Dracula/Dracula Analogue Performed By: Carlos Villarías
Director: George Melford
Country: United States
Character Archetype: Not Like a Regular Dad, a Cool Dad, Who Does Murders
This film is a little difficult to talk about as a stand-alone feature, because it was created specifically to be a Spanish-language version of the Tod Browning film (both were released in the same year). In the early days of sound film, it wasn’t uncommon for films to be at least partially re-shot on the same sets with the actors speaking a different language (this was even done with Fritz Lang’s M), but this is one of the rare alternate language versions of a film that’s built up a strong following in its own right. Some people even go so far as to say this film is better than the Browning film, but I prefer to think that they’re both well-executed films that play to different tastes and have different strengths.
Carlos Villarías’ performance as Dracula is probably the film’s greatest departure from the source, and I’ve seen a lot of criticism for his genial, naturalistic (with a nasty twist) work here, but I don’t really agree. Bela Lugosi plays the role much more stiff and mannered than Villarías, which worked, but Villarías has an almost dad-like affect to his performance that works very well with the concept of tweaking conventions of propriety. In the iconic scene where Dracula has prepared dinner for Renfield upon his arrival, the dialogue is almost exactly the same, but Dracula’s demeanor beforehand and during the meal is quite different. Before Renfield sits down, he appears uncertain about the meal, but Dracula shoots him an expression that screams “Well? I made it for you!” and when Renfield sits down to eat, he softens and returns to his default expression: a cheerful smile, an attempt at familiarity.
Compared to Lugosi, who never drops his act of stoic propriety even when attempting to intimidate, Villarías’ Dracula makes the violence beneath his façade much more evident. Compare, as well, the differences in the scene with the mirror in the cigarette box: upon being discovered, Lugosi merely knocks the box to the ground, but Villarías goes the extra mile and smashes it to pieces. He also lacks the composure to deliver a proper apology after doing so, instead opting to abruptly leave the room after his outburst.
While the somnambulant, repressed Victorian atmosphere of the Browning film has its charms, the increased joie de vivre of the cast here enhances the inherent violence of the story and makes it more immediately frightening. The brides do not appear in this version for very long, but they are shown watching Renfield intently before he sees them and faints, and they strike without being stopped by Dracula this time (a very interesting choice, as it allows them a certain modicum of their own power). Lupita Tovar’s energetic performance as Eva (Mina) stands in sharp contrast to Helen Chandler’s more subdued take, making her descent into terror and sickliness more jarring and scary and also downplays the sexual aspect of the horror of her transformation somewhat (despite the film still carrying the “you mustn’t touch me or kiss me” line). When Eva suddenly becomes energized due to Dracula’s blood flowing through her veins, her mannerisms, particularly her smile, become much more like those of Dracula’s, and there’s no scene where she gazes longingly at Harker’s neck, taking the horror of the scene away from “oh no, a woman with a sex drive” and towards “oh no, she’s becoming part of the cycle of violence.”
Perhaps the biggest shift in performance besides Dracula is Renfield. Pablo Alvarez Rubio makes for a much less intense, bug-eyed Renfield than Dwight Frye, and the effect is a character that’s much more sympathetic. You never get the sense that he’s a legitimate danger to anyone in the house, and he even refuses the chance to attack a helpless maid, unlike in the Browning film, despite all the talk about his bloodlust remaining the same. He even has an added line or two about concerns over his soul and God, particularly in relation to not wanting to die with Mina’s blood on his hands. It ends up creating a rapport between him and Dracula that’s akin to an abusive father-son relationship rather than an all-powerful ruler and a mindless drone as in the Browning film, and creates a much nicer contrast to how vivacious and protective Dr. Seward and Van Helsing are in this film, making the conflict much more solid. Does that make it a better film? Not really: the pacing is a little slack compared to the fleetness of the Browning production, and one misses creepy shots like Dracula descending the stairs behind Harker, but it does make it very much worth seeing in its own right.