Director: George Melford
Screenplay: Baltasar Fernández Cué (based on the Bram Stoker novel and the theatrical play by John L. Balderston, Hamilton Deane and Garrett Fort)
Cast: Carlos Villarías (AS Conde Drácula); Lupita Tovar (as Eva); Barry Norton (as Juan Harker); Pablo Álvarez Rubio (as Renfield); Eduardo Arozamena (as Van Helsing)
Synopsis: Change the "a" to an accented one and you get the Spanish language version of the Universal horror film, shot at the same time at night whilst Tod Browning's more well known version with Bela Lugosi was being filmed before in the day. As with that film, Conde Dracula (Villarías) moves to England, terrorising Eva (Tovar) the fiancée of Juan Harker (Norton). However with the help of the wise Van Helsing (Arozamena) the Conte may have his comeuppance.
(Spanish) Dracula is certainly a curiosity which has blossomed into its own fan base, from a brief period when sound had been introduced into cinema where, instead of dubbing, it was viewed as wiser to film two versions of the same film in different languages. (One of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse films, the second, is another example of this). It's been a very long time since I viewed the Lugosi version, so attempting to compare the two would be misinformed, only a few things from memory visibly mirroring each other. (Spanish) Dracula however is noticeably longer in running time and, in a great irony considering the film was once thought lost, its seen as been superior because a) shooting at night time on the same Universal sets was seen as more atmospheric and, b) along with the longer running time, the Spanish production could learn from what was being done in the takes for the English version and change things. I cannot help, though my knowledge of this region of cinema is vague, but think of how this film would've been taken in Spain itself as well, and in a Spanish speaking country like Mexico if a print ever travelled down there, as even with this film the potential influence of horror films could've been significant.
It's peculiar watching a film where everyone in Transylvania and England are able to speak fluent Spanish, but this is as much an issue with how England is usually depicted with many of my ilk speaking without thick regional accents. If anything, here with (Spanish) Dracula as well as the other Universal horror movies the entire film exists in its own world, a monochrome filmed one where the sets from the English language version are immediately gothic and evocative of a place far removed from the viewer. The only regret with this film in terms of depicting the Dracula story is that, even if the film is nearly ninety minutes already, it skips through Dracula's castle almost completely, recasting Renfield (Rubio) as the one who travels to Transylvania to meet the Conte. Nonetheless the film still has a great deal of mood to it, of people walking between mist covered cemetery gates, to the ruin that Dracula occupies including a giant staircase that seems to lift up into the sky itself, able to feed viewers' imaginations of a vast environment on manmade, small ones.
There's a lot to like in the alternative casting in (Spanish) Dracula too. Not only do you have the very charismatic Lupita Tovar as Eva, the Mina role, but for the villains of the piece you have enough madness between them to fill a padded room. Though he's not Lugosi, Villarías does have suitably maniacal eyes which are wisely emphasised in extreme close-ups, and as for Reinfeld, I've now come across a candidate as the most deranged take on the character I've seen in an adaptation from Rubio. Whether he's laughing like a lunatic, shouting or switching between pleasantness and despair like a flipping coin, Rubio is special, his role so intense that the filming crew, in Tovar's post-film recollections, were worried he was cracking up for real.
At first jarring, there's no musical score at all during (Spanish) Dracula barring an orchestral piece in the beginning credits. This lack of non-diegetic music to tell you when to feel scared or react to anything onscreen is noticeable in its absence, instead the bare sound of what was recorded left. It does add a lot of atmosphere to moments of environment building, but it's something you have to soak up for a while if you grew up like I did with horror films that use music either perfectly or badly.
Also of surprise is that, while horror films still use a look of dialogue scenes now, (Spanish) Dracula contains a lot of dialogue and scenes of characters standing around having conversations. Even Dracula and Van Helsing during an intense point decided to have a chatter at one point. This in all honesty weakens the experience of watching the film, and that this alongside the English language version were based on a stage play adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel is possibly the cause of this. That said, if there's any defence of this, from my vague memories of the Browning adaptation it was just as weakened by these facts as well. Also by coincidental luck I've just seen a new horror documentary, Fear Itself (2015), and its comments on this type of dialogue proved to be inspired and apt with watching (Spanish) Dracula, that there's so much dialogue in films like it to ground their content, in fear of not knowing the cause of the terror preying on the characters if it wasn't explained. In fact the dialogue scenes developed a purpose in that once you pass them, the moments of creepiness and mood where Dracula prowls after victims become more meaningful. It's as if the ordinariness of the morally good characters with their lengthy dialogues scenes get briefly cut down by the fear of what's after them. In fact in one case, due to a good performance in the scene from Tovar, a lengthy conversation turns into the worse when someone is suspiciously too bright and optimistic for what has happened to them.
Abstract Spectrum: Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing of mention, but even if covering an unconventional choice for a Universal horror movie, these films have had an incredible and profound influence on both horror cinema and also the types of cinema I cover on this site. The Universal films have created an entire aesthetic that will have even inspired underground avant-garde works with the symbolism used to depict the like of Frankenstein's monster to Dracula. The images here of dank, shadow covered environments are also visibly influenced by German Expressionism as well, the trail of a family tree to be found that also contains the more abstract horror films I've watched over the years and would appear on this blog.
There're certainly flaws in pacing, but I cannot help but find (Spanish) Dracula charming and also rewarding. It's not a scary film now, but like Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002), it's now more about the gothic mood of the story in this interpretation that captivates you, like a feint chill of a night's wind on the back of your bared neck. It's also nice to see this version of Dracula for the first time. Each of the (good) ones I've seen, from this to Francis Ford Coppola's, have all had their unique personalities, and after years of presumably being lost forever, (Spanish) Dracula was preserved and made available in all the recent Universal horror box sets even if as an extra. Appropriately, some suggest this is the superior version of the two versions made in 1931, even if the English version had Lugosi, something which I'll have to decide upon myself when I revisit that version at some point.