Monday, May 9, 2011

Son of Dracula - 1943

Director:                 Robert Siodmak
Screenplay:             Eric Taylor
Original Story:         Curt Siodmak
Photography:          George Robinson
Editor:                    Saul A. Goodkind
Art Directors:         John B. Goodman and
                                 Martin Obzina
Set Decorators:      Russell A. Gausman and
                                Edward R. Robinson
Make up:                Jack P. Pierce

Count Alucard/Dracula           Lon Chaney, Jr.
Katherine Caldwell                Louise Allbritton
Frank Stanley                        Robert Paige
Claire Caldwell                      Evelyn Ankers
Dr. Harry Brewster                Frank Craven
Prof. Lazlo                            J. Edward Bromberg
Judge Simmons                      Samuel S. Hinds
Queen Zimba                        Adeline de Walt Reynolds
Sheriff Dawes                        Patrick Moriarity
Col. Caldwell                        George Irving
Sarah                                    Etta McDaniel

Much to Bela Lugosi’s dismay, when Universal decided to continue its Dracula franchise, they turned to their utility pinch hitter Lon Chaney, Jr. The Wolf Man was all his of course (“my baby” Chaney called the role). But the studio wanted to take as much advantage of the Chaney name as possible, casting him in many horror roles, such as Kharis the Mummy several times, and also as the Frankenstein creature when the occasion demanded. For “Son of Dracula” he was given the title role, in spite of having no physical resemblance to his “father”. Some have argued that his large, blocky physique was completely wrong to portray the elegant Count. However, Chaney always used his physicality well.

The character he portrays is named Count Alucard, and if you can spell that backwards you have a clue to his real identity. He is identified as “Count Dracula” in the credits, however it’s never really established within the story if he is supposed to be the original, or his son, or a more distant relation, or maybe just a good friend. He has come to America to seek fresh victims, describing it as a “young and virile race”. Yum. He arrives at the plantation home of the soon to be deceased Colonel Caldwell and his daughters Kay and Clair. He and Kay met in Hungary and are meeting secretly.

Kay has been engaged to Frank who raises strong objections to the Count, informing Kay that the Hungarian is an imposter. Kay tells Frank to trust her, that whatever she does, she still loves him and is doing the right thing for both of them. When Frank confronts the two after they have returned from a visit to the local justice of the peace, he fires his pistol at Alucard, but the bullets go through him and seem to kill Kay instead. In despair, Frank turns himself in to the sheriff for the murder of his love.

Dr. Brewster and Professor Lazlo, an authority on the occult and our Van Helsing stand-in, finally spell Alucard backwards and catch on to what is happening. Meanwhile a seemingly alive Kay tells the doctor that she and her husband plan a quiet life, and, oh yes, please tell Frank goodbye. Alucard (oh heck, let’s just call him Dracula, ok?) reinforces this request to the doctor in a quietly threatening and forceful scene.

Visiting him in jail, Kay explains to Frank that her plan all along has been to achieve immortality through Dracula, dispose of him, and then share the vampiric gift with Frank so they can exist happily eternally after. She tells Frank where to find Dracula’s coffin and how to destroy him. He does this, but also ends the movie by doing the right thing for the woman he loves.

Frank, as played by Robert Paige, is a more interesting character than one would imagine. Thankfully, he is no David Manners clone – a pretty boy who is essentially useless. It is also refreshing that he does not instantly fall in love with the younger sister and form a vampire fighting team with her. His love for Kay is true and lasting, and will not be changed by little things like death, undead-ness, shapeshifting into bats or a collection of coffins in the basement. Frank starts out as a bit of a stuffed shirt. But, the actor moves convincingly through cool and calm, to outraged jealousy, to murder, to end-of-his-rope madness. He finally arrives at a place where he has lost everything but the deep love he has for Kay. His final wordless scene is shocking and yet deeply touching.

Interestingly, our no-account Count has come to America as a classic gold digger. He is marrying into money and property, not to mention a “young and vital” blood supply. Kay turns the tables on him, when she reveals herself to be a gold digger as well, using him to attain eternal life, not diamonds or a home on the Riviera.

Chaney is a quietly commanding Count. He doesn’t try for any kind of European accent, which is probably just as well. But his vocal delivery is firm, quiet and dignified. His physical presence is just as imposing and hard to ignore. When he grabs Frank by the throat and tosses him aside, he looks as if he could easily do it even without any supernatural super strength. He may not be an ideal Count Dracula, but he isn’t bad at all.

There are a few noteworthy special effects, especially the scene when Dracula’s coffin rises from the swamp and he glides over the water towards Kay. This is also the first movie to show the transformation into bat and back again. The effect may seem rather primitive to us today, it’s not exactly Industrial Light and Magic, but considering the technology of the time it looks pretty darn good.

The story is supposed to take place somewhere in the deep south and the sets are outstanding. An early scene with Kay walking through the swamp to visit an old gypsy looks great by any standard. Some of the Mummy series (“Ghost”, “Tomb” – see reviews below) have Kharis traipsing around a very ordinary, non-atmospheric New England. SoD’s swamp and plantation have a nice, eerie feel to them.

I remember being disappointed by the movie when I was young. I grew up on the Universal films and loved them, but this one always seemed tame and a little boring. Now I can appreciate it much more. I believe it is one of the better Universal flicks from the forties. It has an adult tone and a well written script. The previous sequel, “Dracula’s Daughter”, I have reviewed below. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t get this movie confused with a 1974 mess of the same name starring Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. Don’t even ask.

Families, …boy, you can’t live with them and you can’t kill them, right? At least not without a good wooden stake.

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