Starring: Robert Paige, Frank Craven, Louise Allbritton, Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, and J. Edward Bromberg
Director: Robert Siodmak
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Eccentric sothern belle Katherine Caldwell (Allbritton) apparently falls under the sway of a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Alucard (Chaney), while traveling in Europe. When he arrives in the United States, strange deaths start happening, and isolates himself and Katherine in her manorhouse on Darkwood Plantation. But after she is accidentially shot to death by her fiance (Paige), the true horror of what Katherine's plans start to emerge.
"Son of Dracula" is a surprisingly effective and mature horror film. I had very low hopes for it when Dracula shows up in Louisiana with the clever aka of "Alucard"--gosh, no one's going to figure that one out!
But fortunately, that's the one bit of childish idiocy in this exceptionally creepy movie.
From Dracula's takeover of Darkwood, to the first time we see Dracula emerge from his swampbound coffin, to Frank going insane from gunning down Katherine... and to the twists and turns the film takes as it moves through its second and third acts. (To reveal that Katherine dies at the hand of Frank is NOT a spoiler for this film. Her death is where the story starts to truly unfold.)
Every scene in this film drips with atmosphere. Despite dating from the mid-1940s where Universal horror films seemed to be targeted primarily at kids, this is a movie with a story that compares nicely to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein". It may even be a little superior to those two, as far as the story goes, because it's got some twists that I guarentee you will not see coming.
The film is also blessed with a score that is surprisingly effective for a Universal horror picture--I tend to find them overblown for the most part, but here the music perfectly compliments what unfolds on the screen--and with a cast that is mostly superb in their roles.
I say mostly, because Lon Chaney Jr. is does not make a good Dracula at all. He comes across like a dockworker who's borrowed someone's tuxedo for the evening (or who maybe took it off the owner after beating him into unconsciousness). There simply is nothing menacing about Chaney's Dracula... he's brutish and, as the film builds to its climax, desperate, but never menacing or frightening. He is quite possibly the worst Dracula I've ever come across.
Aside from a weak "Dracula", everything else in this film is top-notch, resulting in a horror movie that's surprisingly effective and high quality when compared to the rest of Universal's horror output of the time. In fact, it's a movie that may even have been ahead of its time, as the pacing, style, and overall look of the film reminded me more of the British horror movies that would emerge from Hammer Films starting a little more than a decade after "Son of Dracula" was first released.
In fact, whether you prefer the Hammer Dracula films (as I do, quite frankly) or the Universal ones, this is a film that will appeal to you.
The Return of Dracula (aka "The Curse of Dracula" and "The Incredible Vanishing Man") (1958)
Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wyngraf, Virginia Vincent and Gage Clarke
Director: Paul Landres
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Dracula (Lederer) escapes to America by murdering a Czech artist and assuming his identity. He settles in a small California town and sets his sights on corrupting pure-hearted young girls and turning them into vampires.
"The Return of Dracula" is a vampire movie that rises far above its low budget thanks to a good script, a decent cast, and some clever touches on the part of the director. Francis Lederer (who plays Dracula) may not be a Dracula in the class of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi, but he holds his own here. He's comparable to--and even a little better than--Lon Chaney Jr.
While one is always hardpressed to describe a vampire movie as "realistic", this one comes close. The characters are all very real-seeming and performed with great skill by the actors. Particularly noteworthy are the high-school girlfriend/girlfriend characters of Tim and Rachel (portrayed by Norma Eberhardt and Ray Stricklyn), as their relationship and behavior reminded me of my own high school love-life... either things were really racy in this movie, my life was really tame in the 1980s, or things haven't change that much for active kids in the real world, despite what pop culture and politicians would have us believe. These characters seem very real throughout the picture, up and including the way in which they ultimately come face-to-face with the full might of the vampire.
The film also has several unexpected moments of artful creepiness, including one of the spookiest vampire seduction scenes ever filmed. Dracula's first victim is Jennie, a sick blind girl (Virginia Vincent) who can see him in her mind's eye as he corrupts her and devours her soul. Jennie also gets one of the creepiest vampire ressurection scenes ever filmed, as well as a very neat death scene. (The cinematography in this movie is its weakest element, but there is a shot of the vampiric Jennie flitting through the graveyard that's very beautiful. Jennie's death-by-stake moments later is also very startling, due to a bit of Hollywood trickery. I won't go into details, because the effect is one that has to be unexpected for it to have its full and starteling impact.)
Like in most vampire movies, the demise of the master vampire is somewhat anti-climactic, but Dracula's death in this film is not as embarrassing as some of the deaths he suffered in various Hammer flicks. At least here he is done in partially by his own evil deeds instead of by complete accident (like when Dracula dies by thorn bush in "The Satanic Rites of Dracula").
If you're a fan of classic horror films, I recommend you seek out "The Return of Dracula". Francis Lederer may not have been the best choice to play Dracula, but the great supporting cast makes up for his slight shortcomings.
Both films discussed in this post are available as part of "DVD double-features." In both cases, the film they are paired with is equally worthwhile. Both DVDs are well worth adding to personal collections.