This weekend just gone, I delved deep into the Dracula annex of my Universal Monsters Legacy box set. These were the films I cut my horror teeth on as a child, allowed by my parents to stay up late on my own on a Saturday night and watch them on TV. We lived in a huge old house at the time, and in my mind they’ll be forever associated with beams creaking and other noises, and me curled up in a big old leather backed armchair in front of a coal fire, while images flickered on an enormous black and white TV throwing shadows round the room. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that I was ever scared by watching these films, even as a child, but I think the thing was, while not scary in themselves, not even back in the 1960s, they created an atmosphere conducive to scaring yourself – at least, when looking out of the window before going to bed, something I still do to this day, I always half expected to find somebody’s face looking back at me.
Tod Browning’s classic was actually the third attempt to bring Stoker’s archetypal bloodsucker to the big screen, but it owes more to the Hamilton Deane play than the novel (in fact, it’s doubtful Stoker would have recognised his character). It was filmed back to back with a Spanish language version, the Anglo cast on set during the day and the Spanish cast on set at night. I didn’t watch it this weekend, but I have seen the Spanish version and agree with critics who claim it has the better photography, but the Spanish star can’t compete with Bela Lugosi.
Until a few years back, I always thought Lugosi’s first name was pronounced ‘Bella’, but I now know it’s more like ‘Baylor’. He absolutely owns the role, with a commanding presence, piercing eyes and a wonderfully off kilter diction, creating the archetype of the screen vampire that just about every actor since has had to react against. It’s the vampire as matinée idol, a tradition that has culminated in the stud muffins of Twilight.
Stoker’s story is recognisable, even if they allocated Renfield part of the role performed by Harker in the novel, but it is an abridged version. Some things are simply forgotten in the rush to the end, such as the fate of Lucy Westernra (the novel’s ‘Bloofer lady’ – I love that name), and the various suitors are conspicuous by their absence. But it doesn’t matter – what we remember are the trappings of Gothic melodrama, the flittering bats and gathering mist, the wolves howling in the night and coffin lids creaking open, old ruins and storm whipped vessels lost at sea, lines like ‘I don’t drink… wine’. And Bela, always Bela.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
There’s an attempt at continuity here, something not evident in later entries into the series – it opens with the discovery of the bodies of Renfield and Dracula, and Van Helsing arrested for murder by a police force who don’t believe in vampires. After that the story focuses on the statuesque Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska, who is Dracula’s daughter and believes herself to be free of the family curse. Unfortunately she is not correct, and must feed on a young model she persuades to pose for her. Zaleska seeks the help of a doctor to find a cure, but somewhere along the way her motives get muddled, and she seems intent on converting Otto Kruger to a vampire instead. It all ends badly for the Countess in this lively outing, which puts forward the idea that vampires are not necessarily evil, that they may revolt against their condition (albeit not very successfully – the blood will tell), and which is dominated by the female members of the cast – Holden, Nan Grey as the model, and the delightful Marguerite Churchill as Kruger’s feisty secretary.
Son of Dracula (1943)
The title is a red herring, as it’s Dracula himself that’s at large, relocated to America’s Deep South and going by the name of Alucard (with no attempt at an explanation for his apparent resurrection). The Count has been invited Stateside by occultist Katherine Caldwell, who has plans to be made into a vampire and then destroy Dracula so that she can live forever with her beloved Frank.
It’s an intriguing variation, and Lon Chaney Jr does a decent turn as the Count, while Louise Allbritton impresses as the scheming Katherine. Unfortunately I didn’t think much of lead man Frank, who finally does the right thing but struck me as a bit of an arsehole in the run up. First off, his response to the news of an old gipsy woman’s death is a curt ‘good riddance’, after which he treats his fiancée like property, and when Dracula throws him aside his immediate reaction, even though he doesn’t realise he is dealing with a vampire rather than a very strong man, is to pull out a gun and shoot him. There’s no suggestion at any stage that he’s behaving unreasonably. If this is the good guy, then maybe I prefer the bad.
House of Dracula (1945)
A barmy film. Dracula, played by a foppish John Carradine, turns up at the home of Dr Edelmann and asks to be cured of his condition, but the real appeal is the neck of the good doctor’s lab assistant. The vampire gets dispatched in one of the several anti-climaxes that punctuate this picture. Coincidentally, the Wolf Man has also turned up looking for a cure, but all we see of his lycanthropic alter-ego is a couple of understated scenes. Also coincidentally, the Frankenstein monster (played by the aptly named Glenn Strange) is discovered in the basement, and revived for long enough to throw some policemen around before the house falls on top of him. And then there’s Edelmann himself, infected with Dracula’s blood and doing a Mr Hyde on everyone. What can I say? This makes Van Helsing seem like a masterclass in film making.
What really pissed me off though was the trailer for the film, in which it proudly boasts that we are getting five monsters. The fifth monster is ‘the hunchback’, only the hunchback in question isn’t a monster at all, but Edelmann’s nurse Nina (played by Jane Adams), the sweetest, most noble and self-sacrificing character in the whole mess. It disgusts me that the blurb writers of the day were prepared to categorise a character in this way based on a physical deformity simply to boost their monster count. Arseholes. And, without going down the PC route, I’m pretty sure any studio that tried to pull something like this today would bring down a heap of scorn on their heads.
Interestingly, in none of these films does the vampire show teeth, so they did have some standards, at least if you weren’t a hunchback or a gipsy.