by David Cornelius
By 1943, Universal was up and running with its second wave of horror classics, with a handful of stand-alone titles complimenting the successes of the “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” and “Invisible Man” franchises. And yet for the movie that started the entire Universal monsters boom twelve years earlier, the studio was just now getting around to a second sequel.“Son of Dracula” arrived in theaters seven years after “Dracula’s Daughter,” and the gap shows. This one’s a sequel in name only, with the continuity of the first two films completely ignored, so much so that it’s never mentioned if the title character is the son of Dracula, or just Dracula himself. (It’s been said that he was intended to be the original Drac, but the “Son of” was added to the title to avoid confusion, what with the casting change and all.)
"Cool movie... lousy casting."
Actually, his name here is Count Alucard, a joke so obvious that writers Curt Siodmak (who also penned “The Wolf Man” and its monster crossover sequels) and Eric Taylor (another Universal vet, coming off a script for the studio’s “Phantom of the Opera” remake) don’t even bother making it a secret - in one of the film’s opening scenes, a character notices the name on a piece of luggage laid upside-down and sideways, ending with an “I wonder…” look in his eye.
The good count is played here by Lon Chaney, Jr., and it’s one of the most woeful bits of miscasting in movie history. Chaney always worked best when playing the troubled type - Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” Lawrence Talbot in the “Wolf Man” series, Martin Howe in “High Noon” - with his aw-shucks nature getting us to feel for him instantly. He’s a success in “The Wolf Man” because we know he’s no bad guy, which makes his curse all the more tragic.
But as the vampire to end all vampires? It’s a hard sell. Universal’s hopes that the name and the success of “The Wolf Man” meant they could cast him as a wide variety of villains, apparently not realizing that Chaney’s screen presence is far from commanding in roles such as Dracula/Alucard. There’s no sexual energy or devilish charisma. It’s just Chaney in a cape. Meh, as they say.
Fortunately, Chaney’s a good enough sport, and - more importantly - the film is chock full of old fashioned Universal Monster fun, that the movie still works. Siodmak and Taylor give this one their best shot, tossing off what feels like a distant cousin to the studio’s “Mummy” sequels. Director Robert Siodmak (Curt’s brother; he’d later go on to helm “The Killers” and “The Crimson Pirate”) keeps the low budget charm rolling, thanks to a good eye for atmosphere and a better sense of all-around fun.
The plot finds Alucard coming to America, something about the soil of Europe becoming too dry and lifeless, while good ol’ U.S. soil is “stronger and more verile.” (The wartime jingoism doesn’t stop there; patriotic symbolism abounds, and the film even ends with a reminder to buy war bonds and stamps in the lobby.) Alucard’s been invited over by Kay Caldwell (the stunning Louise Allbritton, seen here going brunette), a modern day southern belle with a bit of a morbid streak - we first meet her as she’s off to meet the local voodoo witch, just one of the tricks the movie plays in using the Deep South as a local stop for gothic flavor (there’s that “Mummy” connection I mentioned earlier), the swamplands, priestesses, and decaying plantations a suitable replacement, mood-wise, for the darker corners of Europe.
Alucard seduces Kay (or perhaps it’s the other way around), the two get hitched (much to the chagrin of Kay’s fiancé), and soon a couple of Van Helsing types are left curious about a rash of bizarre occurrences around town.
It’s typical 1940s Universal fare, with a few nice twists. The script refuses to leave the plot as simplistic as I’ve just described it; there are ulterior motives at play, which add to the giddiness of the proceedings. The writers also had a bit of fun with the vampire legend, talking up the idea of the burning of a vamp’s coffin as an alternative means of neckbiter disposal. Meanwhile, the special effects team, while still dependent on Rubber Bat Technology, manages to provide a few nifty moments, most of which involve the deliciously eerie use of mist. And, most thankfully, the comic relief isn’t nearly as groan-inducing as it was in “Dracula’s Daughter.”
Perhaps this last fact is due to the film’s apathy toward being a sequel at all. The previous film in the series had a lot to follow, trying to combine the original movie’s dark chills with a more up-to-date storytelling sensibility; the styles clashed quite painfully. In “Son of Dracula,” however, nobody’s even bothering to reference Tod Browning’s landmark film. Instead, the filmmakers are quite wisely content in making “just another” studio chiller. It’s more in step with the other wartime monster flicks than with anything of the decade before. By ignoring its predecessors, “Son of Dracula” shakes off any hindering comparisons.All you have to do, then, is get past the clumsiness of Lon Chaney, Jr., in the lead role, and you’re off to enjoying a slight, breezy programmer, one more of Universal’s dependably enjoyable monsterfests.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=9788&reviewer=392
originally posted: 10/28/05 15:22:26