“Frank, isn't eternity together... better than a few years of ordinary life?” – Katherine Caldwell
Of the Monster Movies produced by Universal in the forties, I might as well come right out and say that this is possibly my favourite. It’s a deeply flawed film, but it’s head and shoulders above Phantom of the Opera, which is as deluxe a Monster Movie as Universal made at this time. This film though is more like it. Back to monochrome, back to studio soundstage sets for the exteriors – the interior exteriors – and of course back to a more reasonable budget. The script is far in advance of the general trend the Monsters were taking at this time, far more nuanced. This is without a shadow of a doubt part horror/monster movie, with the greater part being a tragic gothic love story. It’s sad that this movie is typically dismissed or the subject of snide putdowns when there’s just so much to enjoy.
Let’s get the problems with the film out of the way, so we can celebrate the greater good.
First, the title – Son of Dracula. Is the title character the son of Count Dracula, and therefore the brother of Countess Marya Zaleska? I don’t think so, though this is implied in a line of dialogue which suggests that Dracula was killed in the 19th century. But that makes no sense because Dracula as played by Bela Lugosi visits 1930s London. Yet another line of dialogue suggests he is the one and only Dracula, which puts this film out of continuity with the rest. Personally, I’m going with this being THE Count Dracula (in line with the billing) travelling under an assumed name of Alucard. (The backward spelling plot device used here for the first time, was later used in The Monster Squad and Dracula AD 1972)
Then there’s the casting. All perfect apart from Dracula himself. Lon Chaney’s well fed, lumbering physique, his gentle accent and his general demeanour are completely wrong for Dracula. Bluntly, Chaney comes across as Dracula’s country cousin. He uses his height well, and Jack Pierce’s makeup makes him look evil, but there’s no hiding those jowls. Bela Lugosi would’ve had a field day with this film, and it’s sad that Lugosi wasn’t asked to reprise his iconic role. (He was at Monogram, a poverty row studio, filming Return of the Vampire which was a Dracula film in all but name and incidentally is great fun to watch.)
As the film starts, were at the railway station of a small town in the Deep South. The setting is the Louisiana bayou and the rich Caldwell family are expecting the arrival of Count Alucard from Hungary, who fails to arrive on the train. That night, a reception is held in the Count’s honour at Dark Oaks – but unknown to his hosts, the absent Count is already around and lurking outside. Taking the form of a bat, he kills the elderly patriarch of the family. (This is the first film in which we actually see the transformation into and out of the form of a bat and of mist.)
With the elderly Colonel gone, his daughters are the sole heirs – Claire Caldwell (Evelyn Ankers) gets the money, Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) gets the mansion. Claire is the nice, normal girl next door type, but Katherine is a morbid Goth all the way. She has her childhood sweetheart in Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) but she’s recently returned from a trip to Hungary and is now full of spiritual and occult ideas. It’s here she met Alucard – and she’s secretly seeing him.
Alucard has been hiding out in the swamp – literally. His submerged coffin floats to the surface and he comes out in the form of a mist, reforming and gliding across the surface of the water to Katherine in a scene that’s eerily dreamlike and effective. They decide to get married there and then and visit a Justice of the Peace to do so in the dead of night.
Frank confronts the happy couple at Dark Oaks and when threatened by Alucard, shoots him. This is where the film REALLY comes into its own as more than your run-of-the-mill Universal Monster Movie and becomes something bigger and more tragic. The bullets pass through Alucard, killing Katherine, who was standing behind her husband. Frank has killed the love of his life and in despair confesses what he has done to Doctor Brewster (Frank Craven).
Brewster heads for Dark Oaks to see for himself and starts snooping around. In the cellar, he finds an empty casket with a layer of soil at the bottom – and caged chickens, with some remains strewn around. I thought that was a clever touch, that the Count would need some sustenance that wouldn’t attract too much attention – he can’t go out killing people every night.
He’s interrupted by Alucard who takes him to see Katherine, seemingly alive and well, and in bed. Pierce’s makeup is subtle but with some eerie lighting, there’s no doubt she’s a vampire. Alucard has consummated their unholy alliance. She claims that she and her husband will be living a reclusive lifestyle, conducting scientific experiments. They mustn’t be disturbed and won’t be receiving visitors.
The following morning, as Frank has confessed to murder, the Sheriff, along with Brewster who insists he’s seen Katherine alive, visits Dark Oaks and finds Katherine, dead in a coffin (daylight hours, of course). Frank is kept in custody – but at night is visited by Katherine who tells him that this was always her plan. She is turned into a vampire by Alucard, who she confirms is Dracula, upon their marriage. She’s now immortal. She doesn’t love him and only married him to be made in to a vampire herself. She persuades Frank to kill Dracula by daylight, then she’s free of that marriage and can turn Frank into a vampire so they can live happily ever after forever.
So, it becomes clear that Dracula isn’t really the villain of the piece – Katherine is literally playing him for a sap, leading him along. Dracula has been manipulated from the very beginning.
She promises to unlock Frank’s cell so he escapes and heads for Dracula’s coffin hidden in a storm tunnel in the swamp, while she waits for him in a childhood playroom in Dark Oaks. Frank finds the coffin and sets it alight just as dawn breaks, so Dracula can’t return to it. Sadly, though Chaney acts this scene with panic and anguish, his accent REALLY lets him down when he shouts to Frank, “Put it out. Put it out, I tell ya!”
Dracula is done for, landing face down in a pool of water, his outstretched hand turning to bone, while Frank heads for Dark Oaks and Katherine. He finds her in the playroom, at rest in a coffin. And he makes the ultimate sacrifice for setting it on fire, freeing her soul.
It’s a stunning ending for its downbeat tone. Nobody wins. Dracula has been vanquished but never had a chance anyway, he didn’t know he was being deceived. Katherine’s soul has been saved, but her dreams of living forever with Frank have gone up in flames, and Frank has lost everything.
In my opinion, a minor masterpiece of a story.
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