Continuing our series of classic horror posts, today we survey Universal Pictures’ Dracula franchise. As we know there have been countless reboots of the Dracula saga, right up to the present day. This post will concentrate only on the classic Universal era. Later we will take a look at the Hammer incarnation as part of the series, and MUCH of Bela Lugosi’s related work, but modern versions (post 1960s) of the Dracula legend will be outside our scope.
The nightmare that started it all. Bela Lugosi, who had starred in the Broadway stage play (1927-1928), defined the character for all time in playing the lead, although both the studio and director Tod Browning dithered for some time before finally casting him. Which is as well—Lugosi is indelible, indistinguishable from the role, permanently etched in our minds. Lugosi seemed incapable of being anything but creepy, weird, and portentous. Also from the Broadway cast came Edward Van Sloan who IS Dracula’s nemesis Professor Van Helsing.
Filmed by cinematographer Karl Freund (and by all accounts substantially directed by him as well), I find the film unspeakably gorgeous, moody, atmospheric. It happens entirely at the level of a dream or a fairy tale…not of logic. Incredible Gothic visions, carriages on mountain roads, the castle, cobwebs and candelabras! I love the scene where Dracula’s three wives come out of their coffins. Are those possums crawling about? Armadillos? And a tiny bug climbs out of a tiny coffin? Yet there are plenty of technical crudities, fairly unavoidable at this early stage of sound motion picture production. The bats are crudely done, and the transformation (from man to bat and vice versa) always takes place off camera. We hear the wolves but never see them.
Things are changed around from Bram Stoker’s book. Here it is Renfield (Dwight Fry) who comes to Castle Dracula to sell the abbey, setting it up for his later bug-eating lackeydom. The screenplay seems composed entirely of quotable catch-phrases, much like modern films. (Yet a silent film test on one of the DVD bonus features shows that the film may work better as a silent, which was of course the milieu Browning knew best). And the various characters are hilariously myopic in their inability or unwillingness to realize the reality that is literally staring them right in the face. David Manners as always plays an ineffectual, effeminate hero; Helen Chandler plays Mina. And the blatant Pre-Code metaphor of corruption and sexual pollution, implicit in the idea of an animal transformation that results from the intimate act of a bite on the neck.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
“Karloff!” spits the elderly Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), with bitterness and jealousy in Tim Burton’s brilliant Ed Wood. Throughout their long, seemingly parallel careers it always seemed that Boris Karloff got the best of everything (roles, prestige, critical praise) whereas Lugosi always got the leavings. But that disparity always comes back to a decision made by Lugosi himself back in 1931. Set to play the role of the Monster in Frankenstein, he backed out of the role, thinking it was beneath him. Karloff stepped into the part, had a smash hit and was lauded by the critics. And Lugosi was forever and ever associated with Dracula, much as he hoped to escape it. And he tried darn hard to escape it. In MGM’s 1935 Mark of the Vampire he reunited with Tod Browning and played an exceedingly Dracula-LIKE vampire. But when it came time for the many Dracula sequels, Lugosi would not take part for quite some time.
And not only did Lugosi suffer by comparison to Karloff, but the Dracula franchise suffered by comparison to that of Frankenstein. For example, Universal had hoped that James Whale, whose 1935 Bride of Frankenstein was very likely his masterpiece, would come back the following year and direct the Dracula sequel Dracula’s Daughter. But he didn’t want to do two monster pictures in a row. Most of the major horror stars of the day stayed away from Dracula’s Daughter, and the OTHER stars didn’t want to do a horror film, AND the Production Code had come into play and hurt horror substantially (recall the sexual themes I mentioned above).
So the result here, is a disjointed, lackluster, uneven thing. It feels to me like an attempt to mix horror with a “women’s picture”. The opening scene promises much; it is duly atmospheric and scary. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan again) has just killed Dracula and Renfield. He’s taken to jail (one of the comical constables is silent comedy star Billy Bevan) but then the daughter of Dracula Countess Olenska (Gloria Holden) comes and steals the body…only to destroy it with fire, prayer and a cross. Which is odd, since she proves to be a vampire. But she doesn’t want to be one. She spends the bulk of the picture bemoaning the fact that she is one, and trying not to be one. Meanwhile her weird lackey Sandor (Irving Pichel) hovers around reinforcing her vampirism. She falls in love with a psychiatrist who has been brought in to help Van Helsing. She wants very much for him to be undead with her. In the end a jealous Sandor shoots and kills her with an arrow.
The movie lacks Gothic touches and, really, is anything but sexy or scary (after that first scene). Olenska hypnotizes her victims, but it is not scary. We don’t see bites, not bats, nor wolves, nor moving mists (although there is a bit of fog). Many of the sets are brightly lit contemporary locations, not the slightest bit moody. An unworthy follow up to the original.
Son of Dracula (1943)
This one should be called the “Ne’er-Do-Well, Good for Nothing Son of Dracula”, as it’s only Lon Chaney Jr. in the role, fresh off his blockbuster success in The Wolf Man (1941). It is set in latter day, Louisiana bayou country. A coffin belonging to one “Count Aculard” arrives, as predicted by a local telepathic girl. While she is consulting with her mentor, the fortune teller Queen Zimba, a bat comes in and attacks the latter. But not before Zimba warns her that Aculard is evil. Her father is attacked, and is dying.
Then Aculard shows up. (If you haven’t yet spelled “Aculard” backwards, get off my blog.) Chaney in the role is the opposite of hypnotic and compelling. He is too much of a lummox to be the supposedly suave Dracula. The girl inherits the plantation then marries Dracula, much to the distress of her fiancé who shoots her. He thinks he has murdered her and turns himself in to the police. But a local doctor is convinced that she is undead. She is vindicated somewhat when she appears to the hero in his cell and says that she did it so they both could have immortality and she plans to kill Dracula. She frees the hero and gets him a gun. He makes it to the plantation and fights with Dracula, who is exposed to sunlight and dies. Then he burns the house containing the corpse of the heroine.
A couple of interesting elements in the film. When the victim is a man, Dracula turns into a bat before he sucks the blood (to avoid homoerotic connotations). And in several scenes the vampires change into mist.
Return of the Vampire (1943)
I know this one is a cheat and a rip off, but it does sort of fit into the mythos and it’s as close to Lugosi got to Dracula for many years. Return of the Vampire is a Columbia picture. They essentially stole the characters of Dracula and the Wolf Man from Universal (and gave them different names). But having Lugosi as a vampire in a black cape…if it looks like a bat, and flaps its wings like a bat…Should I bother telling you about it? Okay! Well, it’s very much a “B” movie. The graveyard set reminds me very much of the ones Ed Wood would work with ten years later. Cheaply fabricated in a small studio, with lots of dry ice for atmosphere. World War II dominates the film, mostly as a framing device. After an air raid, a couple of wardens (one of whom is Billy Bevan, who’d been in Dracula’s Daughter!) patrol a blitzed graveyard, and pull the stake out of a deceased vampire’s heart (Lugosi). The vampire has an assistant, a preposterous, unintentionally comical talking werewolf with a cartoon nose. The werewolf doesn’t attack people, he just acts as the assistant for the vampire. He was in a sort of werewolf rehab for several decades, but now he has relapsed.
A woman scientist, the daughter of the man who first conquered the vampire is onto him, and lots of the usual stuff transpires as the vampire pursues the daughter etc. This vampire’s social skills are much better than Dracula’s. He moves about in the world, albeit at night, and he doesn’t act nearly as weird. (He was formerly vampire expert—he wrote a book on the subject). In the end, we have another German air raid, and the werewolf himself drives the stake through the vampire’s heart. Not Dracula, but the next best thing.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
By the mid 40s, with their aging horror franchises (and stars) losing box office juice, Universal resorted to All-Star Games. As the title indicates, this story belongs much more in the Frankenstein canon than the Dracula one, although John Carradine plays the character of Dracula in the film. The tall, glowering, wooden-voiced and affected Carradine makes a vastly better Dracula than Chaney had, and for this reason he ranks with Lugosi and Christopher Lee as one of the great Draculas (in fact, he played the character for decades). But we’ll talk more in depth about this particular film in our upcoming Frankenstein post.
House of Dracula (1945)
The genre dies a second death here, we’re getting near the end of classic Universal horror. This one concerns a certain doctor whom all the Universal Horror monsters visit in order to be cured of their maladies. First John Carradine shows up as Dracula, then Lon Chaney as the Wolfman arrives. The doctor has a pretty hunchbacked nurse—that should give us some indication of the trouble to arrive! Only MAD doctors have hunchbacked assistants! When the Wolfman turns and escapes, the doctor follows him to a cave…where they uncover the body of Frankenstein (Glenn Strange)! The doctor is tempted to revive the monster, but is convinced it would be evil. Meanwhile he appears to have cured the Wolfman. He is in the process of curing Dracula of vampirism with a transfusion…but the latter turns the tables and puts his own blood into the doctor. Later there is a struggle, and Dracula is exposed to sunlight and dies. Unfortunately now the doctor turns into a vampire. Now that he is evil, he instantly revives the Frankenstein Monster. Mayhem, and an all-consuming fire, ensue.
Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
Rather hilarious that THIS was the one and only Dracula sequel Lugosi returned for. But by this point he had debased himself so much in B movie roles for small studios (see upcoming post) that now the chance to play Dracula in a Universal Picture, even in a silly comedy, represented a distinct and lucrative step UP. Here the Monster All-Star Team take turns scaring Lou Costello, who screams for help from Bud Abbott. The monsters slink away before Abbott arrives, making Costello appear foolish. This happens about 70 times, and then they roll the closing credits.
Coming up next: The Frankenstein movies!