I like remakes. This puts me at odds with almost all right-thinking people, but as a student of film I enjoy comparing them with the originals to see what works better. The Spanish version of Universal's 1931 Dracula is a good example, in that it has better visuals but is also a flabby load of old tosh.
I should probably set the scene. The introduction of sound brought all kinds of headaches to the movie industry, one of which was how to sell their product to non-English speaking countries. Obviously silent films hadn't had that problem. Dubbing wasn't yet accepted by cinema-goers, so a common solution in the early days of sound was apparently for Hollywood to produce foreign language versions, usually in French, Spanish or German. Thus the Spanish Dracula was filmed using the same sets and costumes as the better-known Lugosi version, but at night. The crew was even allowed to watch their English counterparts' dailies when they arrived in the evening and would exploit this by springboarding off Tod Browning's cinematography and thinking up better lighting and camera angles. Carlos Villarias as the Count was also shown the footage and encouraged to act as Lugosi-like as possible.
This film is also unusual among foreign-language versions in still existing. Most of them didn't survive.
Before watching this film, I'd been ambivalent about the terminology. "Spanish version" sounds a bit derogatory to me. Universal's 1943 Phantom of the Opera was filmed on the same sets as its silent 1925 predecessor, but you don't see anyone calling that "the colour version". However in this case it's the correct description. It's a scene by scene remake, with for the most part only minor changes. It's still a different film and deserves to be treated as such, but it was clearly produced to be just "the Spanish version" rather than a new take on the material.
The director was one George Melford and if you're thinking that's not a very Spanish-sounding name, you'd be right. He couldn't even speak the language. Nevertheless he made a good-looking film. His visuals are better than Browning's, with some striking compositions. However he also lost the plot in what should have been the second half of the film but actually ballooned up to become the final two-thirds. Browning's film is 75 minutes long, but this crawls on for 104. Everything in Transylvania sticks closely to the Browning version, but when the action moves to England, Melford loses his ability to edit. Scenes drag on and on. Renfield becomes boring, Dracula and Van Helsing at one point appear to be having a friendly get-together and we don't even get much vampire action. Villarias's Dracula is mysteriously unwilling to bite people. It's now his three brides who nobble Renfield back in Transylvania, while in London he's never interested in anyone but Lucy and Mina (now Lucia and Eva).
I'm reluctant even to give this film credit for being more cinematic when it has the most extraordinary "tell, don't show" I've ever seen. Browning's Dracula has a plot hole. Lucy Weston simply disappears. Van Helsing kills two of the three vampires a-wandering in London, but somehow we never learn what happened to Lucy. This probably sounds terrible, but in fact I'd watched the film twice without noticing it. Lugosi puts the bite on so many people that one hardly gave much thought to the fate of one more. Nevertheless it seems that the Spaniards noticed this plot hole and decided to plug it. Sounds good so far, yes? The staking of Lucy is one of the original novel's most famous set-pieces. That however would have been too exciting for Spanish audiences in 1931, so instead they decide it's better to show Van Helsing and Seward leaving a churchyard as Van Helsing says, "It was a good deed, driving a stake through the heart of that poor girl. Now her soul will rest."
Unbelievable. At last I've found something worse than "I'll explain later".
The cast contains one good actor. That would be Lupita Tovar, who puts everyone else to shame with a vivid but utterly real performance as Eva. She not only withstands but makes a virtue out of Melford's inability to trim scenes. I liked Helen Chandler in the Browning version too but Tovar is livelier, albeit less intense as a vampire. She's responsible for the film's one chilling scene, in which she's telling us about how she met with the undead Lucia. "Then I remembered she was dead." Tovar's nightdress is also more revealing than Chandler's.
Everyone else ranges from "not bad" to "bad". Villarias sometimes manages a decent Lugosi impersonation, but too often he comes across as a charming, rather sweet Spanish actor doing his best in a slightly surprising role. He has the most delightful smile. He reminded me of... oh, who's that smiley American actor? Played Gomez in the original Addams Family TV series? John Astin! That's the chap. "He looked like an enraged beast"... er, no. Meanwhile Pablo Alvarez Rubio puts his all into Renfield, but somehow doesn't quite fill his performance in the way Dwight Frye managed. He's the chief victim of Melford's editing. Eduardo Arozamena's Van Helsing is a windbag. No one else deserves mentioning.
There was stuff I liked. After all, this is a black-and-white Universal horror film, which unfairly is holding itself up for comparison with one of my absolute favourites. It has less comedic Transylvanian villagers whose women have something of a silent movie look to them, while I liked its ideas for putting vampires on screen. Dracula's brides remind me of the zombie cavern in Day of the Dead. Even the "close up of the vampire's eyes" shot looks great, despite looking ridiculous every other time Universal attempted it. I loved the stake too. No dainty pencil-like twig for you, my friend.
Nevertheless for every clever change, something else goes wrong. Lugosi's Dracula merely led Mina downstairs into the crypt, but Villarias carries her. The former is chilling. The latter just makes you wonder why Dracula would want to lug around his food. Most ridiculously of all, his defeat is entirely his own fault! Having gone to the trouble of carrying a full-grown human down that enormous flight of stairs, he then discovers that he's forgotten the time and whoops, sunlight. By the time Harker and Van Helsing arrive, he's already snoozing in his coffin, which he's even considerately left uncovered to make things easy for them. At least Lugosi's Dracula had the common sense to pull the lid down after himself. Maybe he's trying to work on his tan. I suppose I should double-check Browning's original to see how many of my criticisms actually apply there too, but even if they did, I think they'd still be fair comment. Browning's Dracula roars ahead like a bullet train, not allowing you a moment to think. This practically jumps up and down pointing at its plot holes.
Some people apparently think Melford's Dracula is the better film. They are of course crazy, although harmlessly so and in a way that can be explained. If you're blessed with more patience than taste and are furthermore one of those freaks who claim that Browning's film is full of overacting, then I suppose it's only a short step to using phrases like "more of a good thing".
This is the kind of film that's loved by fanboys who can't understand how director's cuts can be shorter. Villarias's Dracula is sometimes good, but he sometimes comes across like a stand-up comedian. His facial expressions nearly made me laugh. It's better shot than Browning's film, but at the end of the day it's still riddled with "tell, don't show", exposition via newspapers and characters telling us what just happened to them. It's not bad, but it's firmly third-tier Universal.