Son of Dracula (1943) ***
Well it took them twelve years, but Universal Studios finally managed to put together a Dracula movie in English that’s worth watching on its own merits (as opposed to one that’s worth watching for its historical significance). Son of Dracula is often disparaged-- mostly because of its woefully miscast villain-- but it deserves better. Its script is imaginative and indeed even prescient, its direction is crisper and more energetic than that of its predecessors, and most importantly, it suffers much less from the stodgy prudishness about horrific imagery that hamstrung the original Dracula and its first sequel, Dracula’s Daughter.
The Caldwells are a wealthy Deep South family with a big plantation built on land adjoining an all-but-impassable swamp. The old colonel has two daughters in their early twenties, Claire and Kay (Evelyn Ankers, of The Wolf Man and The Invisible Man’s Revenge, and Louise Allbritton, respectively). Kay is engaged to be married to Frank Stanley (Robert Paige, from The Monster and the Girl), but one suspects that the young man may have some competition. As the film opens, the Caldwell estate (it’s called Dark Oaks, by the way) is gearing up for a big party in honor of a certain Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr., in the role that made him the only top-flight horror film star to play all four of the A-list monster roles-- a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, and the Frankenstein monster), whom Kay met in Hungary while she was touring Europe. The count is late for his own party, though. When Frank and his friend Dr. Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) go to the train station to meet Alucard, his luggage is on the train, but there is no sign of the man himself. While looking over said baggage, Brewster notices something that suggests how little faith the filmmakers had in their audience’s intelligence. The largest piece, a chest fully big enough to hold a good-sized man, is placed on the baggage cart such that the count’s seal is turned on its side. In this orientation, it’s rather obvious that the name “Alucard” becomes “Dracula” when read backwards. (This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first appearance of a B-movie gimmick that will probably be with us even unto the end of the world; hell, even the Mexicans have gotten in on the act!) Just to make sure we understand what’s going on, Brewster makes a really big deal of his observation, and the camera closes in on the seal to underscore the point with all the subtlety of the Eighth Air Force.
Meanwhile, Kay is out in the swamp, talking to a crazy old Gypsy lady who calls herself Queen Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds). It would seem the girl has a thing for the occult, and later events will more than bear out that first impression. Zimba’s forecast of Kay’s future is the sort of thing that would trouble most people-- she says she sees Kay marrying a corpse-- but Kay is strangely dismissive of the seeress’s warnings. She also takes it surprisingly well when a huge rubber bat flies into the Gypsy’s shack and apparently frightens the old woman literally to death. All Kay does is look around guiltily and hurry back to Dark Oaks, doing her damnedest to make sure no one sees her.
Given all the suspicious hoopla of the previous two scenes, when Alucard finally does show up at the party in his honor (it’s halfway over by then), lurking among the cypresses of the Caldwells’ back yard, we are less than shocked to see that he is dressed in a black cape and a decidedly dated-looking suit. And it wouldn’t have been surprising either to see him transform himself into a familiar big rubber bat, had it not been for the fact that the previous two movies had been too squeamish to show the change taking place when their vampires pulled the same trick. (And don’t even try to tell me they lacked the means to pull it off back in 1931-- if I had a movie camera, an old-fashioned fountain pen, and some India ink, I could create this special effect in my damn bedroom!) Alucard flies up to a second-story window, lets himself in, and proceeds to pay a visit to Colonel Caldwell, who has taken his leave of the party and retired to his bed after having a bit too much to drink. At least the old guy died in a good mood. The count then makes himself scarce until after the body has been discovered and the guests have been sent packing, at which point he finally appears on the doorstep to introduce himself, much to the chagrin of the household servants.
As is generally the case in the real world when a wealthy man kicks it, Caldwell’s death is followed swiftly by the reading of his last will and testament. The colonel’s will leaves Claire in possession of all his liquid assets, while the plantation itself goes to Kay. It seems a funny way to divide up the property, and the fact that it was done at Kay’s instigation makes it even more peculiar-- she, after all, is the one who gets stuck with a huge parcel of land and no money with which to finance its upkeep. The girl is clearly up to something. Would you believe that something is arranging for herself to be married to Count Alucard? Sure you would-- the girl’s going to need a sugar-daddy if she’s going to keep the place from falling apart, and who better to step into that role than a real live European nobleman? You might think the count’s vampirism would pose something of an obstacle here, but get this: Kay knows Alucard is a vampire, and she wants him to make her one too! Well, when Frank finds out, right after Kay and Alucard get back from a late-night visit to the justice of the peace, he gets a little upset and tries to kill the count. Of course, revolvers aren’t much good against the undead, but Frank, after all, has no idea what he’s dealing with. And in this case, emptying his pistol into Alucard ends up being an even worse idea than you might expect, in that Kay happens to be standing behind the count at the time, and when the bullets pass harmlessly through the vampire’s body, they hit hers with an effect that is rather more than harmless.
Poor Frank. Now not only does he have a vampire pissed off at him, he’s gone and killed his fiancee too. When he escapes from Alucard, he’s going to have some explaining to do. Fortunately for him, Frank’s old buddy Dr. Brewster has been busy looking into the whole Alucard-Dracula connection, and his researches have led him to a Hungarian scholar named Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg, from Pillow of Death and 1943’s remake of The Phantom of the Opera), who is destined to become Son of Dracula’s Van Helsing figure. Lazlo informs Brewster that there is no family of Hungarian noblemen called “Alucard” (Son of Dracula repeats Dracula’s Daughter’s mistake of moving Transylvania to the other side of the Romanian border), and that the last Count Dracula lived back in the middle ages. Lazlo does mention that the last Dracula was also rumored to have become a vampire, and to have been killed in London in the 19th century, and he also mentions that he has encountered evidence suggesting that there may be some truth to the legend. When people start noticing that Kay can’t seem to make up her mind whether she’s dead or not, Lazlo concludes that he’s got an honest-to-God vampire on his hands, an idea which Alucard helpfully assists him in selling to Brewster by appearing out of thin air in the doctor’s office one night and trying to kill him, along with his new acquaintance from overseas. It’s a good thing for the two eggheads that Lazlo carries a cross. Now they just need to find a way to convince the police that Frank is innocent.
But there’s one more turn left on this screw. Kay doesn’t really love Alucard after all; she’s only using him to get the immortality she craves. Now that she has it, she wants to share it with Frank instead. So Kay hatches a plot with Frank in his jail cell according to which she will release him from his confinement and he will seek out and destroy Alucard. This time, the vampire doesn’t just have an ad hoc committee of amateur ghoul-killers to deal with, he’s also got a mutiny on his hands! Of course, Kay’s little scheme has the potential to backfire on any number of levels...
I think it’s that element of inter-vampire intrigue that makes me like Son of Dracula so much. It takes some of the heat off Chaney, whose big dumb ox persona really is much better suited to the portrayal of werewolves and living mummies than vampires, to have a forceful secondary villain like Kay in the movie. In some ways, it even helps that Count Alucard comes across as something of an oaf; it makes Kay that much more credible a threat to him by making it fully believable that she could outwit and outmaneuver her master.
Another major point in the movie’s favor is its portrayal of Professor Lazlo. He’s neither a quasi-superhero like Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula, nor a buffoon who seems to have blundered accidentally into the vampire-hunting business like Edward Van Sloan’s rendition of the same character in Dracula and Dracula’s Daughter. He’s just an educated man with an odd intellectual hobby, who one day finds himself confronted with the literal reality of the very supernatural evil he has spent so long studying as a tantalizing legend. It was also a smart move on screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s part to have Alucard reveal himself to Brewster directly. Doing so patches up one of the gaping holes left in the script for the original Dracula, to wit: reasonable, modern people are not going to swallow so easily the idea that their town has been invaded by vampires. No matter how many times Van Helsing says “the greatest strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him,” everyone he deals with in the first two films in the series practically falls over themselves in their rush to do exactly that. We don’t have that problem here. Having the vampire himself do the convincing is ever so much more believable a mechanism than the more oblique approaches tried by Son of Dracula’s two predecessors.
In short, this film is a big step up from what came before it. True, the direction is merely workmanlike. True, it’s still a bit wobbly, especially when Chaney tries to act all suave and European, or when the rubber bats are flitting about in a most un-bat-like manner. But it makes up for its shortcomings with an engaging script and a disproportionate number of fresh ideas. This is definitely still a cheeseburger of a movie-- rather than, say, a Peking duck-- but it’s awfully good for what it is.