Friday, February 5, 2016
Southern Gothic: "Son of Dracula" (1943)
What's better than one vampire? Two. And what's better than two vampires? Three vampires. Well, two and one-half if you want to be technical. 1943's Son of Dracula, which has nothing whatsoever to do with 1936's Dracula's Daughter, is a regular fang frenzy, with Count Dracula (played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) snacking on the heiress Kay Caldwell (played by Louise Allbritton). Vamped up Kay in turn goes after the blood of her beau Frank Stanley (played by Robert Paige), even though she had dumped the boy-toy while living in order to shack up with Drac. It's a confusing, undead love triangle to be sure, but Robert Siodmak's film does make some sense. Trust me.
Set in the foggy swamps of the American South (although never stated directly, it's fairly obvious that the "Dark Oaks" plantation is located in Louisiana), Son of Dracula details the mess that Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards, in case you're not hip) makes once his batwings touch down. First, Dracula helps push the aging Colonel Caldwell (played by George Irving) to his demise via heart failure. This death leaves the gothic Dark Oaks in the hands of Kay Caldwell, one of the late Colonel's daughters. As it turns out, Kay is knee-deep in the occult, with bayou witches for friends. Worse still, Alucard, a strange Hungarian nobleman, taught Kay too much while she was studying in Budapest. Now that he's stateside, Kay dumps her long-time boyfriend Frank in favor of Alucard, thus making him the master of the house.
Not one to give up easily, Frank corners the new couple inside of Dark Oaks. When Alucard gloats about taking Kay away from him, Frank pulls out a revolver and pumps the vampire full of lead. As we all know, bullets have no effect on Transylvanians. However, during the shooting, Kay took refuge behind Alucard, which means that she got hit several times. Frank, thinking that he has just killed his beloved, turns himself in to the sheriff (played by Patrick Moriarty).
In truth, Kay has already been nibbled on by Alucard/Dracula, making her a vampire too. Dr. Harry Brewster (played by Frank Craven), a friend of the Caldwells and man already suspicious of Alucard, goes to Dark Oaks and finds Kay and Alucard quite (re)animated. Both claim that they are to be left alone for the foreseeable future owing to some shared interest in conducting scientific experiments. Dr. Brewster isn't totally buying it, but he tells the sheriff and Frank that he saw Kay alive. The crew goes to verify this claim, but find nothing doing. At this point, only Dr. Lazlo (played by J. Edward Bromberg), a Hungarian professor at an unnamed college in Memphis, believes Dr. Brewster. Luckily for Brewster, Dr. Lazlo is an expert on vampire lore and knows right away that the legendary demon Dracula is now running around the marshlands.
Dracula's reason for crossing the Atlantic has everything to do with blood. Fresh blood, specifically. According to the Count, his European homeland has grown dry and stale (and war-torn; don't forget that this film was released during the height of World War II). America, with its youthful democracy and even younger culture, is vibrant and appealing. Dracula wants to rejuvenate himself, it seems, and Kay Caldwell proved just the right useful idiot for the task.
On the other hand, Kay isn't so dumb, after all. While Dracula tries to stop Brewster and Lazlo from learning too much, Kay swoops in to Frank's cell at night and starts draining him. Then, once Frank is awake, she tells him where to find Dracula's coffin. You see, Kay always wanted Frank and only used Dracula as way to gain eternal life. With Dracula out of the picture, Kay and Frank can live eternally as vampire lovers. Frank initially goes along with the plan, even going so far as to destroy Dracula himself thanks to some well-placed sunlight. But, within the final minutes of the film, Frank goes rogue. He returns to Dark Oaks and sets Kay's coffin on fire. So much for love.
Even though penned by the brilliant Curt Siodmak, Son of Dracula cannot escape the fact that it was made during the very moment when the horror boom of the 1930s was starting to die off. As a result, Son of Dracula mostly feels like one last effort to cash-in on the Dracula franchise twelve years after its last major windfall. And despite some interesting special effects (Dracula's many transformations between human and bat may seem clunky now, but they were probably revolutionary then) and an adequately spooky backdrop, Son of Dracula suffers from a general lack of mystery. Besides the title, which gives away the reveal to the entire audience, Dr. Brewster figures out that Alucard is Dracula within the first three minutes. Kind of pathetic, don't you think? Worse still, Alucard/Dracula is not the main ghoul in this film--Kay is. Not only does the guy's secret identity fall apart in record time, but he even gets upstaged in his own film. Again, utterly pathetic.