Son Of Dracula

>> Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I have to confess a certain surprised giddiness, the kind of feeling you have when you're delighted to be wrong.

As has been mentioned in a comments thread around here somewhere (I think), last month I picked up the Universal "box sets" for the complete classic Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf-Man (I put "box sets" in quotes because while each of these sets includes three to five films, there are only two discs in each set). These are the classic Universal films from the thirties and early forties, the ones that introduced the classic film monsters before they became complete clichés hanging out with Abbott and Costello for comedic effect. The sets are, inevitably, mixed bags: James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein and Tod Browning's Dracula are acknowledged classics while movies like Werewolf Of London are nearly forgotten (or would be, but for Warren Zevon, although I can tell you without spoilers that Werewolf Of London not only stars Henry Hull--and not Lon Chaney, Jr., nor his father--but Mr. Hull does not, in fact, consume a piña colada at Trader Vic's nor show up with a Chinese menu in his hand).

Anyway, I think the conventional wisdom is that Universal milked the franchises well past any expiration date, and that there was a precipitous decline in quality after the first offerings in each series. And it turns out this is a little true and a lot false. I'm giddy because I just watched Son Of Dracula (1943), and while there are a lot of terrible things about this movie, I have to admit that the balance is surprisingly positive.

Regrettably, the bad includes the aforementioned Lon Chaney, Jr. as Count Dracula a.k.a. "Count Alucard," an alias so thin that Son Of Dracula cheekily blows it during the first five minutes of the movie (a character sees "Alucard" on the Count's luggage and immediately starts spelling it backwards and talking about how interesting that is). Whatever Chaney's talents were--and he's consistently failed to impress me whether he's been playing Larry Talbot, Frankenstein's monster or Dracula (Chaney was the only actor in the original Universals to assay all three iconic characters)--he's about as Hungarian as my left testicle, that is to say not a detectable bit. Indeed, the entire cast of SOD appears to be miscast: the film apparently takes place in the American South, with only one small role actually attempting anything like a Southern accent (unfortunately, as a native North Carolinian, testicular comparisons now fail, since my left nut is indubitably from well below the Mason-Dixon in several senses, literal or otherwise).

But the good! Oh, my, my, my, the good! SOD's story was written by Curt "Donovan's Brain" Siodmak, and is something unexpected: smart, clever, devious. Okay, so there's a lot of the stilted dialogue you expect from a '40s film. But beneath that melodramatic exterior is a demented, throbbing, malevolent heart that's completely aware of itself and its audience. I'd rather not spoil any of the twists--and SOD has twists worthy of a film noir--but I can give at least this f'r'instance: remember how I mentioned that the film blows "Alucard's" cheesy cover during the first five minutes? Yeah. Basically the main characters all know or figure out that Dracula is a vampire from almost the beginning of the movie, which means the whole rest of it is various characters figuring out ways to fuck him over, while meanwhile he schemes to take over the whole joint. That's the kind of film it is: one that lays out all of the cards during the first fifteen minutes only to cheerily point out that you're really playing Fizzbin and sorry if you thought the game was Poker or something equally passé.

The special effects are also worth mentioning. So you can see wires on the bat; it's also the first time you see Dracula change form, and the effects (by John P. Fulton) are actually pretty impressive for the era. Vampires change to and from bats and mists, and the bat effect in particular is kind of fucking cool in its speed and simplicity. Kudos.

I suppose the title is worth addressing. Who knows? I guess they couldn't call it Dracula And Some Rich Southern Hicks Keep Trying To Fuck Each Other Over. There's a nod at the title when a character suggests the Count is maybe a descendant of the original Dracula, but come on. We all know it's the Dracula and who do they think they're kidding? Of course they also treat the Bram Stoker novel as kind of an in-movie sourcebook, and Dracula (this can hardly count as a spoiler after more than a century) doesn't come out of that too well; so if the Count is the Dracula, how he "got better" from his prior impalement and decapitation is something of a mystery, but no more of a mystery than how he'd have a kid with that accent. Anyway, you can ignore the title, you might as well.

So it's worth a rental if you can find it, or checking out if it happens to show up on TCM or something. I don't want to rave too much: it was the beginning of the end for the Universal monster franchises, and Lon Chaney's Count really is unfortunate. But there really is an interesting movie underneath the cheesy crust, and I couldn't help thinking while I was watching that this was a movie you could remake with a great deal of fidelity to the source material and have something really, really awesome. And, like I said, there's a giddiness in discovering that something you thought would be kind of crap turns out to be kind of awesome (a rare inversion of Pixies' classic formulation, "How could this so great/Turn so shitty," which, sadly, describes so much life experience and not just crashing your UFO). Anyway, it's loads of fun.


Carol Elaine Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 1:47:00 PM EDT  

It's pretty much a requirement for impaled/decapitated/burnt-to-a-crisp monsters to "get better" - I lost count how many times Christopher Lee managed to rise from a pile of dust in the Hammer Dracula movies. And yeah, Lon Chaney, Jr. has never been a favorite of mine. But the movie you describe sounds interesting - horror and noir all rolled into one cheesy yet fun package.

Son of Dracula is available through Netflix, for those who subscribe to it. It's paired with House of Draucula, which I haven't seen in ages, but remember as being pretty bad.

neurondoc Friday, June 12, 2009 at 3:36:00 PM EDT  

Then there is "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein".


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