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?
One 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.
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.
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