The Drac Pack is Back: The Universal Dracula Sequels

penguinOriginally posted May 8, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

It occurs to me that it has been nearly a month since my last missive. Believe me, I did not intend to cause you any anguish, or make you rend your garments in despair over my long absence.  Nor am I “pulling a Garbo” and deliberately creating an aura of mystery.  I have simply been cultivating my rich inner life, mostly by perusing my well-thumbed copy of The Penguin Book of Sick Verse.  While sipping some well-aged vin de Gowanus from a goblet I had made from the skull of a nosy paparazzo, I happened upon an eerily appropriate bit of poesy entitled “Lines Inscribed upon a Cup formed from a Skull,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron.  It reads (in part):

Start not – nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine:
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?

Which brings me to the latest outpourings of my own skull, which I trust you will find suitably intoxicating.  Since my last column dealt with Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, I thought I’d tidy up some loose ends by commenting on the three other Dracula pictures released by Universal over the subsequent twelve years.  In effect, I will be discussing sequels in a column which is in itself a sequel.  How very meta of me.

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
Although released five years after the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi Dracula, the first sequel picks up immediately where the previous film left off.  Van Helsing (once again, Edward Van Sloan) surrenders to a couple of comical, lily-livered bobbies after finishing off Count Dracula (briefly portrayed by an unconvincing effigy).  Enter Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), a mysterious black-clad countess who identifies herself as Dracula’s daughter.  Along with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), an ambiguous ghoul with patent leather hair, she steals and ritualistically burns Dracula’s remains to rid herself of the curse of vampirism.  Sandor is skeptical that such a thing is possible – and indeed, it isn’t long before Marya is hypnotizing potential victims right and left, including a comely artist’s model (Nan Grey) whom Sandor has brought to her studio to pose.

The aforementioned scene has been much commented on by contemporary critics; its Sapphic implications can hardly be missed, but the censors apparently did.  In addition to being the screen’s first lesbian (or, more accurately, bisexual) vampire – a trope that would be exploited to varying degrees of hilarity in later and more permissive decades – Countess Zaleska may be the first instance of the conflicted vampire.  Her dear old dad seemed content enough with his lot, and never appeared to suffer any existential torment, but Zaleska is one of our more reluctant fiends of the night.  She tries to go straight, as it were, but is as helpless to resist her impulses as a junkie in the throes of withdrawal.  The figure of the angst-ridden vampire, and the vampirism-as-addiction metaphor, would both perform yeoman service in such later efforts as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) and Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973).

Stately of figure and patrician of chin, Gloria Holden is remembered, if at all, for this film and The Life of Emile Zola (1937).  It’s a pity so few memorable roles came her way; her imposing presence as Countess Zaleska suggests that she was seriously underused, and capable of marvelous things.  Director Lambert Hillyer made over 160 films, almost none of them distinguished – but in Dracula’s Daughter he managed a moody, haunting, adult picture whose reputation has blossomed over the decades.  The best of the series.

Son of Dracula (Robert Siodmak, 1943)
I don’t claim to know if the Count sired any male progeny, but this film offers no clues one way or the other.  Title notwithstanding, the dapper, mustachioed bloodsucker who descends on a New Orleans plantation home is actually Dracula himself, though he makes a fairly lackluster attempt to disguise his identity by presenting himself as Count Alucard.  (His hosts crack the code in about five minutes.)

Lon Chaney (having recently dropped the “Jr.” from his name, to much subsequent confusion) reveals his limitations as the Count.  An ungainly sort with a permanent sad-sack expression, Chaney the Younger proved ideal as the tortured Wolf Man, but he looks desperately uncomfortable here and his line readings lack panache. Siodmak, who helmed many of the most atmospheric films noir of the ‘40s, gives the picture a boost by ladling on the swampy atmospherics, notably in the scene where Alucard drifts across a pond in a semi-blasphemous evocation of “walking on water.”  John P. Fulton’s special effects in the man-into-bat transformation scenes hold up surprisingly well.  Enjoyable matinee fare for the not-too-demanding.

House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)
After Universal’s previous all-star monster jamboree, House of Frankenstein (1944), there was nothing left to do but wring a few more nickels out of the monster-mad populace by rounding up the usual suspects yet again, this time under the increasingly tattered Dracula banner.  (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the next stop.)  The results are best appreciated late at night with a snootful of Old Crow, or perhaps some oriental herbs of dubious legality.

A certain Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) occupies a cliffside castle and conducts experiments not approved by the American Medical Association, along with two female assistants: cutie pie Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) and the hunchbacked but otherwise fetching Nina (Jane Adams).  (I have had numerous lab assistants in my career as an avant-garde surgeon, and only a few of them have been hunchbacks, but said deformity was apparently a prerequisite in earlier epochs.)  Traveling incognito, Count Dracula (the excessively gaunt John Carradine) appears on Edelmann’s doorstep to request a cure for his vampirism.  Word must travel fast, because the doc’s next patient is none other than Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who seeks a remedy for his lycanthropic ways.

Edelmann appears to be making progress, but not before Talbot, with a bad moon rising, turns into the Wolf Man and escapes into a twisting series of caves near the castle.  Giving chase, Edelmann stumbles upon the remains of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), and figures he might as well revive the old boy. Complicating matters further is that a transfusion Edelmann gave to Dracula has tainted his own blood, turning him into a homicidal maniac.  From there, things really go from pillar to post: the requisite torch-bearing mob makes its appearance, a fire breaks out in the castle, and all concerned are burned to a crisp.  A tad improbable.

Don't call her "Igor."  Jane Adams as a different kind of hunchbacked lab assistant in House of Dracula.

Don’t call her “Igor.” Jane Adams as a different kind of hunchbacked lab assistant in House of Dracula.