Son of Dracula, released in 1943, was the third Dracula movie Universal produced. This was the first and only Dracula performance Lon Chaney Jr delivered in his prolific career.
When we think of Dracula on film, we tend to immediately go to the three staples – the 1931 original, the Hammer Horror series, and 1992’s version starring Gary Oldman and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Outside of those that are truly devoted and are enthusiastic fans of the Universal Monsters movie library, films like Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Dracula are normally overlooked and, at times, downright forgotten. While none of the immediate follow-ups were as good as the Tod Browning classic, they all offered something new to the tradition of telling vampire stories that began with Bram Stoker’s gothic novel and Universal’s adaptation. Releasing 12 years after the original, Son of Dracula offered a wildly imaginative take on the character and gave us an interesting film comprised of different themes.
While the title of the film is Son of Dracula, the movie really isn’t that straightforward about Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) being the son of Dracula (Bela Lugosi). 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter was much more clear in that Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) was the actual daughter of Dracula. While Son of Dracula references the possibility that Alucard may be a descendant of The Count, it’s also inferred that he IS the mythic Count Dracula, as well. In many ways Son of Dracula feels like a theatrical “son” to the 1931 picture in more ways than it feels like a sequel to that of the original or Dracula’s Daughter. It’s in this aspect that Son of Dracula is more of a proper follow up to Tod Browning‘s picture, whereas subsequent Mummy films grew further and further away from the Karl Freund original.
Universal’s third Dracula movie and first film to actually use Dracula since the original is a testament to its time in Hollywood. It’d be hard to imagine a successful film now receiving the same treatment in that audiences would have to wait over ten years before seeing a popular character again. The immediate film series that I could think of would be if a follow-up to 10 Cloverfield Lane were to feature the monster from the 2008 original as opposed to how its 2016 follow up went wildly off into different territory while merely bearing the Cloverfield title.
Son of Dracula is quite the dark film as it contends ultimately with a deadly love triangle. Katherine (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of a plantation owner, is secretly dating Count Alucard. We’re told several times that she has an interest and fascination with the “morbid,” and her involvement with Alucard is never trusted by any of the supporting characters, most especially her long-time boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige). In trying to understand her relationship with Alucard as he fears she’s fallen out of love with him and has jeopardized their eventual marriage, he follows them one night which leads to a fatal confrontation. Frank accidentally kills Katherine when he tries to shoot Alucard, but the bullets pass through him and strike the young woman as she hides behind the Count. The first time I saw this I was quite surprised and had to re-watch the scene to make sure I caught everything that was going on. Son of Dracula was directed by Robert Siodmak, from a story by his brother Curt, and screenplay by Eric Taylor. Robert Siodmak was a known director of thrillers and he brought much of his film making sensibilities to this Universal Monsters film. The Siodmak’s and Eric Taylor keep Son of Dracula fresh in every creative decision made and while it doesn’t reach the heights of 1931’s original, the film is quite imaginative and engaging with every turn. Let’s also remember that Curt Siodmak was the talented writer behind 1941’s The Wolf Man.
It’s been written and said that Lon Chaney Jr. was terribly miscast in the role of Count Alucard/Dracula in the 1943 picture. While there is some truth to that as he was the first actor to very much step into the role post Bela Lugosi, Chaney did make the role very much his own. In many ways, I felt that it was Chaney’s understated, suave, and menacing gentleman performance that really laid the groundwork for future performers that would step into the role of Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire. In Tod Browning’s classic, we see The Count roaming the streets and engaging with people in a way that is almost unsettling when you understand that this is the Count. But there’s nothing quite like the scene in Son of Dracula that finds Alucard and Katherine driving in a car, on their way to get married. There are quite a few moments like this in Son of Dracula that while they may seem inconsequential or silly to the overall movie, these are major moments in the ultimate path of revitalizing the character of Dracula in a then contemporary setting. Mind you, Lon Chaney delivers a performance that not once hints at or uses the famous accent many have come to associate with Dracula. Heading over to a review of the film by Sam Tweedle on Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict, he wrote “physically wrong for the role, and sprouting a thin “Clark Gablesque” moustache, Chaney doesn’t even bother to make any attempt at doing a European accent. Chaney is clumsy and looks depressed in the role of Dracula, and it is obvious that he is having a miserable time.”
Despite the performance by Chaney (which I quite enjoyed), the film’s real highlights are stars Louise Albritton, Robert Paige, and one of Universal’s very best – Evelyn Ankers. Albritton is rightfully the femme fatale of Son of Dracula and a rather darkly written character. She ends up becoming a vampire in the movie after her lover played by Robert Paige shoots her. There’s an odd chemistry she has with the rest of the cast which makes for an unsettling performance, especially in that Son of Dracula does star Ms. Ankers, who was more of the classic Hollywood leading lady. Yet the brilliance of Albritton’s performance and role as Katherine ‘Kay’ Caldwell is that she is never really the victim of Count Alucard. She willingly goes along with him throughout the film and is very much a part of the manipulative plots and plans taking place at “Dark Oaks.” What a fascinating character and performance that makes watching Son of Dracula all the more entertaining.
The more human and sinister plight of many of the main characters in this Robert Siodmak film allow this Universal Monsters picture to really stand out. Not even regarding the beautiful title card sequence or the fact this this was the first film to feature Dracula turning from man to bat; it’s an incredibly developed film. Following the character arc of Frank Stanley (Paige) is rather depressing, especially right up to the final shot of him setting fire to Katherine while she’s in bed. The movie concludes on his desperation and still obvious love he carries for his now dead, but un-dead childhood love. It’s nearly as shocking as the conclusion of The Mummy’s Ghost. It’s made all the more impactful with the terrific score by Hans J. Salter.
For those that love the Universal Monsters, Son of Dracula is a film you obviously need to watch. And while there are creative choices such as the casting of Lon Chaney Jr that may not have been entirely suitable, this was a time when he had already played Kharis and Talbot/The Wolf Man. Robert Siodmak’s follow up is a worthy entry in the Dracula series by Universal and a rather great way to book end Tod Browning’s original and Dracula’s Daughter sequel.
Also this scene… A-L-U-C-A-R-D … D-R-A-C-U-L-A – How great was Frank Craven as Dr. Henry Brewster?
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)