Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Son of Dracula (1943)

Director: Robert Siodmak                              Writers: Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                             Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers and Robert Paige

Forget every negative thing you’ve ever read about this film, because it’s decidedly one of the better Universal horror films. And that’s an important qualifier. It’s not Citizen Kane . . . but it’s not The Mad Ghoul, either. Son of Dracula is an impressive piece of classic horror by the Siodmak brothers, director Robert and writer Curt. In style, it’s closer to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man than the studio’s Frankenstein films. Like the former, it is Curt Siodmak’s original story that provides the basis for the film, and is expertly realized by one of RKO’s regular noir director Robert Siodmak, who lends the same kind of touches to a horror story which benefits tremendously from that type of vision. And like The Wolf Man it’s also set in the present day, this time the Deep South, and in that respect could be seen as one of several inspirations for Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. It has a nice cast, too. In addition to Universal stalwarts Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers, Robert Paige turns in an excellent performance as the jilted fiancée, Frank Craven from Our Town is the no-nonsense doctor who combats Dracula, and even Samuel Hinds from It’s a Wonderful Life shows up as the judge. Louise Allbritton does a fine job as well in her only Universal horror film. It’s a top-notch production all the way, again, considering the context, and needs to shed its undeserved reputation as one of the studio’s lesser horror outings.

Those who remember Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary from 1927 will recognize the opening credit sequence as something similar was done here, with a large hand wiping away dust and cobwebs to reveal the main titles of the picture. The story opens with town doctor Frank Craven, along with Robert Paige, waiting at the train station for the visiting Count Alucard. When he doesn’t show up they take a look at his luggage and Craven notices instantly that the name backward spells Dracula. Louise Albritton has arranged a welcome for the count at the family plantation, where she lives with her father, George Irving, and her sister, Evelyn Ankers. When the father is killed by Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula, two spots are noticed on the dead man’s throat, and Craven immediately sets about contacting the regional authority on vampires, the Hungarian professor J. Edward Bromberg. Rather than shying away from the evidence, Craven takes things even further. After the reading of the will, he breaks open Chaney’s trunks and finds them empty. He wants the two sisters to leave at once, in order to keep them out of danger, but then Allbritton shocks everyone by announcing that she’s throwing over her fiancé Robert Paige, and marrying Chaney. Meanwhile, a small boy nearly dies from what Craven is convinced is an attack by the vampire, and calls in Bromberg to assist him in confirming the diagnosis. What seems a rather straightforward story, however—this time with two Van Helsings for the price of one—has a wonderfully satisfying twist halfway through that sets it alongside The Wolf Man, and well above Universal’s other horror offerings of the forties.

This is one of the first horror films I ever watched as a kid on late night television, back in the glory days when TV was a feast of black-and-white films. And the things that impressed me back then still do to this day. For one thing, it’s a smart film, as a direct result of author Curt Siodmak. Unlike the colossally stupid decisions so many horror characters make, Frank Craven and J. Edward Bromberg refuse to dismiss the evidence in front of their eyes. If that means that an actual vampire is roaming the countryside, then so be it. Steps must be taken, and to their credit they do. It’s a wonderfully satisfying conceit that goes a long way toward making up for the more obvious deficiencies that so many critics harp on. Chaney is usually dismissed for being fleshy instead of cadaverous, but in the context of the story there’s no reason for that to matter. Also the special effects by John Fulton and cinematographer George Robinson are absolutely wonderful, with Dracula emerging from smoke, and changing from a bat via animation but shot from behind so it’s not so obvious. And his floating across the water of the swamp is spectacular. Finally, the great Hans Salter’s film score ties the whole thing together, bolstered by his use of cues from Frank Skinner’s scores for Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films. All of the actors acquit themselves well, including Chaney and Allbritton. Evelyn Ankers is a vision, as always, and even if Frank Craven takes a lot of abuse from critics, he’s actually fantastic in the role. Don’t be seduced by the negative criticism of Son of Dracula because in reality it is one of the truly great horror films of the decade.

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