Language was no barrier to Hollywood in the silent era: title cards were easily translated from English. When sound began to roar, Hollywood began to fear the loss of its foreign markets--and so, for a brief time, the studios occasionally produced two versions of certain films, one in English and one in another language, most often German or Spanish. Such was the case with the 1931 Dracula.
According to film historian and author David J. Skal, producer Paul Kohner fell in love with Mexican-born actress Lupita Tovar (they later married), and his romantic interest prompted the suggestion that she star in a Spanish-language version of the film. When the English language cast wrapped for the day, the Spanish language cast arrived and worked through the night using the same sets.
Most of Hollywood's foreign-language duplicates were forgotten as quickly as they were released, but the Spanish Dracula would be the exception. Todd Browning, who directed the English language film starring Bela Lugosi, was extremely uncomfortable with sound technology. While the first fifteen minutes or so his film are exceptional, the movie thereafter becomes a filmed stage play--and a very choppy and rather unimaginative stage play at that. Instead of simply duplicating Browning's set-ups, producer Kohner and director George Melford set out to best him, and when the Spanish version debuted most viewers declared it greatly superior to the English version.
And in many respects it is. Whereas Browning's version is visually flat and rather slow, the Spanish Dracula is visually exciting, and although it is considerably longer than the English version the pace never drags. It also has it all over the Browning version in terms of editing, and it has a cohesion the Browning version completely lacks. The supporting cast is also quite fine, with Lupita Tovar a standout, easily besting Helen Chandler's remarkably tiresome performance in the English version.
But the Spanish Dracula has a problem, and it's a big one: actor Carlos Villarias, billed here as Carlos Villar. Villarias had a respectable film career throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but he met his match in Dracula; where Lugosi intoned, snarled, and endowed the vampire with an elegant evil, Villarias goes through the film with a series of expressions that lead one to believe he has just encountered an overflowing toilet. His flaring nostrils and disgusted glances are so incredibly out of place that they quickly become unintentionally hilarious.
Lugosi's performance, of course, is generally considered the ultimate statement of the role, and with good reason. In a perfect world, we would be able to snatch Villarias out of the Spanish Dracula and insert Lugosi in his place; the result would be a truly amazing film from start to finish. As it is, however, we are stuck with Villarias, and frankly he bites.
The VHS release of the Spanish Dracula is out of print, but the film is available on the same disk with the Universal release of the more widely known Todd Browning version. By and large the film quality is remarkably good; it has not, however, received a digital remaster, and at least one of the reels would greatly benefit from it. If you are a fan of 1930s horror, you'll find it more than worth the effort, but I suspect more casual viewers will be reduced to hysterical laughter by the Villarias performance.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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