Monday, November 19, 2007

Son of Dracula – review

movie poster

Directed by: Robert Siodmak

Release date: 1943

Contains spoilers

This was the third Dracula franchise movie released by Universal and starred Lon Chaney Jr as the Count. Did that work out? After all, Chaney is best known for his Wolfman portrayal (though he also played Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy). Well, we will see later.

The film itself is set in the deep Southern states, an area with plantations and swamps, but the film begins innocuously enough in a train station. Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and Doctor Brewster (Frank Craven) are waiting for a passenger to arrive. Frank’s fiancée Katherine (Louise Allbritton) has invited one Count Alucard to stay at Dark Oaks, her father’s plantation.

the start of a filmic habitThe train comes but no Count alights. However his luggage is there. Franks assumes that he has driven but Brewster is looking at the luggage and notices something about the Count’s name, unfortunately he is interrupted. This was, to my knowledge, the first film to use the device of reversing Dracula’s name in order to provide an alias.

Claire and KatherineDark Oaks is getting ready for a party to honour the Count, but he hasn’t yet arrived. Katherine talks to her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) and we discover that she is into the occult and is convinced that her guest will arrive. To underline her occult sympathies she goes into the swamp to see the witch Queen Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds).

Adeline De Walt Reynolds as Queen ZimbaNow I have read a suggestion that Queen Zimba is some form of voodoo priestess. This appears to be reading to much into the location of the movie. Later the movie makes it clear that she is a Hungarian gypsy, brought into the country by Katherine. Zimba has summoned Katherine psychically to warn her of a doom hanging over the family. Mention is made of marrying a corpse. A bat flies in and Zimba suffers a heart attack.

an errent reflection?The party is going swimmingly but there is still no guest of honour, though we have seen him spooking around outside. Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), who is Katherine’s father, is tired and is wheeled in his chair to his room, where he intends to have a cigar and then go to bed. Alucard heads, in bat form, upstairs. Now I have seen mention that this film makes great mention of the lack of reflection of the vampire. I have seen this several times and if someone can tell me where I’d love to know! As it is, in this scene Alucard has a reflection (see screenshot).

J Edward Bromberg as LazloFrank is outside with Katherine and tells her that he has done some checking on this Alucard, whom she met in Budapest, and the Hungarian embassy has no record of him. They are called in; the Colonel has been discovered dead. It appears his heart has given out and the cigar has started a fire. Marks on his neck are noticed. When he gets home Brewster finally makes the Alucard/Dracula connection and calls Professor Lazlo (J Edward Bromberg) in Hungary to get some answers.

in mist formKatherine has had the will changed. Claire gets everything except the plantation (seemingly a bad deal for Katherine) and she turns on Frank. Brewster, suspicious of events, tries to get Katherine declared insane but events occur quicker than getting the order. In the meantime Frank follows Katherine. He sees her meet Alucard – though misses him emerging from his coffin as mist, a well done FX.

bullets won't work FrankKatherine quickly marries Alucard and an enraged Frank tries to tackle the vampire and is tossed aside for his trouble. He pulls a gun, but of course the Count doesn’t even flinch and Frank shoots Katherine who is stood behind her husband. Frank believes himself a murderer, Brewster believes him innocent as he spoke to Katherine after the event and the sheriff (Pat Moriarity) believes Brewster an accessory as he finds Katherine’s body (during the day). Will the truth out, and will Alucard be stopped?

The lore in this is interesting. First, however, we must look to whether this is Dracula or the son of Dracula as the title suggests. The film clearly states, through Lazlo, that Dracula – as we know him – died in the 19th century and that this person must be a descendant. Of course that still makes him Dracula, the name and title would pass on.

not quite the novelFurther to this is that the film seems to reference the novel as an actual account of events. Characters have heard of Dracula the vampire and, at one point, Brewster is reading the novel – sort of. I say sort of as the words we see are close to the text but not exactly the same.

The vampires can turn into mist and bats, the bats are crap but the transformation is done in a highly competent way. A victim will only turn if totally drained or – as in the case of Katherine – they willingly wish to become a vampire. Indeed, we discover that Katherine has set this all thing up, no standard victim she, and has an agenda of her own that does not involve Alucard. To a degree she is the real villain of the film.

Vampires can die in two ways. Either you burn the coffin so they cannot return to it (and their native earth) at sunrise – it is not being in the coffin rather than the actual sun which kills them - or you stake them in the coffin. At night they are totally invulnerable. That said, whilst it is not directly mentioned as a way of killing vampires, it is made clear that body cremation is effective also.

Crosses work, including a gravestone reflecting moonlight. Indeed Brewster paints crosses over the wounds on a young child’s neck. You’d think that this is because of a religious significance. Bizarrely we are led on a merry dance with this as the film mysteriously tells us that there is a reason but it would take too long to explain why.

Acting wise Allbritton is effective as the femme fatale. Paige, as the almost Renfieldish Frank, is a little too simpering through most of the film but the scene where he tells Brewster that he killed Katherine is very powerful. Bromberg and Craven are excellent as the vampire hunters, every scene working. That said, as characters they do very little and are more ciphers for information for the audience.

Lon Chaney Jr as Alucard/DraculaAs for Lon Chaney Jr… I do not dislike his performance but it is lacking compared to other Dracula actors. He does have a presence, but it is physical rather than due to presence of personality. This is a thuggish Dracula, perhaps more a prototype of the portrayal of the Count that Jack Palance would give in the 1973 vehicle. Perhaps this is okay, especially as it is the son of Dracula, but personally I think they would have been better getting Lugosi – who was interested in taking the role.

The story is interesting; it nearly strays into a noir film but narrowly misses that mark. There is a good base story here of love and betrayal but it does become lost occasionally. That said this is most definitely worth a watch. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


The T said...

I just saw it again for the third time. There's too many things going upside down on this movie that I think is just Ok.

Like on Dracula AD 1972, characters have to do strange exercises in order to realize that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards haha.

The death scene is kind of ridiculous. Next to the coffin, we see water. Yet Alucard tries to put out the fire... with a piece of wood!?

Chaney is imposing and tall but his face too thick and his looks too american. In my view, no Universal Dracula ever looked the part.

The whole insanity thing also is just a little preposterous. I think Siodmak(s) were not at their full capacity when coming up with the story.

The fog effect is good as you say. I think the film could only be enjoyable only for us, vampire movie fans.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi The T.

To be fair to the poor old characters in this... it was the first movie that Dracula was spelt backwards ;) lol and good point re the fire/water/wood - son of Dracula was obviously not that bright.