Following his portrayal of The Wolf Man, The Frankenstein Monster and Kharis The Mummy, Lon Chaney, added the role of Dracula to his resume starring in this well paced thriller from writer Curt Siodmak which in turn was directed by his brother Robert Siodmak.
We’re in the deep south of the United States and the imminent arrival of one, Count Alucard, has Southern Belle, Louise Allbritton, hosting a ball to greet the Count. He’s a no show at the train station though his luggage arrives safely including large boxes with his family crest on them. The evening ball winds down and the patriarch of the family, George Irving, settles in for the night at his palatial estate. He won’t live to see morning once Lon emerges from the shadows and fog and for the first time in screen history, we’ll see Dracula transform himself into a bat with the help of some cutting F/X circa 1943.
A quick backdrop and we’ll learn that Allbritton had met the Count while touring the continent in Budapest. She’s also heavily involved in the world of voodoo and ghostly things. She’ll even play witness to a haggard old soothsayer’s death following the prediction that the beautiful Allbritton will marry a corpse and soon be living in a grave.
While this is going on, we have Frank Craven as an old country doctor who seems to be knowledgeable when it comes to names that spelled backwards go from Alucard to Dracula. So much so that he calls in a very Van Helsing like Dr. Lazlo played by J. Edward Bromberg to confirm his suspicions.
Time for one of the films best scenes. That of Allbritton vamping down by the swamp in a flowing nightgown awaiting the rise of Lon’s coffin from the swamp. With a great tracking shot, Lon appears to be gliding across the surface of the water as he approaches the shore line and his soon to be immortal wife.
Lon has come to America to find new blood having drained the life source out of his homeland. Through marriage he’s now the Lord of this southern estate and ruler of his domain. He warns that trespassers will be harshly dealt with when meeting Craven snooping around the cellar of the estate. What Lon doesn’t expect is Robert Paige who was a one time beau of Miss Allbritton and still in love with her himself believes that Lon has some sort of demonic hold over her and attempts to bring her to her senses.
This all leads to the second highlight of the film. One that can be pointed out to those who have criticized Lon’s performance as the vampire King. In a show of brute force Lon tosses Paige aside through a set of doors as if he were a ragdoll. It’s both a well lit and choreographed shot. The scene and Lon’s delivery here serve as a precursor to the physicality and brutality that Jack Palance would bring to the role three decades later.
Paige will become slightly unhinged after firing shots that go through Lon and seemingly kill his beloved Allbritton. This gives the film a chance to inject a character with the mental breakdown that Jonathan Harker would experience in Stoker’s original novel without going as far as the Renfield character’s descent into madness. There’s even a child in Siodmak’s story that will become a victim for the Count’s appetite as there was in the novel and many of the subsequent film versions of Stoker’s tale.
The film plays for 80 minutes by which time good will of course conquer evil extinguishing Lon’s Count from existence. At least until Universal revived him in the form of John Carradine the very next year in The House of Frankenstein and it’s direct follow-up, The House of Dracula in 1945.
Also starring in Son of Dracula are two well known faces to fans of the genre during this era. Evelyn Ankers, a frequent costar of Lon’s during his monster movie period has a secondary role as the sister of Allbritton. Miss Ankers appeared opposite Lon in The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, North to the Klondike, Weird Woman, The Frozen Ghost, cameos in Crazy House and Follow the Boys to go along with Son of Dracula. All released between 1941 and 1945.
Then there’s actor Samuel S. Hinds. By no means a household name but surely fans of the Universal Monsters must recognize this actor who is usually playing a Judge, a Doctor or a heroine’s father. Here he’s being employed as a Judge. In the world of monster and horror movies, you can locate Mr. Hinds in thrillers that include The Raven, She, Night Key, Man Made Monster, The Strange Case of Dr. X and a pair of titles for the ladies, Cobra Woman and Jungle Woman.
Son of Dracula is often attacked for Lon’s “wooden” performance as the Count. A little harsh I think. Sadly the film doesn’t give him a chance to be a charming nobleman. Perhaps if he had made it to the ball at the start of the film he’d have had a better opportunity. Then there are the Lugosi fans who believe the role should have gone to Bela. Understandable but by this point, Lon, was the name on the marquee that the studio was hyping when it came to the horror cycle the studio was famous for.
Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Universal’s original choice for the 1931 film had taken place. Lon Chaney Sr. was slated to play the Count before throat cancer took his life just as the “talkies” overtook the industry. Had he played the role, then Son of Dracula would have had so much more going for it in regards to marketing with Lon Jr. donning the cape and fangs.
Much like the Hammer sequels that would be released in the 60’s and 70’s starring Christopher Lee, Son of Dracula, offers up a new adventure for the Count and those that paid their way into movie houses. I see nothing wrong with that and take great enjoyment in these storylines that borrow bits and pieces of Stoker’s story beyond the Count himself. Hammer would even revive the Alucard name themselves for 1972’s cult favorite, Dracula A.D. But of course that switch in letters didn’t fool Frank Craven here and it certainly wouldn’t fool the screen’s greatest vampire hunter, Peter Cushing, in Hammer’s updated outing.
Strictly as a side note, I’ve yet to see the 1973 film that goes by the same title, Son of Dracula, that had Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson playing the leads. I’m not even sure it’s ever surfaced on home video. If you have seen it, please drop me a line as to your thoughts on it and if I should be tracking it down.
If you’ve somehow overlooked this chapter in the Universal Monsters storyline, give this old fashioned thriller a look. Thanks to the everlasting popularity of these classic monster flicks it’s easy to find on DVD or blu ray should you want to add it to your own library.