29 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: IN WHICH NO-ONE IS EVER ACTUALLY REFERRED TO AS THE SON OF ANYBODY

Given how sequel-mad Universal studios was in the wake of 1939's Son of Frankenstein, cranking out two Frankensteins, one of which was also a Wolf Man, a whole carload of mummy pictures, and hell, even a few Invisible Man follow-ups, it seems almost absurd that it took until 1943 to finally produce a second sequel to Dracula, after the 1936 Dracula's Daughter. After all, you'd think that Dracula would be one of the biggest brand names in Universal's stables, and even if Dracula's Daughter was a rather dire money-loser, there was altogether sound logic backing up the continued adventures of everybody's favorite vampire. At any rate, when Son of Dracula (clever title) finally bowed right around Halloween, 1943, the Universal horror cycle had hit a pretty rough patch, with such awkward missteps as The Mummy's Tomb and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man standing in for actual good movies, which means that the film gets the benefit of distinctly lowered expectations; the damn surprising thing is that, while it is quite silly and suffers from one of the worst casting decisions in the 33 year history of the classic Universal horror, Son of Dracula is actually halfway decent, maybe even the best of the Dracula films. It's certainly the best Universal monster movie in the long period between The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, not that we could really call that a terribly high bar to clear (unless you're one of them what likes the later mummy films, in which case... de gustibus non est disputandum).

Rather weirdly, the film hops from the indefinite Central Europe setting of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein pictures, or even the English setting of the previous Dracula vehicles, to position its action somewhere in the American Deep South, unidentified other than the presence of a sprawling old plantation on the edge of a big swamp. This is Dark Oaks, the home of the Caldwell family led by old Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), but he's going to be dead pretty soon, so let's instead take a look at his daughters, Katherine (Louise Allbritton) and Claire (Evelyn Ankers). As the movie opens, Katherine - Kay to her friends - is hosting a grand party for the Hungarian Count Alucard, who also manages to be Transylvanian (the region is indefinitely defined, but it's wholly Romanian), but either way, Kay met him on a recent European voyage. Her fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and his friend Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven) have agreed to pick Alucard up from the train station, but he's not on the train - just his huge stack of luggage, at least one piece of which is suggestively coffin-sized, and bears his family crest written such that Brewster notices that A-L-U-C-A-R-D happens to be D-R-A-C-U-L-A backwards, which is a strange thing to notice, because the name "Dracula" has no meaning to him at this point, but I guess it was for our benefit, or some such. This happens to be the first time that this remarkably over-used card was played, by the way.

So, we now know that a vampire is waiting in the wings, and just to make sure we really REALLY get the fact that odd things are afoot, we follow Kay as she pays a visit to Madame Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), or Queen Zimba if you, like Kay, are a lover of all things paranormal and crave her mystic Hungarian insights into the future. That insight consists of the lovely thought that Kay is doomed to marry a corpse, and just as soon as Madame Zimba reveals this fact, a two-foot-wide rubber bat swoops in and kills her, of fright or bad editing, it's hard to say which.

Later that night, the party goes fairly well until Colonel Caldwell dies, setting his room on fire in the process; it's only after this tragedy cuts the evening short that the guest of honor finally presents himself, and now we get to the worst casting decision like I was talking about: Alucard, and let's just go ahead and call him Dracula to save confusion, is played by Lon Chaney, Jr. with a little pencil mustache and the god-damnedest attempt at a suave European accent that you ever did hear. I would absolutely love to hear an attempt to justify or defend this epic failure of film producing, as one sometimes hears in regards to Bela Lugosi's monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, or John Carradine as Dracula on two different occasions; it would be desperately amusing, because Chaney is inappropriate for this role in ways that I still can't get my head around, and that's sheer damn fact speaking, not opinion. But it is kind of cool that as of this film, he became the first and last person to play a werewolf, a mummy, a Frankenstein monster, and a vampire (Christopher Lee comes awfully close; but in Howling II it was his sister that was a werewolf).

Things get awfully complex awfully fast for a simple little B-movie, but in a nutshell, Kay becomes the sole owner of Dark Oaks, while Claire gets all the family fortune - a peculiar arrangement, to say the least, but it means that Kay and her new houseguest can be left totally alone all day. As this is happening, Brewster learns that there is no Hungarian family "Alucard", and in a casual conversation with Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg) of the Hungarian embassy, the doctor learns that there is an extinct line, the Dracula family, with traditional links to vampirism. But a sensible man, in America no less, isn't going to start believing in vampires at the drop of a hat.

Frank, meanwhile, is growing increasingly obsessed with the count, whatever his name may be, and he discovers that Kay and Dracula have married. His response to this news is to fire at the Hungarian, point blank, only to watch in horror as the bullets pass straight through Dracula, "killing" Kay. Here's where everything becomes totally convoluted: Frank turns himself in for murder, the cops and Brewster rather think he's insane, since Kay seems to still be very much alive, Lazlo comes to see this "Alucard" himself, and the vampire reveals himself to the the two amateur sleuths with great smarmy delight. Smarm that he would no doubt be slower to adopt if he knew that his wife was visiting Frank in prison, and revealing her true plan: she just used Dracula for the immortality, but now she wants to make Frank a vampire, and together they will destroy Dracula and live forever together.

Take away the bits that are so loopy that it's almost impossible to stand it (Dracula gets married?), and this is a rather imaginative script indeed, if also a somewhat deranged one. Most interesting to me is that this is not just a horror film, it's essentially a horror film noir, recasting Dracula as the poor sucker who gets played by the smart, shady brunette with an eye for all the angles. It was made at just exactly the earliest possible moment for me to be comfortable making that connection, but once you've made it, it's hard not to think of it in those terms.

Beyond that, the scenario is one of the oddest in the whole Universal cycle: not only because it has the feverish inspiration to bring Dracula to America, although that's certainly a nice touch. As much as one tries to figure out how this all fits the Standard Vampire Template, it just insists on veering into unexpected directions, like the scene where Dracula appears before Brewster and Lazlo, or the moment where Brewster protects a little boy who was bitten by the vampire by making little iodine crosses on the puncture wounds. Curt Siodmak did not write the script (it was by Eric Taylor, who worked on the Phantom of the Opera remake the same year), but he wrote the story treatment, and it bears all the hallmarks of his best work: take a monster that everybody has seen before, and tell a story that uses that monster in really peculiar ways. And while as much of Son of Dracula proves to be damn weird as it is successful, at least it's not more of the same, or boring, like the Frankenstein films were quickly becoming.

A huge portion of credit also belongs to the film's director, Robert Siodmak - Curt's brother, though this was the only time they ever worked together in America. If it is true that Son of Dracula is not the equal to his best films, it is nevertheless clearly the work of a director who had more ideas than your average studio hack. Working with George Robinson, quickly becoming the monster movie cinematographer of choice, Siodmak crafted a high-contrast world that cannot rightly be called Gothic or Expressionist in the manner of the better-known Universal horror classics; it is, however, quite moody and potent, without necessarily being so atmospheric as e.g. The Wolf Man. A modernist look for a younger continent, maybe. Siodmak also manages to nail the presentation of the film's visual effects, including the nifty transition of a vampire into a wisp of smoke; and hey! it's a Dracula film with actual visual effects! That's a pretty stark change from the resolutely stagey original and the paranormal-averse first sequel, right there.

I absolutely do not want to defend Son of Dracula as a lost masterpiece, or anything: the screenplay misses as often as it hits, and while there are a couple of really fine performances in Craven's Brewster and Bromberg's Lazlo, both of whom get more screentime than Dracula himself, it's hard to explain just how very deleterious Chaney's hugely goofy take on the count is to the film's total effectiveness. It's wonderful that Louise Allbritton makes such a fine undead femme fatale, because she provides the film with at least one decent villain; the gravity and sense of menace that a horror film of this sobriety requires are utterly absent every time Chaney opens his mouth and that nervous big lug voice comes out. If that single change had been made, to cast a truly threatening and seductive actor in Chaney's place, I don't wonder if Son of Dracula would have a much greater reputation as a solid B-horror film.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

1 comment:

javi75 said...

Just watching Chaney's expression on the poster you've chosen is hilarious.

I didn't know Siodmak (Robert) had made a Dracula movie. Well, it should look pretty good. I watched The killers on tv the other day.