Friday, November 21, 2008

Three Universal Draculas: “Daughter,” “Son” and “House”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

cracked open the Dracula boxed set from Universal and ran Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Dracula (the latter containing some DVD glitches, not as serious as the badly scarred copy of the 1931 Dracula in the same box but serious enough I may want to get another copy of the box and toss this one). Dracula’s Daughter was made in 1936 and was the last horror film made by Universal during the Laemmle era; it was directed by Lambert Hillyer, who’d won his spurs in the genre by making the marvelous The Invisible Ray with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi earlier that year.

The script had a convoluted textual history; it was based on “Dracula’s Guest,” a piece Bram Stoker originally wrote as a chapter within Dracula but deleted and which wasn’t independently published as a short story until 1937, the year after this film was released. It was also supposedly inspired by “Carmilla,” Sheridan Le Fanu’s story of a Lesbian vampire with the hots for her straight, non-vampire sister, which was also the inspiration for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1931 film Vampyr. The screenplay was credited to Garrett Fort, whose name appears on the credits of the original Universal Dracula, and apparently there was some intervening work by John L. Balderston (whose U.S. stage adaptation of British author Hamilton Deane’s Dracula play had been the basis for Fort’s script for the 1931 film), R. C. Sherriff, Charles Belden, Peter Dunne and “Oliver Jeffries,” a pseudonym for (of all people) David O. Selznick, who had briefly optioned “Dracula’s Guest” himself before letting it go to Universal.

It’s a good film but an oddly somber and unthrilling one, deeper and richer than the original Lugosi Dracula and with a good — almost Lugosi-level — performance by Gloria Holden in the title role; she had a career mostly at the back ends of cast lists but this is a great reading of a character genuinely torn between her vampire past and her desire to escape it and become a normal woman — which she feels she can achieve at the hands of Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger, top-billed and in the only movie I can think of in which he isn’t cast as a villain!), psychiatrist and friend of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only cast member to carry over from the first Dracula movie).

Indeed, Dracula’s Daughter is that rarity in the Universal cycle — a direct sequel to its predecessor film — opening in the cellar of Carfax Abbey just after Dracula has killed Renfield and Van Sloan has driven the obligatory stake through Dracula’s heart. (Bodies — possibly dummies — representing the corpses of Dracula and Renfield are clearly visible on screen.) The scene in which Holden seduces a suicidal young girl (Nan Grey) and lures her to her studio loft, ostensibly to paint her but actually to put the bite on her, remains chilling — and the whole film uses effective chiaroscuro cinematography (by George Robinson, who shot the Spanish-language version of the 1931 Dracula and would continue in the cycle as the cinematographer for Son of Dracula), music and a surprisingly slow pace to create a subtle, distanced effect quite unusual for a Universal horror production. Otto Kruger isn’t exactly to the hero’s manner born, but his very diffidence helps — and it’s amusing to note that Dracula’s Daughter neatly reverses the geographic trajectory of the original Dracula by starting in England and ending in Transylvania (which the scripters, as usual, mistakenly locate in Hungary instead of Romania).


Son of Dracula, from 1943, was a pleasure — a good old-fashioned vampire movie with superb effects photography by John P. Fulton (for the first time in an American Dracula film the vampire actually materialized from mist and changed into a bat, and back into human form, right on screen) adding to the mood created by George Robinson’s high-contrast, chiaroscuro photography (Robinson also shot Dracula’s Daughter but the surviving print isn’t nearly as good, getting rather grainy in spots), Robert Siodmak’s atmospheric direction and a fine script by Eric Taylor (based on a story by Siodmak’s writer brother, Curt — the closest they came during this period to working together on a film!).

The most memorable performance here is not that of Dracula (who’s played by Lon Chaney, Jr., who’s utterly unable to give any sense of nobility or sinister power, and who has to hide under the pseudonym of “Alucard” — “Dracula” spelled backwards, and almost as obvious an alias as “Schreck!” — through most of the film) but that of his girlfriend, Louise Allbritton. Usually a comedienne, Allbritton gives a chilling portrayal of a spoiled plantation heiress, looking for new sensations and searching for them in the occult, who voluntarily becomes a vampire herself, marries Alucard, and then tries to seduce her original mortal boyfriend (Robert Paige) into killing Alucard and joining her in vampire-dom for all eternity. I’ve mentioned this fascinating plot premise as an anticipation of the Anne Rice vampire tales and a far cry from the Bram Stoker version — and while Son of Dracula doesn’t seem as great as it did six years ago when I bought the tape and saw it for the first time, it’s still a first-rate film and probably Hollywood’s best-ever contribution to the vampire mythos! – 10/25/98


Son of Dracula is the 1943 Universal film which I regard — perhaps a bit extravagantly — as the finest vampire film ever made in the United States. Though marred by the less than ideal casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dracula (who spends most of the film masquerading under the almost absurdly obvious pseudonym of “Alucard”) — though he got more of a chance to act in this film than he usually did, and he gives off a star presence he had in few of his other roles, he’s not one of nature’s aristocrats and John Carradine, who played Dracula in the next two Universal films in which the character appeared (the monster omnibuses House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula), might have been a better choice, in all other respects Son of Dracula is a marvelous film, everything the original Tod Browning Dracula with Lugosi should have been but wasn’t.

The director is Robert Siodmak, and aided by cinematographer George Robinson (who had earlier shot the Spanish version of Dracula in 1930 and Dracula’s Daughter in 1936) Siodmak fills the screen with rich Gothic imagery, brilliant chiaroscuro compositions, vivid special effects (no effects person is credited but I suspect it was John P. Fulton again) that allow Dracula to transform himself from bat form or a cloud of mist into his human incarnation without visible cuts, and an almost constantly and restlessly moving camera. The screenwriter is Eric Taylor but the original story came from Siodmak’s writer (and sometime director) brother Curt — making this the only film I can think of offhand on which the Siodmaks actually worked together — and even before I’d read Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire or seen the film based on it I had got the impression, from what I’d heard of Rice’s take on the vampire mythos, that Son of Dracula came a lot closer to her vision of the undead than to Bram Stoker’s.

Curt Siodmak’s fantasy is set in Rice country — the bayous of southern Louisiana and a run-down plantation called Dark Oaks whose owner, Col. Caldwell (George Irving), is old, decrepit, wheelchair-bound and about to die. His only heirs are two daughters, Katherine — generally called Kay (Louise Allbritton), a moody girl who’s heavily into the occult; and her level-headed younger sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers). Kay is engaged to Frank Stanley (Robert Paige), a young man from the neighborhood whom she’s known since childhood, but she’s recently returned from a vacation in Budapest where she met and formed an infatuation with the mysterious “Alucard.” Eventually it develops that Alucard not only is the legendary vampire Dracula but he’s come to the U.S. because the vampire cult has burned out his own country (the Siodmaks make the common error of locating Transylvania in Hungary instead of Romania) and he wants to establish himself in a younger, more vigorous land where there are more people with good, healthy red blood.

Alucard seduces and marries Kay by offering her the chance of immortality — the use of the lure of immortality by vampires as a recruiting tool and the horror of ordinary people at the thought that someone could want to be a vampire even with the lure of eternal life are both Ricean themes that were still new to the vampire legend when this film was made! — and she in turn plans to double-cross him and make Frank a vampire so she and the man she’s always loved can live together as a vampire couple throughout eternity. What gives this film most of its chilling power, aside from Robert Siodmak’s vivid direction, is Louise Allbritton’s performance, sensual and subtle, actually making us believe that if vampires really did exist this particular person would, given the opportunity, want to be one. It’s a formidable acting job and almost unbelievable coming from the same player who would turn up as the zany comedienne in San Diego, I Love You a year later! — 10/30/02


After dinner Charles went over to pick up his mother (she actually called him here) and I took a bus to the Wherehouse in Hillcrest, picked up some more blank tapes (I was specifically looking for 100-minute tapes and Sam Goody’s hadn’t had them) and then met Charles back at his place (where I arrived just five minutes before he did!) and ran him two more of the Universal horror collection films. The first was House of Dracula, which I officially announced I was showing as a memorial to Martha O’Driscoll, its ingenue, who had died on Tuesday and whose obituary was in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. I had clipped the obit and brought it over to Charles’ place so I could keep it in the House of Dracula video box, and Charles — to whom the name Martha O’Driscoll had meant absolutely nothing until I mentioned it that morning — got into the spirit of things and (assuming she was a Catholic, given her ultra-Irish name) lit one of his candles (the Virgin Mary) and gave a prayer for the repose of the soul of Martha O’Driscoll.

Leslie Halliwell called it a “mind-boggling finale to the first Universal monster cycle, with a happy ending for the Wolf Man. Cheaply made and not really inventive, but has to be seen to be believed.” It’s actually a quite atmospheric film, thanks to Erle C. Kenton’s lively direction and George Robinson’s beautiful chiaroscuro photography; the only trouble is the script makes absolutely no sense, and the blame for that, I think, is due less to screenwriter Edward T. Lowe than to Universal’s insistence on crowding three monsters into the plot: Dracula (played by John Carradine, who next to Lugosi is quite the best actor to play the part in films), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr., as always delivering his by-then stock brand of tortured anguish) and the Frankenstein Monster (played by former wrestler Glenn Strange, who got to do the Monster in three films — the same number as Karloff! — alas, back then former wrestlers couldn’t run for governor of Minnesota and therefore this was the only other alternative career possibility he could think of).

Lowe and Curt Siodmak had already churned out a similar script for House of Frankenstein (also a monster omnibus with Carradine’s Dracula, Chaney’s Wolf Man and Strange’s Monster), which at least had a fine mad-scientist performance by Boris Karloff to hold things together; this time the mad scientist was Onslow Stevens, who tries to cure Dracula by giving him transfusions of normal blood and the Wolf Man by giving him poultices made from a mold formed on plant spores. (One wonders if Edward T. Lowe had already heard of penicillin.) The Wolf Man’s cure takes, and he ends up united with Martha O’Driscoll at the fadeout, but Dracula’s cure doesn’t and Stevens himself is eventually infected with HVV — the Human Vampire Virus [actually it's shown as visible under a microscope and therefore it's a bacterium, not a virus — M.G.C., 11/21/08] — and goes crazy, kills his coachman and his hunchbacked assistant (Jane Adams) before finally being killed himself. — 11/7/98