When I started the Crypt of Curiosities, I did it with the explicit intention to introduce people to the weird, wild corners of genre cinema. Shaw Brothers’ Black Magic, Hammer mummies, hyper-violent anime, sadistic Spaghetti Westerns—it’s an exercise in peering into the odd expanses that deserve more attention. It’s about championing the under-championed.
So, admittedly, writing about one of the most recognizable, celebrated horror films ever made might seem a bit off. But there’s a catch. Because, like many films of its time, there were actually two versions of Dracula in 1931: Tod Browning’s iconic English-language one, and the much less beloved Spanish-language Drácula. While the former has gone on to become a classic, the latter has languished in relative obscurity, beloved by a small cult but otherwise alien to most viewers. So, I figured this would be a good opportunity to look at the two side by side, and see the surprisingly different ups and downs of each.
The English language Universal Dracula needs no introduction. Directed by genre pioneer Tod Browning (The Unknown, London After Midnight, Freaks) and starring Bela Lugosi, it’s a fairly straight adaptation of Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play of the same name, which was in turn an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. You know the story: man goes to Dracula’s castle to sell real estate, Dracula takes a boat to London, and Doctor Van Helsing gets some help to kill the monster and save a pure maiden in distress. It’s a simplified story of the tale, but it gets the job done.
Before diving into the rest of Dracula, I’m going to get this out of the way. I don’t particularly like Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. Now, before you get your pitchforks ready, I want to make it clear that he’s not terrible by any measure. In fact, he’s generally a fun presence on screen, happily chewing the scenery and nailing line deliveries like it’s nobody’s business. But while that’s all fun and good, it doesn’t necessarily equal a great Dracula, because there’s one serious, serious problem here.
Bela Lugosi just isn’t very intimidating. His movements are stiff, his constant glare lacks menace, and he doesn’t really do anything vaguely creepy. In fact, he’s so not intimidating, that I’d argue that he looks downright goofy and out of place in everything that isn’t a close-up or low angle. It’s honestly a baffling issue, and comes close to sinking every single scene requiring Dracula to be even somewhat of a threat.
Thankfully, a few of the side roles make up for Lugosi’s shortcomings. Edward Van Sloan (also seen in Universal’s Frankenstein and The Mummy) makes for a fun Professor Van Helsing, perfectly striking the balance between someone who you could believe is a genius doctor while also being someone you believe could hammer a stake into a heart with nothing but a mallet and brute force. Also standing out is Dwight Frye’s Renfield, who manages to pick up Lugosi’s slack as the creepiest cast member during the few scenes he’s allowed to really go all out in, ranting and raving about eating spiders in a way that wouldn’t be matched until Tom Waits would give the character a go in 1992. Unfortunately, the leads aren’t anything to write home about, making most of the time spent with these characters to feel flat.
But while the characters are mostly limp, there is one area where Dracula excels, and it excels magnificently. See, in my eyes, the real star of the show isn’t Bela Lugosi, it’s Karl Freund. I don’t think it’s controversial to say Freund was one of the finest cinematographers of his era, working on the likes of Der Golem, Metropolis, and All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as directing The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935). And let me tell you, as far as English-language movies go, the cinematography in here might be the best he’s ever done. As I said, the only times Lugosi is legitimately creepy are times when Freund is working his magic, making the Count tower above the camera and glare down at the hapless mortals at his feet.
It’s Freund—with the generous helping of great matte paintings and sets—that helps make Dracula work. Or, well, almost work, because Dracula has a much bigger problem than its villain. The direction is just bad. There’s no real gentle way to put it, either. Dracula seems to exist in a terrible limbo between silent and sound film where long, overly theatrical segments of characters quietly move through a location without a score of any sort, only to be punctuated by jarring bursts of dialogue. If there has ever been a movie that so obviously needed an orchestra and title cards, Dracula is it.
While it’s certainly a huge problem, it’s hard to blame Browning for it. This was, after all, only one of his first sound films after a long career working with silent movies, and Universal famously decided against putting in any non-diegetic sounds. But at the same time, Dracula came out in 1931, the year of The Public Enemy, M, Little Caesar, and yes, Frankenstein—all incredibly good, incredibly well-directed and edited films that sidestep this issue entirely. It’s a bitter disappointment, but even for its time, Dracula’s approach to sound was rightfully obsolete.
I can’t deny that watching Dracula was a very frustrating experience. As The Unknown proved before and Freaks would prove again later, Browning is a genuinely great director, and so much of what Dracula is going for is genius, but it just cannot come together. It just can’t help but fall prey to some of the worst traps early sound film had to offer, and Lugosi’s performance just isn’t strong enough to keep it afloat.
But, as mentioned, Dracula wasn’t the only time the bloodsucker graced the silver screen in 1931. At the same time, Universal was developing Drácula, a Spanish-language spin on Browning’s film co-directed by George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos, who previously collaborated on a Spanish-language version of Universal’s The Cat Creeps. In some circles, Drácula is considered to be superior to Browning’s version. Now, do I agree? In short, yes. In longer form, well, kind of.
See, in many ways, Dracula and Drácula are near identical. Not only were they shot on the same set with the same props and very similar wardrobes, but Drácula actually has footage from Dracula spliced in almost every other scene. Hell, it even shares the same basic plot outlines, some choice quotes, and the aforementioned frustrating early sound quirks Dracula suffered from. But Drácula has one major advantage over Browning’s take on the tale, and his name is Carlos Villarías.
Villarías doesn’t just play the part of Conde Drácula (the film’s name for the classic vampire), he owns it. He plays Drácula with his whole body, gliding across sets and giving large, theatrical reactions to just about everything that happens in his immediate vicinity. It also helps that, unlike Lugosi, Villarías isn’t afraid to be hyper-expressive, at times recalling Lon Chaney in The Unknown or John Barrymore in the silent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There are hyper close-ups of his eyes that manage to convey more emotion and terror than any other performance in either film, and that’s incredible.
Unfortunately, not everything’s a step up. Cinematographer George Robinson (who would later go on to shoot Son of Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, among others) is fine, but none of the original footage in Drácula that isn’t a hyper close-up of Carlos Villarías’ eyes mostly falls short of Freund’s work. There are exceptions, sure—the scene where Dracula meets Van Helsing at a theater is so absurdly better done in Drácula than it is in Dracula that it’s not even funny—but for the most part, Freund’s cinematography just works better than Robinson’s.
It also doesn’t help that besides the new Count, none of the new cast members are particularly great, and I’d even say Drácula’s versions of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and Renfield (Pablo Álvarez Rubio) are inferior to the ones in Browning’s film. Van Helsing in particular is a real step down—while Arozamena looks the part, his performance lacks the scholarly air that helped make Van Sloan’s take on the character such a fun watch.
However, the biggest flaw of Drácula comes with one of its greatest strengths. On the plus side, Drácula decides to take its time setting up Renfield and Conde Drácula before setting them loose on the city. In fact, it takes more time setting up everything. While Dracula was only a lean 75 minutes, Drácula is 105 minutes long. While about half of the new ground covered is quite good (the added bits of Drácula and Renfield on the boat are pure gold), the other half does nothing but make the American film’s rough pacing even worse, making Drácula feel like it lasts roughly two and a half hours. It’s an almost inexcusable flaw, and one that helps make the film only feel like a slightly marginal improvement over the English-language Dracula. One step forward, one step back.
Honestly, it’s that pacing that holds Drácula back from being a true hidden gem. While the good does manage to outweigh the bad, it’s 30 minutes too long in the worst possible way, making the hour and forty-five-minute-long runtime feel like Lawrence of Arabia. It’s still a good film, but I can’t help but think of how just a little bit of fat trimmed off the second and third acts could make it a legendary one.
Unfortunately, neither Dracula film from 1931 is quite the classic the story deserves. I’d probably be inclined to be more forgiving if it wasn’t for the fact that F.W. Murnau did it all better nine years earlier with Nosferatu, and the fact that we’re so saturated with great Dracula adaptations that it’s hard to really recommend these over say, Coppola’s, Fisher’s, or Morrissey’s. Still, of the two, Drácula is the superior version, and I’d honestly recommend checking it out for Villarías’ performance alone. But otherwise, Universal’s first Dracula films are important milestones and even fun watches (particularly in Drácula’s case), but not quite the great films they could’ve been.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Swedish Silent Horror Movies THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE and HÄXAN