Tuesday, October 9, 2012

House of Dracula -- Universal kitsch

By Doug Gibson

1945's "House of Dracula," (you can see the trailer above) was Universal's final "serious" film using the trio of monsters it had achieved fame with the past 14 years, to wit the Frankenstein monster, Count Dracula and the Wolfman. Unlike the films that formed the genesis of these monsters, "House of Dracula" contains none of the drama, pathos, emotion, creativity, plots and scripts that enhanced the originals. "House of Dracula" is a silly, kitschy film, very derivative as well as outlandish at times. It's a comic book tale with all three of the monsters, as well as a mad scientist who resembles Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

That's not to say "House of Dracula" is a poor film. It's actually a well-directed, economical, lean Universal B  60 minutes-plus time-waster that is well directed by Erle C. Kenton. It serves as a reminder that even the most formulaic big-studio production always outshone similar cheaper efforts from the Monograms and PRCs of that era. The film begins with Count Dracula (John Carradine) visiting the European castle of Dr. Franz Edelmann. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) is working on developing a mold that can cure almost any disease. He hopes to use it to correct the malady of his hunchbacked assistant, Nina, played by Jane Adams.

The film starts to get immediately. Dracula, traveling under a fake name, is not searching for necks to bite. What he really wants is a cure; he wants to stop being Dracula. Because he's a humane man, Edelmann, even after learning that he's Dracula, decides to try to help him. After noticing that Dracula's blood contains a strange parasite, Edelmann shares his blood with Dracula.

This is a ridiculous plot twist for any purist, and although many have criticized Universal for not casting Bela Lugosi as Dracula in this film, it's probably a plus that he was passed over. Lugosi's Dracula could never be the passive, somber, ambling Dracula that Carradine portrays in the film. The idea of Lugosi's Dracula pleading for blood tests would have turned a silly but somber film into a farce. Lugosi is simply too good for such nonsense. To Carradine's credit, he creates his own Dracula; like his previous turn as the Count in "House of Frankenstein," he keeps things low-key and looks a bit like a quietly eccentric clergyman. Playing Dracula in that manner makes Carradine's transformation to cruel bloodsucker more effective. After being attracted to another one of Edelmann's assistants, comely Miliza Morell, played by Martha O'Driscoll, Dracula is none-too-pleased when Edelmann interferes. In as strange sequence, Dracula gains control over the doctor on the transfusion table, infects his blood, and -- after a half-hearted attempt to kidnap Miliza, returns to his casket, where he humbly submits to eternal death.

While the Dracula tale has been unfolding, Lon Chaney Jr., as the eternally depresses Lawrence Talbot the Wolf Man, as meandered to the castle. The good-hearted Edelmann has diagnosed his werewolf malady as the result of pressure in the cranium, and Talbot eagerly submits to treatment with hopes that his curse can be cured. At one low point, Talbot attempts suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea. The coast hides several sea caves, and lo and behold the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) is discovered unconscious in one!

While Lugosi would have a poor choice for this film's Dracula, he would have been an ideal picks as the saintly Dr. Edelmann, eventually turned into a mad killer by blood contamination. After all, Karloff had played a mad scientist in House of Frankenstein with Strange taking over the monster, so Lugosi could have easily endured Carradine. However, Bela was on the outs with Universal, so Stevens got the role.

To be fair, Onslow Stevens does an OK job as the doc. He shows fine acting skills, particularly when he attempts to fight his evil side from overpowering his virtue. Perhaps the most chilling moment occurs when the bad Dr. Edelmann, too impulsive to have ant control, murders the virtuous, sympathetic hunchback nurse Nina, a woman the doctor truly cares about. It's a shocking death, and effective in its horror aspect, since Nina's character is developed enough for the audience to truly care about her.

There are villagers in this film, including Lionel Atwill, who hasn;t much to do as the inspector, and slimy, repulsive character actor Skelton Knaggs, who lends a sinister air as a villager bent on revenge after his brother is killed by bad Edelmann. As for "bad Edelmann," he's determined to resurrect the monster, and it's up to the (now cured!?) Talbot and nurse Miliza -- who appears to have the hots for each other -- to try and stop the bad doc. (This was filmed in an era where Chaney was slowly starting to lose his looks -- due to his alcoholism -- but he still handsome enough to get the girl)

Despite my criticism of "House of Dracula" as kitsch, it's fun kitsch and a horror fan who has enjoyed "Frankenstein," "Dracula" and other vintage horror won;t be disappointed with it. In fact, you'll probably want to watch it several times. I have.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this gem!