Friday, December 31, 2010

SON OF DRACULA (1943)

Old World vampire gothic meets New World Southern Gothic in SON OF DRACULA. It's an interesting idea, right? Transplant the Germanic expressionism of the Carpathian foothills to the Dark Oaks plantation in the Deep South and let's see what happens...

For me, a lot of it works: the cellar under the Caldwell mansion is a great place to stash coffins, as is the old playroom in the disused attic and the swamp drainage flumes. And then there's the great ambiance of the family graveyard on the estate and the old shack of the hoodoo conjure-woman Queen Zimba. Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton)-- all jet-black bangs and diaphanous gowns and a "morbid" (as we're told a bunch of times by different characters) obsession with the occult-- is some sort of character that you might find threatening the heroine in one of those pre-Anne Rice gothic romance potboilers. In general, I think the Southern setting works a helluva lot better in SON OF DRACULA than it does in THE MUMMY'S CURSE (1944).

Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale, IL, July 1, 1960

The relocation of the vampire from Europe to the USA may have had something to do with the motion picture being a wartime production. There are a couple times in SON OF DRACULA when the comment is made that the vampire has left the Old Country because the land and its people are barren, weak and exhausted; America, by contrast, is a "younger country, stronger, more virile" (in the words of Dr. Brewster). Alucard materializes and confirms this theory in his conversation with Professor Lazlo: "I am here because this is a young and virile race, not dry and decaying like ours," he tells the Hungarian. "They have what I want...what I need...what I must have." For a bit of historical context, recall that the Kingdom of Hungary was run by a right-wing, pro-fascist Axis government when SON OF DRACULA was in production; when the movie first appeared on TV as part of SHOCK!, Hungary had been very recently invaded and occupied by the USSR after a failed attempt by its people to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime there. I don't want to make too much of this, but it seems like an interesting way to re-imagine the vampiric threat: America's youthful vigor, vitality, and virility menaced by a symbol of fascism during WWII and then later by a symbol of Stalinism during the Cold War. (This latter connection for SHOCK!-era viewers of SON OF DRACULA also makes me think of that other vampire-from-behind-the-Iron-Curtain movie from the same time, THE RETURN OF DRACULA [1958] from Gramercy Pictures and United Artists.)

"Hey, wait a minute... I wonder if...?"

"Nah, it just couldn't be..."

"But that's what the TV guide in the El Paso Herald-Post for June 28, 1958 says! It must be!"

I can't help but think what this film would have been like if someone other than Lon Chaney, Jr. played Count Alucard (or, as Frank Stanley [Robert Paige] sometimes sounds like he's pronouncing it in this movie, "Count À La Carte"). This is another instance of Chaney being painfully miscast. At "six foot, three and one-half inches tall and weighing 220 pounds" (according to the SHOCK! promotional book's news release on Chaney), this doesn't look like the starving, desperate vampire refugee from a weak, dry, decaying race. Chaney goes for the mysterious, dangerous European vampire look by sporting that suave John Waters mustache from the "Inner Sanctum" pictures and spouting contraction-less English (as opposed to the article-free pidgin English he used to play a Native American in the 1957 series "Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans"), neither which are very effective in making anyone think that he's someone other than Lon Chaney, Jr. One positive thing that I will say about Chaney's Alucard, though, is that his hysterical outburst at the end of the movie (bellowing at Frank : "Put it out! Put it out, do you hear me?!") makes me think of the ways that Christopher Lee would play a more ferocious, feral Dracula in the Hammer films starting in 1958.

I need to say a little something here about director Robert Siodmak. Just as his brother Curt has his fingerprints all over the development of the classic American horror film, Robert Siodmak was a key figure in film noir, directing important movies in that highly-stylized manner like PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE KILLERS (1946), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), CRISS CROSS (1949), and THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN (1950). In each of these movies (and in his other quasi-noir melodramas, like THE SUSPECT [1944], THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY [1945], and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE [1945]), Siodmak includes a scene or two where he goes all-out to craft an almost haunted, symbol-laden mise-en-scène of space and shadow that says a lot about the interior world of the characters on the screen, and you can see some of this skill in parts of SON OF DRACULA.

This movie was Siodmak's first after signing a long-term contract with Universal in 1943 (within a year, he would direct Chaney in Technicolor in COBRA WOMAN) and just a few months prior to his exquisite work with cinematographer Woody Bredell on PHANTOM LADY. With this mind, I like to watch SON OF DRACULA with an eye to its film noir elements: as we learn in the jailhouse scene, Kay is the femme fatale who has been deceiving Alucard in order to gain immortality; she confesses that she really has loved Frank all along, despite her whirlwind romance with and wedding to Alucard. Frank, the typical masochist noir protagonist who is ruined by guilt, teetering on the edge of insanity, and in jail for murder, is love-sick and isn't turned off at all by this revelation. Kay convinces Frank to destroy Alucard so that they can be together forever. Frank does away with Alucard, but then double-crosses Kay and destroys her as well, but not before he lovingly slips a wedding ring on her finger. What a sap. It's not hard for me to imagine Louise Allbritton's Kay as Yvonne De Carlo, Robert Paige as Burt Lancaster, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dan Duryea in some alternate-universe version of Siodmak's CRISS CROSS, or as Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, and Richard Rober in THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN. SON OF DRACULA lacks the claustrophobic sexual tension and overdetermined Freudian mumbo-jumbo of Siodmak's later work, but I still think it's an interesting near-crossover of horror and noir sensibilities.



NEXT:
"Behind the Frisco fog lurk treachery and death. See the exciting thrill of the underworld battling the CHINATOWN SQUAD on Shock over this channel. It's an action-filled feature film premiere that will keep you gripping your seat with excitement."

7 comments:

Mirek said...

Excellent analysis of this film, Creeping. Though I am a fan of Chaney Jr, I do feel that this is a complete miscasting for the actor. I wonder if some other actor was being considered for the role and if Chaney got it by default. Probably not, as Universal was placing Chaney Jr in a position of being its number one horror film star.

prof. grewbeard said...

Louise Allbritton! (sigh...)

michael said...

This is one I vividly recall being introduced to by my horror host, Asmodeus, on Shock It To Me Theater, and it remains a nostalgic favorite. The film drips with atmosphere and a genuine sense of tragedy. I agree that Lon is out of place. The man's just got too much beef on him. He doesn't seem the sort who can resolve himself out of insubstantial mist. On the other hand, his bulk adds power to the flaming coffin climax, where Chaney's performance really shows the underlying threat that comes with panic. I like how the whole mask of civility drops away and he's left looking like a thug. It's hard to say who in the Universal stables might have been a better fit. The set-up - Dracula as film noir sap - doesn't fit Bela, and Carradine lacks the physical threat. Despite it's flawed casting, this - along with DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN - remains one of my favorite Universal sequels.

The Creeping Bride said...

Mirek, it looks like you're right about this always being considered a movie for Lon Chaney, Jr. from its very inception. Hervé Dumont's Robert Siodmak. Le Maître du film noir claims that SON OF DRACULA was given to Siodmak by Uni with the understanding that this was a sort of test to see how he'd do with with one of their stars, meaning that SON OF DRACULA had to be first & foremost a star vehicle for Chaney (the same test-run was set up for COBRA WOMAN to see what Siodmak could do with Maria Montez).

And, yeah, michael, I wondered the same thing... it's easy for me to complain about Creighton's performance in SON OF DRACULA, but who in the Uni B-stable would I replace him with? I like Carradine's Dracula in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA, but you're right-- Long John could never pull off the physically-imposing "panicked thug" thing at the end. So who? Jon Hall? Robert Armstrong? I dunno...

Tom Weaver & the Brunases mention something similar in their essay on SON OF DRACULA in Universal Horrors , and jokingly say that there's always Broderick Crawford and Charles McGraw...

michael said...

Oddly...you know who might have done the job? George Zucco. He has the continental elegance and dark charisma necessary for the role. More importantly, he can play the vanity required to pull off the idea of vampire king as lovesick sucker. If they'd let him go totally bald for the role, rather than try to finesse those few strands of side-hair into some sort of coiff, he would have cut an imposing figure.

I've always found it interesting that Universal chose to carry over that little mustache for Carridine's interpretation of the Count. Considering Lugosi's lack of same, it's an odd detail to settle on, and - to me at least - adds credence to all the arguments suggesting Alcuard and Baron Latos are actually branch family members.

I'm sure I must have read this somewhere...but Chaney's bulk seems to tie him more closely to Jack Palance's warrior king version of Dracula. If they'd gone less for suave and more for soldier, it may have been another way for Chaney to work better in the role.

Mirek said...

I would have liked to have seen Lugosi used more than twice by Universal in the Dracula role, so I'd opt for Lugosi as "Alucard," despite potential problems of a Lugosi presence being integrated into a noir horror. And, if Lugosi were in the role, I'm sure that Siodmak would have crafted his approach accordingly.

kochillt said...

I liked Chaney's Dracula, the first to display superhuman strength on screen, like that of Christopher Lee. Also like Lee, his screen time is severely limited, 11 minutes out of 81, but it was a mistake for the script to insist that his vampire be Hungarian, since he lacked the otherworldly foreign presence of Lugosi. He clearly relished the opportunity of course, but he was better as The Monster in THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. One odd touch that no one else seems to have noticed, is that Chaney tries to portray a suave Continental air by reciting his few lines with a Karloff-sounding lisp! Like its brother SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF DRACULA aired 10 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, paired together just once (Nov 17 1973).