By Amber Sparks | Press Play October 18, 2013 at 9:25AM
Everybody knows the iconic 1931 Dracula. Even if they’ve never seen the film, most people can call up images of Bela Lugosi waxing poetic about wolves on a ruined abbey staircase, or a coffin slowly opening as a very white hand emerges. But does the phrase “hijos de la noche” resonate in the same way? Certainly not, yet in 1930, while Tod Browning spent his days filming Dracula with Bela Lugosi, another director, George Melford spent his nights filming the same script, on the same set, with the same costumes--with Spanish-speaking actors. In the early days of sound, this was a fairly common practice; studios often produced foreign-language versions of their films that way. Dubbing had not yet come into vogue as a practice, and under the studio system it was simply a matter of substituting a cast who spoke Spanish, or German, or French, and shooting on a set after the English-speaking actors and crew were gone for the day.
The practice only lasted a few years, as it became cheaper and easier to dub or subtitle films for a foreign audience. Most of those foreign-language versions have faded and been forgotten, lost like so much early film. Most did little to distinguish themselves from the English-language films. But theSpanish version of Dracula is a little different. Not only superior to the English-language version, it's necessary viewing for anyone who's watched the Lugosi film and come away bummed. I know the English version has its champions, but I think that has much to do with Lugosi and little with the film’s direction. It’s creaky, static, with little camera movement—almost a silent film in many parts, and the actors are often given little to do but stand and speak. The pacing is dreadfully slow and inorganic. Whereas the Spanish language version takes a script that should have been shocking but ended up rather staid—stiff and stuffy—in the English version, and it tops that version by leaps and bounds. Oddly, it's a half hour longer than the English version, but the improved pacing, the superior acting, and better artistic direction make it much more fun to watch.
The cast and crew of the Spanish version were competitive, and they would watch the dailies from the English-language version to figure out how they could improve them, with better camera angles, lighting, pacing, and acting. And it shows: in the Spanish version, the special effects are better, the shots are more interesting, and the camera movement is much more fluid--more modern. Watch the way the camera swims up toward Carlos Vilarilla in the abbey, captures the wild menace of the place, and compare that to the slow, stately pace of the camera movement toward Lugosi in the same scene. Of course, part of this is due to Tod Browning's and penchant for long, static shots. Browning made some remarkable films, particularly those with Lon Chaney Sr. But here hee was clearly still learning how to transition from silent films to talkies, a transition that his short list of sound films and subsequent retirement from film probably attests to.
The acting, with the exception of Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan, is also improved in the Spanish version. I love Dwight Frye, but Pablo Rubio is a more naturalistic, interestingly mad Renfield. Frye either plays it creepy and subservient, or fearful and guilt-ridden—two notes for the duration of the film, while Rubio’s performance is much more subtle, changeable—human. Barry Norton gets the thankless straight man role, but runs circles round the notoriously stone-stiff David Manners. Lupita Tovar, only seventeen at the time, is a beautiful, lively lead--so much more fun to watch than the lovely but lifeless Helen Chandler. As Lupita Tovar has said of the film, "We Latins have a very different way of expressing ourselves, more emotional. And I think the Americans were just kind of subdued."
Perhaps most importantly of all: this film puts the sex back in Dracula. Plenty of heaving bosoms are on display, and the sensuality is more overt than implied, particularly in Tovar's hungry, delightfully predatory performance as Mina/Eva. This is Mina as she should be: seduced by Dracula, perhaps a little tormented, but not-so-secretly enjoying the respite from stuffy society, from her safe, boring fiancee and her overprotective father. This is the wilder Dracula Lugosi should have starred in.
Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.