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Universal Monsters in Review: Son of Dracula (1943)

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Whenever you see a “Buy War Bonds” ad at an end of a classic Universal Pictures movie, you know you’re in store for a good time. And suffice to say, in a nut shell, Son of Dracula was certainly entertaining. The whole War Bond thing, I thought, was pretty classy of Universal to leave in the DVD formatting of the film. I’m not sure if any of the others have it as well, but of the movies we’ve reviewed thus far, Son of Dracula is the first. I’m actually really surprised Invisible Agent didn’t have a War Bond ad, given how propagandic the movie was (and yes, I totally just invented that word). And this in part is what gives these Universal Monster movies a particular glamour, the fact that we know historically that while folks were lining movie palaces at the Roxy or the Oriental or the Million Dollar Theater, their loved ones were gathering into training camps to ship off to war. For two years before Son of Dracula’s release, following December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, America was at war with the Axis Powers. Entertainment became not just a distraction but also a means of communicating support and moral. But there are also other themes going on as well, other than entertaining a war time audience. And we’ll discuss some of those themes here.

Before we begin, as per my custom, here is a rather decently written synopsis of the movie I found over at IMDb:

“Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) finds his way from Budapest to the swamps of the Deep South after meeting Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), of the moneyed Caldwell clan that runs a plantation called Dark Oaks. She’s obsessed with occult matters. Who better to guide her through this supernatural world than Count Alucard, whose name no one bothers to spell backwards? No one, that is, except the wily Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven), an old family friend. He’ll join Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a specialist in the occult, in fighting this ‘Alucard’ and the woman he’s influenced. Or has Katherine influenced him? Meanwhile, Katherine’s fiancé, Frank Stanley (Robert Paige), will find his courage and his sanity sorely tested when he accidentally shoots Katherine to death, yet finds that she goes on living.”

Son of Dracula is a charming movie. Familiar scenes play out that will later be used in Abbot and Costello movies, such as Dracula arriving by train in the luggage department. The curious nature of Dr. Brewster, and the obedient naive fiance, Frank, summoned to the train station to fetch Katherine’s guest, are classic tropes used in all sorts of horror stories. The anagram, “Alucard,” was perhaps unnecessary. But maybe in a universe in which Dracula legends are real, then I assume the writers knew what they were doing. Speaking of which. Son of Dracula gets a double dose of Siodmak! Curt Siodmak wrote the screenplay while his brother, Robert Siodmak directed. We’ve reviewed thus far lots of movies penned by the talented Mr. Curt, however, Son of Dracula is the first film in which Robert directed. Robert will go on to direct many amazing films, most notably Phantom Lady in 1944, however, Son of Dracula will be his only fling with Universal Monsters.  I can only imagine what the stage looked like with both Robert and Curt working together. The first film that I know of that the brothers collaborated on was People on Sunday, a 1930s German silent picture during the interwar period, just before they both fled Europe for the coasts of California.

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But I digress. See what happens when I start rambling!

Back to the film at hand.

As I stated before, Son of Dracula is a very charming movie. The actors were excellent. The early 1940s special effects were actually rather good, I especially liked how Dracula kept his coffin in the swamp, and as the sun set upon the Bayou, it rose from its watery grave, and then walking upon the land in a wisp of smoke. I loved the part of Katherine who was not your typical “woman in distress” character. In fact, the woman in peril was played up only to fool audience and character expectations. Katherine was wonderfully not the hero nor was she the victim. Naive as she may have seemed, she was certainly in control. She wanted to live forever, consulting a witch she’d brought over from the old country, hardly second questioned when the hag turned up dead and she’d been seen fleeing the woman’s hut. No one was going to stop her or get in her way. Katherine was deviously two-faced. Towards the end, I actually stopped to ponder if Dracula was the antagonist, or if he was simply a vessel in which Katherine used to obtain immortality? Watch for yourself. It does seem as if Dracula was nothing more than a pawn, duped into coming to the swamps of America on the temptation of richer soil and life and of course, Katherine. Though, honestly, I don’t think Drac cared much for her, in fact I’d be so bold as to say he was using her as much as she was using him. And still, the camera rolled as if this stoic and powerful presence was in control when in fact it was the woman behind him that was pulling the strings.

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Given that this is a 1940s picture, its a rather fresh breath of air to see a woman playing the part of mastermind.

Certainly something we haven’t seen since the 1936 film, Dracula’s Daughter.

The real victim in Son of Dracula is gullible fiance Frank, who’s played more cruelly than the fiddle that Georgia boy played against the Devil. Catering to Katherine’s every need, pleading with her, lapping up her fawned morbidity. Man, the more I think about her character, the more cunning she seems. She brought Drac to America knowing what he was. She allowed the Vampire to slay her father, knowingly changing the will to suit her needs, all the while pretending some sort of family honor in keeping the estate. She coldly watches her boy-toy lose his mind and then temps him with life-everlasting, prodding him to destroy Dracula. Why? Because she got what she wanted out of the “monster.” Eternal life. After the cards have been played on the table, we are still uncertain what Frank will do. Will he destroy Dracula and return to his beloved to live forever. Or will he himself become destroyed? Or perhaps he will kill both Dracula and Katherine… Despite the fact that this movie is 73 years old, I’m still not going to give away the ending. I feel something this movie’s conclusion is something that needs to be discovered firsthand and not through a review, especially not by the likes of me. I will say though, I was surprisingly satisfied.

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My only qualm was the always lovable Lon Chaney Jr., who will eventually go on to play not only the Wolfman, but also Kharis, from the Mummy movies, and Frankenstein’s creature. And while he played an excellent mummy, best in The Mummy’s Ghost, and a rather decent Frank, I did not really care much for his role as Dracula, not even as a quasi fleshed out decedent of Dracula. He was…okay in the part as Chaney is an excellent actor, but still…his maleficence seemed too forced and very Larry Talbot-like. Also, towards the middle, the movie dragged on a bit. For Universal Monster classics, about an hour is perfect; an hour and twenty is pushing things.

My rating: 4/5

Tommy_Bride

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.

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