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The Dracula Movies- The Universal sequels

19 Jun

I couldn’t talk about Todd Browning’s 1931 film of Dracula without touching on the successful horror franchise it spawned (along with James Whale’s version of Frankenstein). There is nothing here to compare with the Frankenstein sequels (Bride of Frankenstein especially) but there are some notable Dracula films from Universal. I’ll come to the 1979 Universal film in due course, but that (and 2004’s Van Helsing) were made so long after the original run of films that they are not really part of the same series.

Also, although technically not a sequel, the Spanish version of Dracula was produced at the same time Browning’s 1931 movie. I’ve not seen it yet, so I shall have to reserve judgement, all though I am aware that it is well regarded.

The best of the Universal series…

Dracula’s Daughter (1936).

An informal sequel to Dracula, which sees Edward Van Sloan return as Van Helsing to encounter Dracula’s daughter, (played by Gloria Holden) who goes by the name of Countess Marya Zaleska.
In this film the Countess treats her vampirism as a hereditary disease; she spends most the movie seeking to get rid of the family curse, from turning up to claim her father’s body, which she ritually burns, through to even seeking medical help in an effort to cure her lust for blood.
Gloria Holden is quite good in the part. She brings a certain hypnotic, on-screen presence to the role and successfully manages to maintain a slightly sinister undertone, despite the film’s overall leaning towards ambiguity. The film seems intent on reminding the viewer that there’s no concrete evidence for her vampirism and implying that she’s simply a troubled (and possibly mad) woman. Whilst this gives the film a certain air of mystery, it does rather dampen down the ‘horror’ film effect. It does make up for this somewhat with a few very evocative scenes where the Countess shows her mesmeric powers to great effect, and also a return to Castle Dracula towards the end of the film, where the Countess is seen rising from her coffin.
It’s not the best of vampire movies and it’s probably a tad on the slow side. But nevertheless, it’s still deeply atmospheric, and I found it even more watchable than the 1931 film which spawned it, which was helped by this film actually having a half decent score, and slightly better performances.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Although the Universal star Lon Chaney is most associated with his role as The Wolfman, he did infact play The Mummy several times, and also Frankenstein’s monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, before appearing here as a version of Dracula. Unlike the previous film, no attempt is made to establish a link to the actual Dracula that appears in Universal’s 1931 classic, except via a very loose mention in passing. I don’t know quite why this film is called Son of Dracula. Perhaps Universal didn’t want to bother thinking up a way of resurrecting the original Count, or perhaps they felt that Lugosi, being the only person to play Dracula up to this point, was too closely identified with the character by audiences to accept a portrayal by a different actor.
Anyway, although the film does score points on a number of other levels, it’s my opinion that Chaney wasn’t anything other than average as an actor and I think his performance here reflects that.
In this film, Dracula, who is travelling ‘incognito’ as Count Alacard, (an idea later re-used in Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972) turns up in America on a southern plantation, & subsequently ends up in cohorts with a young heiress called Katherine Caldwell, who has a rather dark fascination with supernatural and occult matters.
The interesting slant with this movie is that Katherine isn’t mesmerized by Dracula at all in the way that most of his female victims are. In fact, she has a plan to gain eternal life through being vampirised by Dracula and for her fiancée to then destroy Dracula, leaving her to pass on the gift of immortality to him, so that they can spend eternity together.
It’s a quite a busy little movie that sets into motion a fairly complex chain of events involving the various characters, which include a ‘Professor Laslo’, who is a ‘Van Helsing’ by proxy, who’s very knowledgeable about Dracula and vampires in general, played by J.Edward Bromberg, who in my opinion gives a much more effective portrayal than his predecessor Edward Van Sloan did as Van Helsing. Robert Paige gives a largely convincing performance as Katherine’s fiancée and Louise Allbritton further augments the generally good performances in this film with an evocative performance as Katherine.
The movie also benefits from some nice visual set pieces, such as the highly eerie scene where Dracula first materializes from his coffin at in the swamp, and floats across the water to make his first contact with Katherine. The film utilizes several times the idea of Dracula transforming into and from a misty vapour, something which the later Hammer films would use to great effect.
In fact to be honest, there’s not too much to fault this movie on, aside from Chaney’s Dracula, who for me is the weakest link. The large framed Chaney looks like an older, slightly overweight Vincent Price, and although he looks visually imposing in at least one scene, where he throws Katherine’s fiancée through a door, in a display of inhuman strength, he generally doesn’t exude the malevolent demeanour that comes through in the best Dracula portrayals at certain times. His voice doesn’t sound right somehow and his acting unfortunately errs towards the side of wooden, for the most part.
As a film it has quite a lot going for it, and I’d rate it higher were it not for the fact that the most important character of the film is overshadowed by the rest of the cast.

House of Dracula (1945)

The poster pretty much sums it up- it's a bit of fun, but not likely to be very scary!

A year after Son of Dracula, Universal made the first of its ‘monster fests’ in 1943, with Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Their classic period was coming to an end and they followed up in 1944 with House of Frankenstein, which incorporated not only Frankenstein and the Wolfman, but also Count Dracula, played by John Carradine.
Carradine’s Dracula returned one more time along with Frankenstein and the Wolfman in 1945’s House of Dracula, which is the final film included on the Universal box set of Dracula movies.
Personally, I don’t really class this as a proper Dracula movie, any more than House of Frankenstein. It’s merely a vehicle for Universal to bring their classic monsters together (with the conspicuous exception of The Mummy) in one last outing before they’re consigned to the humiliating fate of meeting with Abbot & Costello a couple of years later (Poor Bela Lugosi in his second ever on screen Dracula appearance).
As a Dracula movie it’s by far the poorest outing on this blog, but as a mildly entertaining, no-brainer romp, it’s ok for a lazy Sunday afternoon’s viewing, but it adds nothing to the Dracula mythos. John Carradine’s performances as Dracula probably rounds out as slightly inferior to even Chaney’s. The voice and overall acting is a bit better, but unfortunately Carradine’s wildly staring eyes, which are supposed to be hypnotic, are pure comedy gold that will have you rolling in your seat. Carradine’s Dracula exudes no real menace, and even wooden Lon Chaney managed a bit of that. So, with Abbot and Costello waiting just around the corner, Universal’s conception of Dracula finished up on a sadly farcical note that I’m sure Bram Stoker wouldn’t have appreciated. Hard to rate this movie in context, but even viewing it as the Universal monster run-around that it is, it’s not a great picture.

Lugosi gets to play Drac again in the last of the Universal series. Sadly, it's an Abbot and Costello comedy, and leaves Dracula looking like a bit of joke. An ignoble end for Lugosi's interpretation.