While Tod Browning's classic 1931 version of Dracula looks today like a creaky horror story enlivened by Bela Lugosi's mesmerizing performance, George Melford's Spanish-language version, shot at night on the same sets where Browning's Dracula was shot during the day, subtly shows how it could be a better and stronger film, even without Lugosi as the bloodthirsty Count. Melford's version is 28 minutes longer than Browning's, and most of the difference can be chalked up to atmosphere; while much of Browning's film has the slightly wooden look of a photographed stage play, Melford's compositions and camera movements give his version a more fluid grace and subtly sinister mood, and, if his film's pace is a bit slower, the result has an effectively eerie undercurrent that Browning's sometimes lacks. While much has been made of the Vampire legend's erotic undercurrent, Melford's Dracula (1931) is one of the first films to give this part of the story a fair hearing; the actresses were able to wear more revealing gowns than American censors would have permitted, and a significant bit of dialogue directly compares Dracula's spell to the loss of virginity (imagine the buzz that would have generated in an American movie house in 1931!). And most of the cast is just as good as, if not better than, their English-speaking counterparts, especially Carmen Guerrero as Lucia (Lucy), Lupita Tovar as Eva (Mina), Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing, and Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield, whose rapt madness is even more disturbing than Dwight Frye's excellent portrayal in Browning's version. The Spanish-language Dracula (1931) suffers only when one compares Carlos Villarias's performance as Dracula to Bela Lugosi's; while Villarias is adequate, then as now, Lugosi owns the role. But Melford's Dracula (1931) is not a mere historical curiosity of the confused early days of sound, but a superbly entertaining horror story that succeeds on its own merits and serves as a fine example of the surprising things that film research and preservation can uncover.
by Mark Deming review