The most criminally underrated Universal horror movie of the 1930s and 40s is undoubtedly Son of Dracula. It’s one of my three or four favourite Universal monster flicks and coming so late in the cycle makes it an even more pleasant surprise.
Curt Siodmak’s story on which Eric Taylor based the screenplay wisely gets as far away as possible from the settings and plot of Stoker’s original novel. This is certainly not a retread of the earlier Universal Dracula movies. The setting is the American South in contemporary times. Katherine Caldwell (or Kay as she is more generally known) is the heiress to a plantation located deep within the bayous. She’s more than a little eccentric, and her enthusiasm for the occult borders on mania. Her family regards her as morbid, but that doesn’t stop her good-natured and wealthy young neighbour Frank from falling hopelessly in love with her. Her latest craze is for telepathy, and she believes she’s in contact with a mysterious Eastern European aristocrat and that she is calling him to her. And it turns out that that really is exactly what she is doing.
The luggage of her mysterious nobleman, a Hungarian by the name of Count Alucard, arrives by train. It includes several very large crates, but there’s no sign of their owner. The welcoming party returns to the Caldwell mansion, but Kay is convinced that he will arrive that evening. Night falls, and an unexplained fire breaks out in the bedroom of her father, the Colonel, whose dead body is then discovered. He seems to have been the victim of a heart attack, although someone remarks that he looks like he died of fright! Shortly thereafter the Hungarian count arrives on the doorstep.
The family doctor is suspicious of the newcomer from the start, and his suspicions are inflamed when he speaks to Professor Lazlo at the Hungarian embassy in Washington. He knows of no Count Alucard, but he and the doctor notice that Alucard spelt backwards is Dracula, and the professor has certainly heard of the Draculas! Doctor Brewster becomes even more concerned when it appears that the Count and Katherine may be contemplating, a fact that is naturally even more upsetting to young Frank.
One of the problems with most horror movies is the time it takes for the characters to figure out that something supernatural is afoot. The interesting twist in this movie is that the characters are all familiar with Bram Stoker’s novel, and they very quickly realise they’re dealing with the Undead.
Lon Chaney Jr gave a slightly unconventional performance as Dracula, but he gave the role some real menace. Most people seem to dislike his interpretation of the part but I like it a great deal and consider it to be perhaps his best performance. His voice is not quite right, but when he’s allowed to stop talking and simply rely on his physical presence and his piercing stare he really is quite frightening. He conveys a ruthlessness and a contempt for humanity that Lugosi couldn’t quite pull off.
Louise Allbritton as Kay looks terrific, her appearance perfectly reflecting her “morbid” preoccupations. She looks like a 1940s goth girl! Unfortunately she isn’t able to bring to the role the disturbing and unconventional eroticism that Gloria Holden brought to the title role in Dracula's Daughter seven years later. The character needed an actress who could add a somewhat stronger does of perversity. Notwithstanding that, Kay is one of the most fascinating characters to be found in any horror movie of this period, a heroine more wicked and more unsettling than the ostensible villain. You almost feel sorry for poor Alucard for getting mixed up with her! The fact that the movie is so heavily focused on such a strong but dangerous female character makes it almost like a film noir, with Kay as the femme fatale.
Robert Siodmak (a very fine director who incidentally made some great movies in the film noir mould) gave Son of Dracula some of the most striking images you’ll see in any horror movie of that era – especially the coffin rising from the swamp. It’s an interesting mix of styles, with the scenes centred on the vampire hunters being mainly shot in bright daylight while the scenes centred on Kay and the Count are all night scenes filmed in a pure Expressionist style. This has the effect of emphasising the contrast between everyday reality and the nightmare world of vampires. For a film that puts a vampire into the world of the 1940s this is a bold move, but this disjunction between the rational daylight world of the doctor and the world of shadows in which Kay and Alucard move works rather nicely.
This is a fairly early example of a movie doing the decadent decaying southern gothic thing, and visually it works superbly. Vampires, southern plantations and swamps are a perfect combination.
It’s unfortunate that this was Siodmak’s only real horror movie. Sadly it was also the last collaboration between the Siodmak brothers, Robert’s first action on being given the directing assignment being to have his brother Curt fired from the picture! Apparently it was not a case so much of personal dislike as intense competitiveness between the two. Son of Dracula is a classic not just of gothic horror, but of American gothic. A great movie.