Monday, 28 June 2021

Son Of Dracula

Swamp Vamp

Son Of Dracula
USA 1940 Directed by Robert Siodmak
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

So the next up in my rewatch of the classic Universal Monsters movies is Son Of Dracula. Now this is an interesting one for many reasons including the arguments about just who Lon Chaney Jr is playing here. Despite the title, the family line is really not mentioned here in the film, nor any real mention of the Dracula he plays being in any way a chip off the old block. Rather, it’s intimated over half way through the movie, that he’s actually the original, believed to have died in the 19th Century. Which, of course, kinda knocks out the continuity from the previous Dracula films in this series straight away.

The film starts off with a static titles card, introduced by some hands brushing away the cobwebs to reveal the title and the card on which the titles play over. We then find two men, including Dr. Brewster (played by Frank Craven), awaiting the arrival of Count Alucard on a train at the station in the deep southern swampland town in which they make their home. Yep, this is the movie, I think, that started that whole running joke of Dracula hiding his true identity by spelling his name backwards. It’s been used a lot in many films and novels since then, of course.

So, anyway, Alucard is nowhere to be seen but his baggage is, including some rather, ahem, long looking ‘trunks’ which have his name printed on the side. The good Dr. Brewster starts to spell his name out backwards, just for the slowest members in the audience who didn’t pick up on this not too mysterious cypher the first time around. Actually, the elderly Dr. Brewster (the actor died just a few years after this film was made), kind of becomes the main protagonist of the film as he’s the one who pieces it all together and has far more screen time, it seems to me, than anyone else.

Back to the plot. The 'morbidly interested in the occult' Katherine (played by the gorgeous Louise Allbritton, who apparently played a trick on her co-stars by being naked in her coffin in one take which, alas, has probably not been kept) and her sister Claire (played by Chaney costar and Universal monster maven Evelyn Ankers) are awaiting the arrival of Count Alucard in a party Katherine is throwing in his honour. Alucard turns up behind the scenes however, to put in motion what he thinks is Claire’s plan, transforming into a bat and back again... in some quite well done animated overlays, shame about the fake bat... and kills their father. Later on, he and Claire are secretly married, much to the consternation of her actual fiance Frank, who gets into a fight with the super strong Count and shoots him repeatedly with his revolver. Alas, Claire was standing behind Alucard when he does this and, in a wonderful early demonstration of one of the powers of the vampire, is shot dead as the bullets pass through Alucard and into her.

Frank gives himself up and is locked up for her murder but, since she’s doing a lot of talking to people post-death, some find it hard to  believe she is properly deceased. Shenanigans abound as Dr. Brewster and his vampire specialist friend Professor Laslo, played by J. Edward Bromberg, try to destroy the two vampires... before Frank destroys them himself. Bromberg, of course, played the ‘fat funny nazi’ in Invisible Agent (reviewed by me here) but he’s been aged by make up in this and, despite the script completely cutting its ties with Dracula (reviewed here) and Dracula’s Daughter (reviewed here), he really does seem to be made up to have a superficial resemblance to Edward Van Sloan’s portrayal of Van Helsing in those two movies. A deliberate echo, I suspect, to get the audience to sympathise with a vampire hunter in as shorthand a way as possible, to keep the story moving along.

Anyhow, it turns out Claire, all along, was waiting to be made immortal by Dracula so she can do the same for Frank and then get Dracula out of the way in order to live with her former fiance forever. Yeah, she’s a kooky kid alright. I won’t go into the details of the way the Count and Claire meet their demise, which could be considered anti-climactic anyway but I will say that there’s some really nice stuff in this movie.

There’s a nice scene, for instance, when Claire goes to meet Alucard/Dracula, when his coffin floats to the surface of the swamp. Mist then flies out from the coffin and forms into Lon Chaney on screen (some of the effects in this are great... if it wasn’t for that damn fake bat) who then floats (due to the not so subtle point of view of the camera placement) over to the land to be with her. Another nice thing is when Claire, in the form of a bat, goes to bite the neck of Frank while he’s asleep in jail. Instead of seeing the bat performing the actual deed, we see Frank on the bunk and Frank’s shadow behind him, with the shadow of the bat biting the neck of the shadow, even though the bat is actually not in shot and nowhere near Frank. It’s a brilliant piece of suggestive expressionism highlighting the surreal world of the vampire but, I can’t help thinking that they probably already tried the effect with that terrible rubber bat and it looked so bad they were forced to come up with something which, serendipitously, really adds to the atmosphere of the film.

Lon Chaney Jr is always worth watching but he’s generally considered, it seems to me, miscast for the role. Certainly, his usual look of extreme anxiety does the part no favours but he does, at times, play the Count in an overtly hostile manner and, all in all, I think he does as good a job as he can here. I would have liked to see more of him in it as his ‘death’ seems somewhat rushed over and premature when that scene comes near the end of the film. It doesn’t help his performance any, however, when Hans Salter, who recycles a score he wrote with Frank Skinner for a film called Seven Sinners (according to the IMDB), kind of overscores Chaney’s first two appearances in the role with a kind of extended, mysterioso tone which is less than subtle and, honestly, really damages what could have been dramatic moments. I love Salter and Skinner and this usage wasn’t necessarily their idea but, still, it’s one of the few times in the Universal monster movies that I think the scoring is just a little too ‘on the nose’ to be truly appropriate for the scenes.  

That being said, Son Of Dracula, whether Chaney is playing the heir to the Count of Transylvania or actually the real deal, is nothing less than entertaining and watchable. In my opinion, it’s actually Frank Craven’s sound and reasoning Dr. Brewster who actually carries the weight of the film and it’s true that, this one doesn’t seem to really fit in with the other monster movies made by Universal at the time (in a way, it’s almost too sophisticated) but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a corker and always worth a watch. The continuity on the Dracula character, however, would be even further compromised in the next three films he turns up in, played twice by John Carradine and then, one last time, by Bela Lugosi. Which I will get too on this blog at some point soon.

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