House Of Dracula
USA 1945 Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
Many people regard House Of Dracula as being the final proper entry from this era to feature Universal’s top three horror franchise characters. Don’t worry though... those people are wrong and not being properly respectful of where the franchise went in the next movie in the series.
House Of Dracula took an awful long time to come out on the DVD home video format and, as a result, it took a long time for me to catch up to it again since seeing it as a nipper. It came very late in the game and wasn’t released on Universal's original run of classic monster DVDs until the reissues, some years later. Thankfully, by that time it was here to stay and is now out in a proper Blu Ray transfer. The missing piece of the Universal horror puzzle is now as easy to see as all the others.
I remember when I did finally catch up with it (having remembered nothing of the film from when I was around 5 or 6 years old), I was heavily disappointed with the movie. The big two problems for me with this one are... well, for one thing, it’s supposed to be a direct sequel to the same director’s House Of Frankenstein (reviewed here) from the year before and, indeed, includes the same three main monsters played by the same actors... John Carradine as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr as The Wolfman and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster. However, although all three characters met their demise in the last film, the only one who has an explanation of how he survived his death is the Frankenstein monster - who is still clasping the skeletal remains of Boris Karloff’s character from the previous film... although they, quite bizarrely, have been washed up in the mud of an undersea cavern. A cavern which, by a strange coincidence, leads into a secret passage revealing Frankenstein’s old laboratory, below the estate of this film’s scientist character, Dr. Edlemann, played by Onslow Stevens.
Not only that but... the film is once again set in Vissaria, where surely the villagers would remember Lawrence Talbot from that time many years ago (in the last movie) when he was there before. It makes no sense.
The other big problem with the film is that, although the ‘big three’ are in each other’s presence in a scene or two in their normal guises, they never actually get to properly meet up in their full-on monstrous incarnations at any time in the film. Dracula is dead by a certain point in the film (well okay, deader... although has transferred his blood into Edlemann, thus turning him into a vampiric killer with the sole purpose of reviving the Frankenstein monster) and, astonishingly for the franchise, Lawrence Talbot is actually cured of his werewolvery, before the Frankenstein monster is revived for the last five minutes of the film. It turns out that all that was causing his ailment was pressures on the brain from calcium deposits, which fooled his glands into thinking his thoughts of turning into a werewolf were true and caused the body to change in the same way. Um... yeah, that really holds no water at all when you think of the origins of the character in the first film and the ‘man out of time’ nature of Talbot, who by now must be nearly 100 years old in terms of when each film was set (Even though the settings of each film are, somehow, always the 1940s... yeah, let’s just screw the continuity again right Universal? After all, nobody was ever going to see these films again once they’d left the cinema on their original release and they would then be forgotten forever.). So yeah, he’s cured but the treatment makes no sense to the symptoms and, anyway, as we’ll see in the next film in the series... the cure obviously didn’t last that long.
Unfortunately then... a monster mash up with no actual mashing up of the monsters and a sequel which makes no attempt to tie itself into the other movies, not even the same director’s House Of Frankenstein from the year before. Not to mention that, in a similar fashion in this film... well, Dracula’s actual house is nowhere to be seen. Unless you count the coffin in the cellars of Edlemann’s estate.
However, for all that and even excusing the cheapness of the budget on this one, if you can get over the disappointment of the main monsters not having a big fight at the end, you will find that this is actually a pretty good movie. It’s really nicely shot and the other elements that make for a classic Universal horror, even down to the casting of Lionel Atwill playing a similar law enforcement role to others he’s played in the Frankenstein movies, are all present and nicely done. There are some great shot set ups such as one, where Dr. Edlemann goes to open the door of his laboratory, pictured opposite camera and centre screen, which uses the perspective and some beautifully distorted, gothic shadows bending up into the middle to really draw the eye into the focus of the shot.
And talking of focus, when one of Edlemann's assistants looks at the sleeping Dracula, he hypnotises her and the whole right hand side of the screen is like someone has applied vaseline to the lens to fog it up, so only the assistant struggling with consciousness can be focused on. I don’t think it is actually vaseline in this case because the fog seems to move a little later on in the shot but it’s very well done however they did it.
There’s another great moment where the same assistant, played by Jane Adams, witnesses the other assistant (played by Martha O'Driscoll) under Dracula’s thrall and they both walk past a mirror. But no, it must be a window into a replica of the set with another actress behind the frame because, as the two walk in front of it, Dracula casts no reflection. It’s a wonderful shot and this kind of trick always reminds me of the ‘mirror scene’ between Groucho and Harpo dressed as Groucho in Duck Soup. Similarly, the moment where Edlemann finally comes under the transformation of Dracula's blood and he is seen standing in front of a mirror as his reflection slowly disappears is, for 1945, exceptionally well done.
Other things of note would be the fact that his lab assistant, played by Jane Adams, is the latest in the long line of hunchback assistants in the Frankenstein franchise. The fact that the hunchback is a female might well have been a first in movies and, similarly, the fact that she’s quite an intelligent and peaceful character is also a first for the hunchbacks of the franchise. So good for them. This film even has a scene which, finally, gives us what we’ve wanted to see since the first of The Wolfman films. The arrogant ‘doctor of the mind’ telling Lawrence Talbot, who is locked in a jail cell, in front of one of his assistants and Lionel Atwill, that his belief that he turns into a werewolf is really all just in his head. Then, just after he’s said this, the full moon rises and Talbot proves him quite wrong as he changes into his ferocious alter ego and tries to escape his cage.
And that’s about it for this one. Lovers of the Universal horror franchise will recognise a lot of the musical moments in this (correctly or incorrectly credited to Willam Lava) from previous films by the likes of Salter and Skinner and that certainly gives it a more authentic feel than, say, The Mummy’s Curse from the year before (and reviewed here). As I said... it’s a shame the monsters never really got the chance to fight but, even though Universal didn’t renew Lon Chaney Jr's contract after this film (he can also be seen as the Frankenstein Monster in a few shots tracked in from The Ghost Of Frankenstein, reviewed here... in fact, there’s even a dream sequence using shots from the majority of Frankenstein films, including some with Karloff), he would return along with both Dracula and the Frankenstein monster in a movie which, finally, gave us the big monster fight scene audiences were waiting for... and, in the process, the monsters saved and rejuvenated another famous franchise... but I’ll get to that story when I review that movie here.