning Dracula will always remain the ‘definitive article’ for its status as a key artefact of twentieth-century culture and the history of cinema. Poor pacing, flaccid off-screen death scene and all.