DraculaFest: The Universal Sequels

I decided I couldn’t close out DraculaFest without revisiting the many movies both Universal and Hammer Films pumped out in the wake of their respective Dracula successes. To that end, here are some quick takes on the remainder of the output of these two studios. Today it’s Universal!

draculasdaughterDracula’s Daughter (1936): This direct sequel to the classic Universal Dracula is, surprisingly, Lugosi-free. It picks up right after the first film with Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only returning actor) accused of murder. Gloria Holden gives a memorable and unsettling performance as Dracula’s daughter, Contessa Marya Zeleska, fighting her own vampiric nature to no avail. Irving Pichel steals the show as Sandor, the Countess’ sardonic servant, who never misses an opportunity to voice his disapproval. A thoroughly unnecessary screwball romance between two side characters derails the suspense a time or two, and the Van Helsing plot goes nowhere at all, but Zeleska and Sandor make a fun duo. Not quite a classic, but worth it for any fans of Universal horror. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Son of Dracula (1943): Boring! I’m not sure why it’s called Son of since the main character appears to be just, erm, Dracula. He’s cleverly masquerading as Count Alucard, because that’s DRACULA SPELLED BACKWARDS! Get it? Wink, wink. This is reiterated time and again in case you don’t figure it out. Dracula has become a grifter who marries an heiress so he can run her Southern plantation, Dark Acres. Why? So he can leave the Old World to live in a “younger, more virile” country. Proto-‘Murica, y’all! Lon Chaney, Jr. cuts a lackluster figure as the Count and should stick with Larry Talbot. We don’t get to see Dracula insinuate his way into Southern society, or seduce Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) for her sweet digs; we only witness the aftermath and watch people standing around talking about it incessantly. A few moments spark interest, but then we’re back to the melodrama and contemplating fast-forward. Watch only to avoid election coverage. 0.5 out of 2 fangs out.

house_of_frankenstein_002House of Frankenstein (1944): This is more like it–the type of film Universal horror does best, ticking all the boxes. Mad scientist and sniveling assistant! Cursed monsters and the women who love them! Villagers with torches and pitchforks! Insane plots best left unscrutinized! Boris Karloff eschews the monster role to play Dr. Niemann, the latest in a string of mad scientists trying to carry on the work of Victor Frankenstein. He concocts a preposterous plan to punish his enemies by resurrecting various monsters to do his bidding: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. It goes about as well as you’d expect, with a final, frenzied orgy of revenge that sees all of the characters kill each other off. Makes little sense, but who cares? Pure cinematic fun! J. Carrol Naish is Daniel, a Notre Dame-like hunchback who pays a steep price for beating a (not quite) dead horse. In strictly Dracula terms, it sure ain’t the Count’s finest hour. John Carradine does little with the role, and Dracula gets offed like a chump in the first reel, never to return. Lon Chaney, Jr. reverts to the Larry Talbot role and proves he should stick with fur over fangs. The only slight disappointment is the lack of a proper dust-up between the three inconic monsters, but it’s plenty of fun anyway. Too bad Drac gets such a poor showing. 1.5 out of 2 fangs out.

House of Dracula (1945): These sequels sure have a template, don’t they? A direct sequel to House of Frankenstein, this one follows Dracula’s attempts to be cured at the hands of Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens). John Carradine returns as Count Dracula and once again leaves little lasting impression. As before, Dracula gets taken out early, like a chump (in his own movie! And in the same way!), though he does last a bit longer this time. Again, Chaney’s Wolfman takes center stage and proves he’s the Casanova of this troupe with another romantic subplot. And again, Glenn Strange‘s Frankenstein Monster comes to life at the very end and wreaks havoc until everyone dies. Except for Larry Talbot, who is cured of lycanthropy and becomes the only Universal monster to receive a happy ending! The hunchback this time around is a female nurse named Nina (Jane Adams) who believes Dr. Edelmann’s promise of a cure–again, in vain. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the endless supply of hunchback lab assistants or the correlation made between deformity and monstrosity. As with the last film, the monsters never really meet and just carry on parallel plotlines. Is it so much to ask for an honest-to-goodness monster brawl? No Karloff this time, and he’s sorely missed. Not as much fun warmed over again, but there’s an undeniable glee anytime this many horror icons appear in one film. 0.75 fangs out of 2 fangs out.

Annex-Abbott-Costello-Abbott-and-Costello-Meet-Frankenstein_01Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Today it’s easy to forget how the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello dominated the box office throughout the ’40s. This is the first of their Meet series and, despite the title, includes the entire trinity of Universal horror. Once again Frankenstein receives top billing even though the film is largely about the struggle between Dracula and the Wolfman. (No, I’m not gonna touch the whole “the monster is not Frankenstein” argument. This is a Dracula review, and I don’t have a horse in that race.) Bela Lugosi returns as the Count for the first time since the original; it’s also the last, barring a few cameos. Though hammy and theatrical, his is the iconic Dracula performance, and it’s nice to see him return–if only for a comedy. Abbott and Costello perform their usual shenanigans, mostly revolving around myopic vision and misunderstandings. Lon Chaney, Jr. provides great physical comedy as the Wolfman, culminating in a dive off the balcony to seize the Dracula-bat in mid-air! We finally get to see these classic monsters interact a bit, as Dracula controls the Frankenstein monster for much of the running time, and Larry Talbot decides to try and stop them for some reason. It’s a fun romp without much sense to it, which is what you’d expect from this type of flick. It’s the last we see of these icons for a while, and a serviceable send-off at that. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure why Universal plays musical chairs with the creature actors in these sequels, but it makes for confusion and inconsistency. Five movies, four different Draculas. And Karloff playing a random scientist opposite the monster he made famous? Why? Despite this, the background players remain strangely consistent. Lionel Atwill plays a police inspector in five of the Universal films, each the same basic character but with a different name. Where exactly is this village that always becomes the center of monstrous disruptions? Villagers in lederhosen, British-style bobbies, and lots of American styles and accents. Welcome to Warnerland!

After jump-starting the Universal Monsters franchise, Dracula quickly takes a backseat to the likes of Frankenstein and the Wolfman. He never quite achieves the heights of his original outing. Still, there’s an undeniable sense of fun in the Universal ouevre, a trait sorely missing in most horror. We remember them fondly with good reason. As a whole these films represent lightning in a bottle, never recaptured again.

Next time: Please, Hammer, don’t hurt ’em!

DraculaFest: Universal’s Dracula

So, this is the one. When someone asks if you’ve seen Dracula, they’re more than likely referring to Universal’s Dracula (1931), the film that launched a memorable era of movie monsters and defined vampires to this day. Universal had been making horror films–like The Man Who Laughs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame–for years before they turned to Stoker’s novel. But Dracula launched Universal horror into the stratosphere and made its central figure the first of a team that would come to be known as the Universal Monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Varsity horror!

Caption

Always hits his eye light.

Classic films don’t always hold up to modern scrutiny. But, even now, it’s clear why Dracula captivated audiences and launched a cinematic dynasty. Director Tod Browning and writer Hamilton Deane switched from adapting the book to the contemporary stage play when their budget went south, but made few changes to the source material. Renfield replaces Jonathan Harker as the Count’s visitor to Transylvania. Mina is repositioned as Dr. Seward’s daughter. The Count never makes it out of Carfax Abbey in the final act, simply staked by Van Helsing while still in his coffin. Otherwise, the story remains familiar.

I mentioned the liminality of the Hammer films but was surprised to find similar ambiguities in this version. London clearly lives in the ’30s–with the post-flapper fashions and fancy motorcars–even though it doesn’t particulary feel like London. Dracula’s Transylvania, by contrast, seems stuck in the novel’s Belle Époque, all peasants and horse-drawn carriages. An amusing assortment of vermin overrun Dracula’s castle, including a possum (!), two armadillos (!!) and odd bugs crawling out of miniature coffins. (One assumes a vampire has no reason to fear rabies or leprosy.) The ambiguous setting creates a timeless feel that preserves the atmosphere to this day. Cinematographer Karl Freund no doubt deserves a lion’s share of credit for importing German Expressionist sensibilities to Hollywood. I love the use of Swan Lake as the opening theme, not an obvious choice but still somehow unsettling. This hodgepodge of influences keeps the film from feeling dated, unlike many versions to follow.

Who let the armadillos out?

Who let the armadillos out?

And then there’s the acting. For ill or good, Bela Lugosi‘s Dracula is the Count that springs to mind when you hear the name. His appearance and performance encode all the traits associated with Dracula and vampires in general: the widow’s peak, the tux and cape, the jazz hands, the overwrought Slavic accent. Although parodied without mercy for almost a century, this Dracula holds fast as the One True Count, embodying the character more than the novel itself. Edward Van Sloan provides a memorable Van Helsing in chunky spectacles, but Dwight Frye steals the show in the film’s other iconic performance as the fly-eating Renfield. Charles K. Gerrard and Joan Standing are entertaining in walk-on bits as the maid and the asylum orderly. Helen Chandler, David Manners and Frances Dade are adequate but forgettable as Mina, Jonathan and Lucy. The trio, Americans all, don’t even attempt British accents, which adds to the un-London factor. (Based on later attempts, perhaps that was wise.)

Atmospheric more than terrifying today, this remains a classic. The webbed columns of Carfax Abbey and the infested ruins of Castle Dracula inspired untold horror movies to come. Later adventures of the Universal Monsters descend into parody; once Abbot and Costello show up, you know the horror’s over. Still, the legacy of this film is hard to overestimate. I doubt a majority of the later DraculaFest flicks would even exist without this, the Dracula Handbook.

Dracula earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Another classic!

Next time: En Español!