Dracula (1931) – is the Spanish language version superior?

When Bela Lugosi and friends retired home after each day of filming of seminal horror film Dracula, the stages and sets were anything but deserted. In fact, they were alive with other actors and crew members – those filming the Spanish language version of the film.

It was common practice for studios to film foreign language versions of films on the same stages and sets as their English language counterparts, although most of these alternate versions have now been lost. The Spanish version of Dracula, however, still remains and is considered by many to be the better film.

It might be hard to imagine that two virtually identical films could produce vastly different results, but there are clear, distinct differences between the two that set them apart. But is the Spanish language version better, as has been suggested by many?

Production

Dracula (1931) Spanish posterOne of the most obvious differences is the production values. Despite the Spanish version having a smaller budget, it succeeds in being shot better and has significantly tighter editing. The English language version suffers from some shoddy editing at times, with awkward cuts to and from people’s faces, but there are much fewer issues in the Spanish version. The Spanish crew (and Carlos Villarías; the other cast weren’t permitted) were allowed to watch the other version being filmed and would look at what Lugosi et al were doing and challenge themselves to do it better, giving themselves a significant advantage over their English speaking counterparts. There are still fake, plastic bats bobbing around, but on the whole, the Spanish film feels a lot better put together.

This leads to the narrative being much clearer for the most part. For example, the scene where Van Helsing discovers Dracula doesn’t have a reflection is given a little more screen time and, as such, is much easier to understand and is much more dramatic. Furthermore, a criticism of the English language version is that we don’t really know what happens to Lucy after she gets turned into a Vampire; it’s left that she’s off around London killing children. However, the Spanish film shows Van Helsing coming back from apparently staking Lucia (as she’s known) and putting a stop to her evil deeds.

Dracula’s introduction is also better shot in the Spanish version. Renfield (who, in both versions, takes much of Harker’s role from the book) arrives at his castle but his unaware of his presence. The English version shows Dracula creeping down the stairs which, in theory, could be very effective but doesn’t convey the potential danger Renfield is in. The Spanish version shows Dracula just appear at the top of the stairs as if from nowhere. This makes for a much more dramatic and eerie entrance and establishes his mythos much more effectively.

Dracula himself

Bela Lugosi is thought to be, by many, the definitive Dracula. Both Christopher Lee (1958) and Gary Oldman (1992) have done decent turns as the Count, but it’s Lugosi who was the first to don a cape and the first to give him that iconic accent. Of course, he is not present in the Spanish film, instead Carlos Villarías is given the task of bringing Bram Stoker’s creation to life. Villarías does an adequate job and, indeed, his acting is generally not as hammy as Lugosi’s, but there is just something not quite right about him. He doesn’t have the charisma of Lugosi, he doesn’t have the same piercing stare and, with the film being in Spanish, we lose that accent altogether. Villarías comes across as more comical and less threatening, which does detract from Dracula’s intimidating persona. Combine the two and you’d have a perfect Dracula.

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi

Carlos Villarias

Carlos Villarias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing is believing

With many horror films, it’s often said that what we don’t see is more effective than what we do see. Here, however, that is not the case. The English language version is much more reserved on what it shows the audience. For instance, we never see anyone bitten; the screen always fades to black before we get that far. However, the Spanish version keeps the shot that bit longer, allowing us to see what Dracula does to his victims. Granted, he’s covered by his cape or whatever else, but we still get more of a sense of what’s going on. Similarly, when Renfield gets his comeuppance, instead if the screen just fading to black once more, Dracula actually throttles him and throws him from the staircase. Allegedly, the studio didn’t want to show the interaction between Dracula and Renfield in the English language version as they were worried there would be too many homosexual connotations.

The female characters are also portrayed very differently in the Spanish film. They are dressed much more provocatively, giving the film a more sexual edge, particularly in the case of Eva (Mina in the English version) and Dracula’s wives. The Spanish version sees the wives attack Renfield, whereas the English version has Dracula shoo them away so he can have Renfield for himself. This sexualisation is something that has always gone hand in hand with Dracula and vampires in general, so it gives the Spanish film a much more faithful feel to it.

So which is better?

Of course, this essentially comes down to personal preference. Both versions suffer in the second half of the film; there are far fewer locations, which does lead it to drag in places. The Spanish version, having a longer running time, falls victim of this moreso than the English language version, although the narrative is more cohesive as a result. The Spanish film has more atmosphere and is generally more unsettling (neither are particularly frightening by today’s standards), in part due to the higher production values.

However, the Spanish version’s biggest downfall is not having Lugosi in the title role. Carlos Villarías is fine as Dracula but he doesn’t have the menace or the sexuality of Lugosi. Dracula is supposed to be able to seduce his victims as much as prey on them and that just doesn’t come across with Villarías. The recommendation is to see both, as it’s interesting to see how the two stack up against each other. If the English language version could have had the narrative and production of the Spanish, or the Spanish version steal Lugosi for itself, then an ideal combination would be the result.

Words: Chris Thomson

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15 thoughts on “Dracula (1931) – is the Spanish language version superior?

  1. I agree that Lugosi makes the superior version, I just watched the Lugosi one the other night and started the Spanish version right after, it’s a neat sidepiece but I didn’t think Villarias could carry the picture as well.

    • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop says:

      Lugosi does make up for the things the film doesn’t do so well. He just embodies Dracula so much more than Villarias, even if his acting is a little hammy at times. I just think Villarias sometimes looks as if he’s doing a parody of Dracula.

      • AndyWatchesMovies says:

        Yeah, it’s in his eyes or something. They seem wild, but not like a wild animals, just like a wild…guy.

  2. Nice review and comparison, Chris. I really want to check both out.

    • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop says:

      Thanks man, there’s parts in which they haven’t aged well but that’s to be expected. It’s interesting to see the differences in such similar films.

  3. Interesting read, Chris; I don’t think I was ever even aware that there was a Spanish version. Now I might check it out after I see the English one (which is still on my watchlist.)

    • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop says:

      To be honest, I wasn’t aware until that long ago myself, it’s barely mentioned in the same breath as the English language one. The Spanish version was thrown in as an extra on the Blu ray, if it wasn’t I doubt I’d have checked it out.

  4. vinnieh says:

    Great post, I dind’t know there was a Spanish version. I’m curious to see what it’s like now.

    • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop says:

      Well, to be honest, it’s very similar to the English language one! But there are some interesting differences, so it’s worth checking it out.

  5. Interesting write-up of these two versions. I do enjoy both but for different reasons. Thanks for writing this.

  6. M. P. Sloane says:

    If there’s one single aspect of the English language Dracula that I accept without reservation, it is Lugosi. Lacking Lugosi, the Spanish language Dracula may have direction and camera work a few notches better than the Browning version. But lacking the main ingredient of the original, this doesn’t really matter.

  7. Ruben says:

    The accent is still there, even in the Spanish version. It is still Spanish (as in from Spain) but the words linger a bit longer towards the end, giving “El Conde” a very smooth Transylvanian-type accent.
    He is still no Bela Lugosi though. I think he would have given a way better Dracula impression with a whiter face and the “light in the eyes” trick that gave the English version Count such an iconic look. Having viewed them both several times, I can’t help but think of Nicholas Cage when Carlos tries to imitate Bela.
    It is worth it to watch both films if you can though to make your own decisions. If you are a fan of horror films, it’s nice to know where many of these all started. If you are a movie buf, it’s also nice to pay homage to the classics.

  8. Mark Wallace says:

    The idea that Dracula can seduce his victims as well as prey on them isn’t really present in the novel, as I remember. It’s a later development that has become central to the notion of the vampire in our time. Dracula in Stoker doesn’t seduce his victims, but he does mesmerize/hypnotize them, and that’s referred to several times in the novel. Again, that’s where Lugosi’s piercing stare comes in. I haven’t seen the Spanish one yet, but judging by the still you reproduce, the actor really doesn’t have that hypnotic gaze.

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