1940s, 2/4, Horror, Review, Richard Siodmak, Universal Monsters

Son of Dracula

#17 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.

There are some interesting things percolating around in this Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle in the Dracula universe, but it’s too leaden narratively, overly concerned with lore and rules and explaining them in detail, rather than telling an interesting story. It doesn’t help that Chaney himself is horribly miscast as the titular count, but the director, Robert Siodmak, does some interesting things visually, especially regarding the new setting, and there’s a surprisingly good ending that comes along. These smaller details do nothing to save the film as a whole, but at least it’s not a complete slog.

The mysterious Count Alucard is coming to New Orleans at the invitation of Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), the daughter to a plantation owner who dies mysteriously in flames the night Alucard misses the train and appears several hours later mysteriously and with a tale of missing his car ride. The movie at least doesn’t treat its audience like idiots, choosing to reveal to us early that of course this is Dracula. It’s just the characters that have to figure it out. We even see a cleverly done (using the combination of animation and a dissolve) transformation of the count from bat to man.

Katherine has a fiancé, Frank (Robert Paige), who stands with her through the tragedy of her father’s death, even when she reveals the hidden will that grants her Dark Oaks, the plantation, leaving the rest of the money to Katherine’s sister, Claire (Evelyn Ankers). Katherine breaks things off with Frank, though, and quickly marries the strange Count Alucard in a secret ceremony at night, cutting off Dark Oaks from the rest of the world with the count talking about scientific experiments that will occupy them during the day and only having invited visitors at night. The town’s doctor, Brewster (Frank Craven), reaches out to a professor at a local university, Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg) about the history of this supposedly Hungarian count, even wondering about the name spelled backwards into Dracula, and the exposition starts.

I thought we were going to get around a lot of it because Brewster is seen reading Dracula at one point, we even get a close up of the text with the heading clear as day. This would imply that the events of the first film were real, and that Jonathan Harker published his diary. Well, that’s a neatly clever way to get around all the explanation characters need about the rules of vampires. Except that Lazlo ends up giving all of the explanation anyway. There are certain expansions of Dracula’s powers, most notably his ability to turn into fog (something from the book that the films had never been able to implement), but we get a rerun of all of the rules, not just the new ones, and it’s not like Bromberg delivers them with panache.

It really drags the film down. Not that it had been great up to this point, but it had been engaging enough, especially regarding the Southern Gothic look of the Louisiana bayou where Dracula stands tall on top of his coffin floating down a small stream. The setting allows for a lot of deep, dark shadows, kind of a prototype noir that Siodmak would later become more famous for like The Killers. Add in men with hats and even a femme fatale in the form of Katherine embracing the life of a vampire, and you’re got Universal making a monster noir. I really appreciate that. It’s where this movie is best.

There are confusions around a supposed death that Frank blames himself for, the slow realization by the characters of the dangerous evil that has invaded their shores, and we actually get a decent explanation for why the count would want to leave Transylvania in favor of the New World (something we never got in Dracula). Katherine ends up having an interesting hidden motive, but it’s just kind of flatly laid out, preventing it from being much more than that.

The resolution is actually pretty thoroughly a downer, and it works. Along with the Southern Gothic vibe of the whole affair, it represents the main joys of the film. Frank has to make a choice. He can follow Katherine into evil, or he can find a way out for everyone. It works.

And yet, there are characters like Claire that go nowhere. There’s Lazlo blandly explaining vampire lore. And in the middle of it all is Chaney. He felt appropriate as the out of place American brought to England to reconnect with his heritage in The Wolf Man, but he’s just all wrong as a Transylvanian count. Never mind that he doesn’t even try an accent (probably a good thing considering I imagine he couldn’t have come close to pulling it off), but he’s not really suave or charming. He doesn’t sell himself as the count, especially in comparison to Bela Lugosi in the first film. This wouldn’t be a problem if Count Alucard weren’t supposed to essentially just be Dracula again. Dracula’s Daughter went in a different direction with its protagonist, but she wasn’t supposed to just be another Transylvania countess. She was trying to break with her heritage. Here, Alucard really is just another one, and giving the role to Chaney doesn’t work.

Does the whole of the film work? Not really. Chaney’s miscast and there’s too much exposition. However, it does do well with its setting and its ending. That’s not enough to make the whole film worthwhile, but it’s enough to keep it from being a complete waste.

Rating: 2/4

10 thoughts on “Son of Dracula”

  1. Who’d have guessed the the writer of ‘Bride of the Gorilla’ could craft a good ending.

    Oddly, I’m coming around to liking Curt Siodmak’s screenplays. Something pleasing and cheesy about his output. And his brother’s direction is visually interesting; I’ve seen worse.

    I’m also coming around to liking Lon Chaney Jr more. He’s not his father (who is?) but there’s a solidity to him, a sincerity that’s not bad. He’s terribly cast here, I agree, and in other roles. But you give him the right character and he fits in fine.

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      1. I….skimmed (shameful look) on my laptop.

        Honestly, I found the ending affecting. Putting the ring on her finger…I actually got goosebumps. Not due to any horror, just for human tragedy. And I LIKED Katherine, it’s nice to have a monster you root for.

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      2. How dare you only skim the cinematic masterpiece known as Son of Dracula?!

        As an aside, I’m guessing you don’t have a smart TV. Smart TV’s have browsers that can access ok.ru and other such sites. That’s how I tend to view the movies I can’t find otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I have a Kindle Fire Stick on a TV that is not directly connected to the internet. I do the ok.ru stuff on my laptop, which works fine some nights, but not on others. Laptop viewing is too prone to distractions while if I’m watching on the bigger screen, I’m more inclined to pay attention.

        I got to thank you, and the Russians, for helping me watch old stuff that’s not on Amazon Prime or YouTube.

        Like

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