House of Dracula (1945) **½
This was the last remotely serious horror movie Universal Studios would produce until well into the 1950’s, and the final appearance of the studio’s 30’s-vintage monster lineup until 1948, when the long, dismal series of Abbot and Costello crossovers began. So in that light, it’s refreshing to note that House of Dracula is actually a halfway decent flick. For the most part, it’s basically a retread of the previous year’s House of Frankenstein, with Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the werewolf Larry Talbot, a doctor of questionable sanity, and a hunchback all ganging up on the audience. And as with House of Frankenstein, continuity with the previous Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolf Man movies was not a big priority, and again, the Big Three are pretty much wasted here— the Frankenstein monster especially. On the other hand, the proceedings are livened up considerably by the addition of a Jekyll-and-Hyde angle on the mad doctor’s character, and a good deal of formula-tweaking is on display to keep things fresher than they might otherwise have been.
We begin with Count Dracula (John Carradine, reprising his House of Frankenstein role, and actually doing the part something like justice this time) arriving at the home/clinic of Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens, from Them! and The Monster and the Girl), where he transforms from one of Universal’s better rubber bats on the veranda outside the room of a pretty young blonde (Martha O’Driscoll). How exactly Dracula survived being skeletonized by the sun halfway through House of Frankenstein is never addressed. Surprisingly enough, the count does not let himself in to attack the girl (though he certainly spends enough time staring at her through the window), but rather walks around to a set of French doors and enters a small parlor in a different part of the mansion. When he does so, he finds Dr. Edelman sleeping in an oversized chair and wakes the man up. Dracula introduces himself as Baron Latos (the same pseudonym he used in House of Frankenstein), and says that he has come to Edelman for treatment of a rare and troublesome condition. Edelman is understandably puzzled that “Latos” would stop by in the middle of the night, but the “baron” says he will explain all after Edelman escorts him to the basement of his chateau. Said basement proves to contain a coffin marked with the Dracula family arms; Edelman (smart guy that he is) makes the obvious deductions swiftly. Faced with an opportunity to do great and lasting service to humanity, Edelman agrees to look for a cure for Dracula’s vampirism.
The count isn’t the only “monster” in line for Edelman’s services. In fact, the doctor seems practically to have built his practice around such work. For example, his current big project involves an effort to use a curious bone-eating fungus that grows in the caves beneath his castle to remove the osseous hump from the back of his otherwise quite lovely hunchback assistant, Nina (The Brute Man’s Jane Adams). Not only that, a panicky, high-strung man named Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., for the fourth and penultimate time) shows up at Edelman’s place looking for a cure for lycanthropy on the day after Dracula’s arrival. (Talbot’s survival from House of Frankenstein is left just as unexplained as the vampire’s.) Edelman himself is busy with the count when Talbot makes his appearance, though, and the werewolf has no patience for receptionist Miliza Morelle (the blonde Dracula was ogling in the opening scene) or for the clinic waiting room. The moon is going to be full this night, and Larry doesn’t want to go through that routine again. When it turns out that Edelman can’t see him just now, Larry does the next best thing to getting cured, and gets himself locked in the drunk tank at Visaria’s village jail.
He’s the reason Inspector Holz (Lionel Atwill, as yet another Universal horror movie cop!) calls Edelman down to the police station. A few minutes of listening to Talbot talk was enough to convince the policeman that he had a bona fide loon on his hands. That’s what Edelman and Miliza think, too, when they first see Larry raving in his cell. But then the moon rises, and true to his word, Talbot changes into a monster right before their eyes. That’s all Edelman needs; he comes to take Larry to the clinic first thing the next morning.
After poking and prodding him for a while, Edelman concludes that the source of Larry’s problem is an excess of pressure from his skull on certain parts of his brain. This pressure, combined with the mind-over-matter effect of Larry’s belief in his own lycanthropy, stimulates the production of certain hormones, and it is these chemicals that produce the actual physical transformation. Sure, doc— whatever. The thing is, though, that, if Edelman is right, the fungus treatment he’s been developing to treat Nina’s hunch ought to be able to carve out a couple extra millimeters of breathing room inside the wolf man’s skull. The only problem is that Edelman doesn’t have enough of the drug ready to do the job that evening. With another full moon on its way in just a couple of hours, that isn’t good enough for Larry, and he tries to commit suicide by throwing himself off the sea-cliffs on which Edelman’s castle is perched. Of course, even Larry knows that he can’t be drowned (unless maybe he tried to drown himself in molten silver...), so all his high-dive has really accomplished is giving him a new lair in the caves that riddle the cliffside. Shortly before sunrise, Edelman goes down into the caves to find Larry. He does (just a few seconds sooner and that success would have cost the doctor his life), and as an added bonus, he stumbles upon the comatose Frankenstein monster (still clutching Dr. Niemand’s bones, so we know the filmmakers did, in fact, watch House of Frankenstein at least once) as well.
So with all of our monsters now accounted for, we can at last get down to business. Edelman keeps almost resurrecting Frankenstein’s creature (Glenn Strange again), but thinking better of it just in time. Meanwhile, he continues his work on Count Dracula (it involves transfusing Edelman’s blood into the count’s body), building up his stock of fungus serum, and trying to keep Larry from wigging out in his impatience to be quit of his curse. But progress seems to be just a bit too slow on all fronts. Dracula (for whom old habits apparently die hard) has taken quite a liking to Miliza, and begins priming her for vampirization. Worse yet, the count takes advantage of Edelman’s weakness after an especially arduous transfusion to reverse the process, transfusing some of his vampire blood into Edelman’s body, with the effect that Edelman starts Jekyll-and-Hyding every night at sunset. The doctor figures out what’s wrong and how it got that way when he notices one night that he’s lost his reflection. He takes the vampire’s coffin out into the daylight immediately thereafter, but it’s a bit late for that.
Meanwhile, enough fungus serum is ready so that Edelman can operate on one patient. He wants to do Nina first, but Nina insists that Larry get the drug instead. The treatment is a success, but by then, Edelman himself has started running around killing by night, stirring up the usual angry mob of villagers. He also revives the Frankenstein monster at last, just minutes before the torches-and-pitchforks gang shows up at his castle. It’s a bad scene all around, and leaves our cast of characters much depleted before all is said and done.
House of Dracula could have been better, but it could also have been a hell of a lot worse. The decision to divide the movie into a Dracula phase and a Wolf Man/Frankenstein phase was a bad one, though at least the two halves are more thoroughly integrated here than they were in House of Frankenstein. The self-pitying Larry Talbot and his incessant search for a cure have started to wear thin after three consecutive movies, however, and the filmmakers didn’t help the situation any by giving Larry’s feral side only two scenes, each only a couple of minutes long. And the Frankenstein monster is pushed even further to the side, finally waking up with just two minutes left on the clock, its role limited to knocking over enough explosive lab equipment to bring the film to a close.
Then again, matters are improved somewhat by John Carradine’s stronger portrayal of Count Dracula. In comparison to his appearance in House of Frankenstein, Carradine’s performance is much less hammy, and he seems to have given a bit more thought this time to how he was going to approach the character. Since Dracula gets far more screen time than either the werewolf or the Frankenstein monster, this is a pretty big help. Still more important in saving House of Dracula is the character of Dr. Edelman, whose Hyde-like transformations keep the second half of the movie from being almost completely monster-less. I was also impressed to see Nina, a pretty female hunchback in a heroine’s part; Universal’s horror movies were usually so convention-bound that they could have been written by machines, so even a small surprise is disproportionately welcome. This would have been a good way for Universal to put its long-lived monster franchises out to pasture. Such a pity that the studio didn’t have that much class.