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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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Universal Monsters in Review: Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1943)

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Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man.  And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?

Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:

Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.

Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.

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The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.

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The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.

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Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.

My rating: 4/5 

Tommy Author Picture - Monsters
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. His new series, The Subdue Series, 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.

Universal Monsters in review: Phantom of the Opera (1943)

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No. This is not the Lon Chaney 1925 silent picture. Just so we’re clear from the get-go. Its a understandable mistake. Many, including myself, typically associate the Phantom tale with that of the infamous Man of a Thousand Faces. The 1925 movie is one of the few silent films most everyone, even those who don’t care much for silent films, can sit thru and enjoy with some measure of comfort and, dare I say, thrill. The 1925 Phantom of the Opera was an amazing piece in the records of horror. Chaney brought his custom made makeup and prosthetics to bare with great admiration from Universal Studios who quickly dubbed the man with his moniker. The film was dark and brooding and haunting and all together wonderful. But guess what…so was the 1943 reboot. Oh God yes, I went there. A reboot worthy of the title in every way imaginable, and lord, shall I go further? Perhaps, maybe, by a smigin, the 1943 was slightly better…YES, I know, I know. How dare I say. But still…I beg you to watch this movie and tell me if I’m wrong, because when I sat down last night to screen this film for the first time, my expectations were actually really low, considering my fondness for the original Chaney film. Starting in the opening scene, at first I mocked the broadcasted “Brought to you in Technicolor,” and honestly thought how can this “colorized” adaption be anywhere close to as good as the silent black and white? However, as the camera panned out and the singers and orchestra took the stage, I discovered how wrong I was. This film, this 1943 Phantom of the Opera, is a masterpiece of stage, sound, and characterization. And given the era, when “technicolor” was still a decade away from really catching on in Hollywood, the movie was also technologically superior.

Before we move on, here’s a quick lowdown on what Phantom of the Opera is about:

Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) is unaware that her singing lessons are being funded by a secret admirer, Erque Claudin (Claude Rains), a mysterious violinist who is “let-go” from the Paris Opera House after twenty years of dutiful service due to aged hands. When Erque pens a concerto in the hopes of continuing Christine’s singing lessons, in rush of maddening confusion, he murderers the publisher and is horrible scarred from the incident. Soon-there-after, mysterious accidents start occurring at the Paris Opera House, deaths coinciding with Christine’s meteoric rise to stardom. Following her disappearance during the final show, Christine’s suitors, Raoul (Edgar Barrier) and Anatole (Nelson Eddy), brave the dark recesses of the opera house to find the true culprit.

You may not know this, but my first experience with the Houston stage was a musical showing of Phantom of the Opera. I believed I was in store for something lame, thinking “a musical…gee whiz, no thanks!” Again, I seem to always underestimate the Phantom’s ability to capture my imagination. While the stage production and movie are labeled typically as “musicals,” it is only so because of the nature of the story, which is the vocal contributions of the characters, sewed between the normal rolls of acting and actions and dialogue. This is the only real obvious difference between a true opera and a musical, the spoken word. Regardless, the Phantom of the Opera benefits from being a musical, instead of the full fledged moniker of opera, because you need those in-between moments with the characters. For example, I can still remember sitting in our seats (my wife and I) and watching the play start and then hearing the booming sound effects as the chandelier broke and crashed to the stage. I was hooked ever since. And you may also not known, my wife and I are season ticket holders, for two years running (we took a break this past season), of the Houston Grand Opera. That’s right, deep in the heart of Texas, we witnessed such performances as Aida, Die Fledermaus, the American premiere of The Passenger, Rigoletto, Das Rheingold, Otello, Madame Butterfly, Die Walküre, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Though we do not have season tickets for this year, we are planning on attending an October performance of Faust. So, not to brag or anything, but I feel I have a sense or itch for these kind of entertainment.

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There was a moment, more than a few to be honest, when the movie took hold of my attention and refused to let go. I had brought out a notebook and was planning on jotting some notes for the opening paragraph in a new book I’m working on, however, as the actors took the stage, notably Biancarolli, Anatole, and Christine, my pen never found the paper. My eyes, ears, soul (dare I say) was seized and mesmerized by the vocal range and talent I was witnessing on the screen. Sure, perhaps not as powerful as seeing the performance live, but still…amazing nevertheless. And how could I forget the captivating and disparaging mutilated anti-hero of the tale, Erque Claudin, played by the ever-so-marvelous Claude Rains. The only other movies I can recall Claude were his roles in The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, both Universal Classics and reviewed here on our Universal Monsters in review series. Though I loved his other performances, especially the Invisible Man, I loved her role as Phantom even more. He seems perfect for the role. And in this adaptation, the audience actually feels sad for the man, as he truly goes about to do good, wanting nothing more than to help the career of one young singer, only to have all his efforts thrown back in his face, including a pan of acid.

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The Phantom of the Opera is entwined with comedy as well. This is typically seen as Raoul and Anatole try to out-wit the other, seeking the attention and love of Christine DuBois. Most of these scenes were fun and helped balance the horror elements in the story, however, there we moments when the comedy was a tad heavy-handed and felt…well…befuddled. The ending was also peculiar, though I will not ruin it for you, but will say it seems to be a habit of Universal Studios of setting back the apple-cart. And this can be forgiven, but at least make us doubt the tenacity. In the original (SPOLIERS) the phantom is beaten to death by a mob of angry townsfolk, leaving us to doubt just who the monster really was. The 1943 version had less than a punch, I think.

phantom5If you’ve yet to see this movie, you should. Don’t get taken off guard, this is a period-piece, set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Also in Paris with loads of funny French accents. But once the actors let loose their vocal cords, and the story takes off, you will not turn away. Claude Rains gives one of his best performances. Dignified and horrifying, especially at the end when it seems his mind has truly snapped, dragging poor Christine down into the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, his motive lost in his madness. My only real qualm is the all-too-sunny ending between duel suitors Raoul and Anatole.

My Rating: 4/5  

Tommy_Bride

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.