Son of Dracula (Universal 1943)
Universal had been keen to make sequels featuring almost all of their classic monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man had all been put through sometimes shameless adventures, but one of the studio’s highest-grossing horrors of all time – the original 1931 Dracula – had been pretty much put out to grass save for a cursory appearance in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. Bela Lugosi, disappointed although handsomely paid off by the Laemmles for not appearing in Dracula’s Daughter, now sunk into despair as Universal’s new kid on the block, Lon Chaney Jr, was cast in his stead in the title role for Son of Dracula.
Scripting duties were originally given to Curt Siodmak, but when his brother Robert was appointed to direct, the fierce sibling rivalry between the two led him to fire Curt almost immediately, replacing him with Eric Taylor. Although an unpropitious circumstance for the junior Siodmak, it was fortuitous for the overall film, as Taylor’s impressive, intelligent script means Son of Dracula outshines the oftentimes formulaic fare that did not always do justice to Siodmak’s skills.
Katherine (Louise Allbritton) consults with Madame Queen Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) in Son of Dracula (Universal 1943)
In another personnel shift, intended producer George Waggner was still heavily involved with Universal’s lavish production of Phantom of the Opera the same year, and was superceded by Ford Beebe, who got the gig after his success with 1942’s Night Monster. This would not be the last last of the changes, as would-be leading man Alan Curtis was injured whilst filming a scene for Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and was replaced by Robert Paige who, ironically, went on to give one of Son of Dracula’s strongest performances.
Chaney was no Lugosi, and has often been criticised for his wooden and stilted performance in the film. It may be true to say that he did not bring to life the Dracula that Taylor’s script had either required or envisioned, but to condemn his performance without remorse is unfair. He brings a tremendous amount of presence, villainy and latent menace to the part and, as with so many other films, Son of Dracula is now what it is, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else making it as powerful as it is. The chubby and oftentimes difficult star does make the role his own, and although not as cadaverous as Lugosi or John Carradine, despite Jack Pierce’s use of pale blue make-up to give him a corpse-like appearance on film, he manages to create a visceral, thuggish Dracula more ignoble than Stoker’s nobleman.
Sisters Claire (Evelyn Ankers) and Katherine (Louise Allbritton) in a publicity shot for Son of Dracula (Universal 1943)
Son of Dracula has been sidelined by both critics and fans for many a long decade when in actual fact it is one of Universal’s strongest horror films of the 1940s. Performances are generally excellent, scripting and treatment very strong, and Siodmak’s direction, Beebe’s production and George Robinson’s camerawork all superlative. The transplanting of both vampire and action to America’s Deep South swamplands, although controversial, gives the film an eerie contemporary ambience pulled off far better here by Taylor than could have been imagined by Hammer in their attempts at the same feat with Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).
Katherine (Louise Allbritton) explains her plan to Frank (Robert Paige) in Son of Dracula (Universal 1943)
The story of Son of Dracula serves to confound expectations right from the word go, with the opening scenes focusing on the failure of Chaney’s Count Alucard to arrive on time. Indeed, by the time the vampire appears in earnest, the party intended to welcome him as the guest of plantation owner’s daughter Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) has actually finished. Following the mysterious death of her father on the night of the party, Katherine inherits the entire plantation (her sister Claire, played by Evelyn Ankers, receives a cash inheritance), and abruptly breaks off her relationship with long-time beau Frank Stanley (Paige) with the curve-ball of a revelation that she has been secretly dating Alucard, and has now married him. When Frank attempts to shoot the impassive Alucard, his bullets pass through the vampire’s body, felling Katherine, although local doctor Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) sees her alive and well shortly afterwards. Suspecting that Alucard is not all he seems, Dr Brewster consults Van Helsing-alike colleague Professor Lazlo, who suggests that vampirism may be on the cards in the Caldwell-Alucard household.
Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) rises from the swamp in Son of Dracula (Universal 1943)
In a further unexpected twist, the undead Katherine (whose body has been found after Brewster’s visit and taken to the morgue) appears in bat form and reveals her masterplan to Frank as he languishes in a police cell – having become immortal through her liaison with Alucard, she now wishes to grant eternal life to Frank too, so that they may enjoy an endless future together. With her guidance, he escapes from custody and, locating Alucard’s coffin in an abandoned drainage pipe, destroys the vampire’s hiding place. Returning to the house, he finds his lover’s body and, setting her coffin ablaze, frees her like a good Christian boy from the curse to which she erroneously submitted.
Dracula (Lon Chaney Jr) prepares to attack Frank (Robert Paige) in Son of Dracula (Universal 1943)
Grown-up in both approach and performances, Son of Dracula needs re-evaluation to give it its rightful place in the annals of not only Universal monster history, but the horror film genre as a whole. Keeping up with the monster Joneses seems to be the only reason the studio opted for the title Son of Dracula, as ambiguity as to Alucard’s position in the bloodsucking bloodline abounds both in the script itself, and in Universal’s press of the time. Notwithstanding this, the film is streets ahead of many of its tried and trusted ilk. It is, indeed, one of the few original second-generation monster movies able to stand up proudly today, and it is still possible to view it as an artistic film to be enjoyed alongside many so-called more “worthy” contemporary entries.