Horror Is Universal: “Son of Dracula” (1943)

Well, if it isn’t our old bloodsucking buddy back for another round!

Cinema’s favorite vampire has had a pretty decent track record in Universal Horror so far. The 1931 Dracula was a triumph of tension and eerie atmosphere, and the Spanish-language version built on that already-strong foundation to make something even better. Dracula’s Daughter managed to carve out a niche for itself and become an entertaining thriller with strong performances and a clever dive into the psychology of vampirism. Now, in 1943, it’s been seven years since Universal’s last vampire film. In fact, we haven’t had one since the big studio turnover in 1936. And that means we’re well overdue! So, Son of Dracula is the vampire’s big return to the Universal Horror spotlight. Was it worth the wait?

That depends on what you were waiting for. If you were hoping for another great villain on the level of Dracula or Zaleska, then you won’t find him here. But don’t be fooled so easily, because this movie has quite a few tricks up its sleeve.

The Plot: Somewhere in the Deep South stands the plantation of Dark Oaks, home to Katherine Caldwell (Louise Albritton) and her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers). Claire is a rather normal girl, but Katherine has some unusual habits, namely a growing obsession with the occult and the idea of life after death. While traveling abroad, she meets a mysterious fellow named Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) and is intrigued enough to invite him back to Dark Oaks for a visit. No one feels at ease around Katherine’s strange new friend, especially her former beau Frank Stanley (Robert Paige). A friend of the Caldwell family, Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven), has extra reason to be suspicious. Not only can he not find any record of this Count Alucard ever existing, but he realizes that “Alucard” spelled backwards reveals a familiar name: “Dracula.” But before this information can come to light, Katherine gives her friends and family a double shock. The first is when she suddenly marries Alucard, giving him control of Dark Oaks. And the second is when she dies — or rather, when Frank comes staggering into Dr. Brewster’s home claiming that he’s accidentally killed her. But if Frank is really a murderer as he believes, then why does Katherine appear to be alive and well? It’ll take all of Dr. Brewster’s intellect and the help of a vampire hunter named Laszlo (J. Edward Bromberg) to uncover the mysteries of Dark Oaks. And it soon becomes clear that Alucard isn’t the only vampire our heroes are dealing with — or even the most dangerous one.

The story of this film’s early production takes some unusual twists and turns. Once again, we have a script from Universal Horror mainstay Curt Siodmak, written in May 1942. The credited producer on the film is Ford Beebe, who had gotten the job after directing Night Monster for Universal. He was more well-known, however, for his work on the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the late 30s and early 40s. But it’s the director who becomes the most interesting behind-the-scenes figure this time around. You see, for Son of Dracula, Universal chose an up-and-coming director named Robert Siodmak. Note the last name.

This Siodmak is the older brother of our friend Curt. His Hollywood career hadn’t yet taken off in the same way that Curt’s had, but his big break wasn’t far away in 1943. Robert would become known as a great film noir director with classics like Phantom Lady, The Killers and Criss Cross to his name. Now you might think that these two talented brothers would work well together on a big project like this. And you would be wrong. In fact, once Robert was in the director’s chair, his first order of business was to fire his own brother. Furthermore, he went on to call Curt’s script “terrible” and “knocked together in a few days.” Of course, the parts that were extensively rewritten ended up okay, according to him. Talk about sibling rivalry!

Lon Chaney Jr. was still a popular horror star at this point, so it was only natural to get him involved here. Other Universal Horror veterans in the cast include Evelyn Ankers from The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein and J. Edward Bromberg from Invisible Agent. Robert Paige was known at the time for his roles in musicals and comedies. Louise Albritton had a rather small career compared to her co-stars, though she achieved some modest success in theater and television as well as film. With the exception of Chaney Jr, none of these names are still famous today. But perhaps a few of them deserved more fame than they ultimately had, judging by their performances here. More on that later.

Son of Dracula is a difficult movie to pin down. We’ve seen experiments in genre-blending from Universal Horror before, but this movie takes that idea a step further than its predecessors. What we’ve essentially got here is a Southern Gothic film noir vampire romance — how’s that for a mouthful? It’s trying to be a murder mystery with psychological thriller elements, and it’s trying to tell a story about love and power and manipulation, all set against the backdrop of this elegant yet decaying plantation. But how well does it actually fare at mixing all these subgenres together? Does it succeed at doing justice to any of them?

For the first 40-ish minutes, the film is on pretty shaky ground. Neither the plot nor the dialogue is especially compelling. The Deep South setting just feels tacked on to the movie, along with some uncomfortable displays of the “voodoo queen” and “superstitious Black servants” archetypes. Furthermore, the plot feels like you’re settling in for a remake of the normal Dracula narrative, just with the Transylvania parts skipped. Katherine is going to play the role of Lucy, the vampire’s first helpless victim. Claire will become Mina, the second woman that Dracula sets his sights on. And Frank will be our Jonathan Harker, the hero who slays the monster and gets the surviving girl. It’s all so obvious, right?

But things begin to stray from their expected course once Katherine and Alucard actually get married. And then they get even more complicated when Frank shoots and kills Katherine while confronting Alucard. Up to this point, we’ve been watching a story about Alucard’s seduction of Katherine. Now we’re thrust into a story about our hero’s declining sanity as he deals with the guilt of having killed the woman he loves.

Robert Paige doesn’t have much interesting material to work with in the first section of the film, and during that time he’s largely relegated to the sidelines. But when he gets a chance to genuinely act, he knocks it out of the park. Frank’s guilt and horror quickly reduce him to a stammering mess victimized by dark forces he can’t comprehend. All he’s certain about is that he has Katherine’s blood on his hands, but there comes a point where he can’t even be certain of that. And what begins as a brief reassuring moment for him soon takes a plummet into yet more dread. It’s surprising to see a character that was initially so flat abruptly take center stage and exhibit so much sympathy. Paige never reaches the manic heights of Dwight Frye’s Renfield in the original Dracula, but I think his character serves a purpose similar to the film version of Renfield: he’s the victim who gets put through the wringer more than anyone else, becoming the audience’s main target of sympathy in the process.

Perhaps even more surprising is what the script does with Katherine. Of course we know she’s become a vampire once she reappears after being shot, but normally when that happens to a woman in a Dracula story, it’s kind of a dead end character-wise. Our expectation is that she’ll spend the rest of the film playing second banana to Alucard. But ultimately, Alucard isn’t the true big bad of the film — Katherine herself is. This all comes to light towards the end of the film, when the undead Katherine visits Frank in prison and reveals that her death and resurrection was all part of her larger plan. She never loved Alucard: in fact, she brought him to Dark Oaks and married him only so she could gain his immortality, plotting to have him killed afterward. Why? So she and Frank can be together forever, just like they always wanted. It’s a brilliant curveball, mainly because it makes us stop and reconsider all the behavior we’ve witnessed from Katherine up to this point. We’ve always been watching a destructive romance, but it wasn’t about an innocent woman falling under the spell of a sinister stranger. It was the story of a woman’s obsession with eternity and how she was willing to manipulate and kill anyone who stood in her way — even her own family members — all for the sake of an eternal love. And when he’s faced with the reality of that love, Frank decides that he wants no part of it. After fighting and killing Alucard at Katherine’s behest, he then turns on Katherine and sets her coffin ablaze as she sleeps inside.

It’s a compelling, well-done tragic romance. What a shame, then, that it’s surrounded by such inferior material.

Where do I even begin with Alucard? With the performance, maybe. Look, Lon Chaney Jr was a man of many talents, but “playing Eastern European aristocracy” was never one of them. He looks the part when you first see him, albeit not as well convincingly as Bela Lugosi or Gloria Holden. But things take a nosedive the second he opens his mouth, when you realize that he’s not even going to attempt an accent. Chaney’s natural accent was put to good use in The Wolf Man because it actually did emphasize his disconnect from the other characters. But here, all these American characters keep talking about how strange and foreign Alucard is, all while he’s sounding like the most Midwestern guy you’ve ever heard. And while Lugosi could easily pull off the cultured and urbane persona that Count Dracula calls for, it feels a lot less authentic and convincing when Chaney tries it. What we’ve got here is a classic example of a good actor being miscast, and the result is so absurd that Alucard quickly loses any credibility as a threatening villain.

The script is admittedly not doing Chaney any favors. Alucard doesn’t really do much in the film, at least not after turning Katherine. He kills a few people, but he mostly takes a backseat to the bloodshed. And though we’re told that he’s this dangerous, destructive force with horrible plans for the whole world, the words lack their intended impact because there isn’t much to back them up. Also, Alucard’s evil plan is…weird. He claims that he’s essentially drained the life force from his native Transylvania, so he’s looking for a newer, “virile” land to exploit instead. And so he settles down in…a decaying plantation in 1940s Tennessee? Presumably he’s talking about the United States as a whole, but still, this is a really weird place to start. You think he’d pack up for Hollywood or something.

The Southern Gothic veneer on this movie is just that, a veneer. You could set this story anywhere else in the States or even in another country, and nothing about the plot would change. The idea of the morbid Katherine confining herself to her family’s declining plantation, preying on the local populace to prevent her own death, is certainly a very Gothic idea. But the film drops most of that tone and imagery when it pursues the murder mystery plotline, becoming a film noir in the process.

Alucard may be a weak character, but the rest of the supporting cast makes him look good by comparison. The two vampire hunters are essentially just Van Helsing without the qualities that make Van Helsing cool and likeable. They’re also kind of stupid, to the point of failing to notice Alucard as he materializes right inside their doorway to threaten them. But I think I was most disappointed at the film’s failure to do anything with Claire. She’s introduced as a down-to-earth foil for Katherine who is concerned about her sister’s mental health and wants to help Dr. Brewster get Katherine away from Dark Oaks and Alucard. But then she completely disappears until almost the end of the film: we don’t even get to see her react to her sister’s marriage and subsequent death.

Despite all the issues that Son of Dracula has, it also has some clear triumphs as well. In fact, there are multiple “firsts” in this movie, not just for vampires on film but for vampire folklore in general. The special effects may be simple by today’s standards, but they were impressive and ambitious for the time. Vampires turning into bats was a staple of horror films already, but this was the first film to actually show that transformation onscreen. Other notable effects include the vampires’ ability to travel around as mist and the sequence where Alucard floats out of the swamp where he’s hidden his coffin.

But the most lasting impact this movie has on the vampire world? Creating the name “Alucard.” If you’ve interacted with any piece of vampire fiction at all, you’ve probably seen “Alucard” used as either an alias for Dracula himself or as a name for one of his descendants. Son of Dracula uses it as both, since it’s indicated that this Count Dracula is not the Count Dracula that Bram Stoker wrote about (a quick cutaway shot seemingly implies that Son is set in the same continuity as the original novel rather than the 1931 film). Having your alias be your real name spelled backwards probably is as stupid as it sounds, but this kind of thing does actually happen in older vampire fiction. The most famous example is undoubtedly Carmilla. In that story, the vampire Mircalla uses multiple aliases which are all made from the rearranged letters of her own name. A little more creative than just spelling your name backwards, yes. But I suppose Dracula’s method gets the job done. At any rate, something about the name Alucard really appealed to people, because it easily found its way into the larger canon of vampire pop culture. There are tons of Alucards running around in books, films, video games and more. And most of them are probably better characters than the original.

Son of Dracula is a movie with strong ideas that are weighed down by serious flaws. At the core of the movie is a twisted romance and a wonderfully dark subversion of the “helpless female victim” archetype so essential to most vampire narratives. Robert Paige and Louise Albritton both turn in great performances as the guilt-ridden Frank and the conniving Katherine, respectively. But they also have to share screen time with the woefully miscast Lon Chaney Jr and a series of weak, underused supporting characters. The film is at its best when it’s trying to imitate the style of film noir, and Robert Siodmak’s work here foreshadows his later successes in that genre. The shadowy, foreboding atmosphere and the psychological component of the murder mystery are the most obvious noir elements, and they both work insanely well in this movie. There are definitely some good ideas in this movie, some of which have stood the test of the time and become vampire story tropes in their own right. But the triumphs don’t quite outweigh the flaws, and the movie doesn’t reach the heights that it could have. That said, if you can get past the weaknesses in Son of Dracula, you’ll find a strong core that makes for a decently entertaining film.

Final Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

See, I told you I’d get this in before the end of the month! I don’t intend to disappear on you guys next month, even though I’ll be rather busy. But if I do happen to vanish, it’s only in keeping with our next movie’s theme.

UP NEXT: The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)

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