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Monster mash
A region 1 DVD review of HOUSE OF DRACULA from Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection by Slarek
 

For Universal Studios, House of Dracula was the end of an era. Not only was it the last of their Dracula films, it also featured the final appearance of two of their other favourites, the Frankenstein Monster and The Wolf Man. It also effectively marked the end of what has become known as the studio's Classic Horror period. The times they were a-changin', and the end of the war in Europe saw a paying public with little enthusiasm for the artificial horrors being offered up by Hollywood. What's more, monsters that once terrified were now too familiar to carry the same dramatic weight. But Universal had one last trick up their sleeve: throw three of their favourite monsters into one picture – three times the monsters, three times the thrills, right? Oh, if only.

This was actually Universal's third stab at multiple monster stories after 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and 1944's House of Frankenstein (the Wolf Man came late to the monster cycle and so only got one film to himself). Certainly this "the more, the merrier" approach was reflected in the film's publicity: "The super-shock sensation of all time..." screamed the posters, "All together...All terrific...Bringing all NEW thrills!" At the time this three-for-the-price-of-one approach may well have seemed like a viable move, but one thing horror film history has taught us is that if your movie features monsters from two or more franchises, then you have run out of ideas and are getting desperate. On top of that, the movie is likely to be bollocks. Freddie v. Jason? Crap. Alien vs. Predator? Do me a favour. Van Helsing? An absolute, complete bloody shambles. Every screen monster not only has its own specific identity but also exists within its own unique universe and in some cases has its own sub-genre with its own set of rules. As soon as you put two or more movie monsters from different film series together then you are violating genre rules even before you start. At best it's a compromise and at worst ridiculous. And saying it was based on a comic book or a computer game is not a viable excuse. This sort of teaming is best left to MTV's hilarious Celebrity Death Match, where at least getting a laugh is the point of the show.

House of Dracula actually has more going for it than the above-mentioned disasters, in part because this was then relatively new territory and there is thus a degree of innocence to the film that is almost charming. Almost. Elements of the plot also have plenty of subtextual potential, but this tends to go largely unexplored thanks to the film's determination to cram in as many familiar elements as possible, pausing only to allow characters to woodenly muse on their fate, their destiny, or man's place in the universe. Despite all this, it does boast a couple of interesting twists on the horror norm, resulting in something of a genre rarity: a film that actually advances the vampire genre thematically, but is otherwise not all that good. And this is 42 years before Joel Schumacher did likewise with The Lost Boys.

It kicks off with an intriguing notion: Count Dracula turns up at the office of the renowned Dr. Edelman, explains who he is and informs the good doctor that he is weary of life as a vampire and wishes to be cured of the condition. This would make House of Dracula the first genre film to propose the concept of vampirism as a communicable and possibly curable disease, as opposed to the purely supernatural state suggested by Son of Dracula. All very interesting, but while Dracula is attending his second appointment with the doctor, who should turn up to see him but Lawrence Talbot, aka The Wolf Man, also looking for a cure for his disorder. Unable to wait, he runs off before the full moon turns him into a beast and a short while later tries to kill himself by leaping off a cliff into the waters below. Edelman tries to save him, but by then the good Talbot has transformed into a lycanthrope and attacks him in a cave at the base of the cliff. Talbot recovers and Edelman survives and the two of them discover not just a whole crop of the very mould the doctor needs to create cures for both Talbot and Nina, the doctor's beautiful but hunch-backed assistant, but also – surely not – the seemingly lifeless body of Frankenstein's monster. I'm surprised they missed the opportunity to bring The Invisible Man in and run the old joke about the doctor not being able to see him. But let's be honest, we knew these three were going to be in the same film – the publicity told us so. That's not the issue – it's how the three come to be together that makes it so hard to swallow. The coincidence factor smacks of lazy or perhaps hurried writing, and it seems strange that both Dracula and Talbot have at the very same moment both chosen a doctor who does not believe in the supernatural to approach for help. Mind you, they have little trouble persuading him of their authenticity – Talbot is good enough to transform just after Edelman has explained away his notions of lycanthropy, and Dracula provides a blood sample unusual enough to convince him there must be something in this vampire stuff after all.

Even given these disparate elements, the plot bumps along in less than thrilling fashion, hampered by the over-familiarity and sometimes dopey behaviour of the characters. Dracula is so sedately polite, especially on recognising an old female acquaintance (it is never certain whether he has used the desire for a cure as a ruse to get near her or has by chance stumbled across her when visiting Edelman for treatment – the opening scene does suggest the former), that when it does come time for him to be threatening it's something of a no sale, and by this time Talbot's anguished victim-of-this-curse routine had become awfully familiar stuff. Frankenstein's monster gets precious little screen time, and when finally revived he just bumbles around knocking people and things out of his way.

Of course, part of the problem of cramming three monsters into one tale is that in order for them to do their stuff there have to be secondary characters to aid, fall victim to, and even destroy them, and presumably to avoid confusing the audience with multiple stories, most of these duties fall to the redoubtable Dr. Edelman. Struggling through some lumpy dialogue and a number of dull scientific explanations, he in turn plays the roles of skeptical scientist, faith-driven man of God, werewolf victim, vampire victim, hunted monster, Van Helsing-like vampire hunter and even Dr. Frankenstein himself, all in the extraordinarily short running time of 67 minutes. Not that he sticks at things for very long – having prepared the monster for revival and presumably rewired up all of the old equipment needed to effect this process (he's moved into Frankenstein's old castle, you see), he disregards the advice of his nurse and Talbot's doomy warnings and starts the electricity flowing, only to have nursey remind him that "Man's responsibility is to his fellow man," which prompts him to respond with, "Perhaps you're right," and switch the machine off. On occassion his judgment can also be called into question. Having identified Dracula's condition as a possibly unknown blood infection, he attempts to cure it by transfusing his own blood to the Count's body by an almost direct link, seemingly unaware or uninterested in the likelihood of cross-infection. When it inevitably happens, you can't help thinking the silly bugger had it coming.

With so much very familiar plot to cover in such a brief running time, short cuts are inevitably taken, but this leads to some seriously clunky moments. Having just met Dracula in his guise of Baron Latos, Dr. Edelman is asked for his view on the immortality of the body and, quite unprompted by Latos, goes on something of a ramble about vampirism and his lack of belief in it, ending the outpouring with, "What has this discussion got to do with us?" Well it was you who brought the whole vampire thing up, mister. Elsewhere speculation on "what could happen if..." takes place in sometimes achingly po-faced fashion, with Nina and Miliza sitting on a moonlit rock formation, gazing disconnectedly in opposite directions like extras in a low-rent Bergman movie and delivering ponderous one-liners on the perils facing Dr. Edelman, a laborious recap for dimmer audience members.

Mind you, if the script and direction feel stuck in the mud then the performances hardly set the screen alight. John Carradine's stately Dracula and Chaney's noble but angst-ridden Lawrence Talbot are functional if lacking in spark, but as the good Dr. Edelman, Onslow Stevens is called to flit from the calmly authoritative to wildly out-of-control and back again, sometimes in the space of just a few seconds. That he manages this well enough is definitely a plus, but he is still given to moments of spectacular melodrama – "It's impossible to know what the future holds!" he proclaims at one point, burying his head despairingly in the fold of his arm. But it's the supporting cast that really put the boot in, with Martha O'Driscoll and Jane Adams both spectacularly wooden as Miliza and Nina respectively, given as they are to staring off at an unspecified point in space and delivering lines in monotone, but with the sense that every word they utter is the stuff of meaningful prophecy. Lionel Atwill easily walks away with the acting honours in a nicely understated turn as Inspector Holtz, but to balance this out we have an eye-rollingly hammy turn from the excellently named Skelton Knaggs as trouble-stirring villager Steinmuhl, who delivers every one of his thankfully few lines as a whispered warning of biblical doom, and has dialogue like "Straaaaaange business if you ask me!" to chew on before getting his teeth into the scenery.

The character and plot compression also have a noticeable effect on the drama, with the chase to fight off and ultimately destroy Dracula dealt with in just a few brief, unexciting minutes. Though not climactic in any way, the film still attempts to play it as such, with Dracula dissolving in the sunlight and the rescued Miliza, the spell now broken, smiling happily at Talbot, for whom she has fallen. The scene is likely to remind genre fans of the later Hammer Dracula, whose thrilling climax and normality-restoration ending is definitely anticipated here, but at this point in the story House of Dracula still has over twenty minutes to run. The remainder of the film plays out with similar disregard for audience involvement, as Edelman falls under Dracula's spell, goes nuts, kills a local, is chased back to the castle by an angry mob (moving with an agility and energy that recalls the mob-hunted Knock from F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu), suddenly regains his composure, goes nuts again and for no real reason decides to complete his revival of the Frankenstein monster, who stumbles about briefly until the castle burns down and kills him, providing a familiar but thoroughly unsatisfying and ultimately pointless finale.

So is it all bad news? Well, no. Like all of Universal's vampire movies, House of Dracula does attempt to advance the genre and does so in an interesting and forward-looking way. As previously mentioned, this is the first genre film to openly propose the idea of vampirism as a blood disease, one that can be transferred from person to person through the exchange of bodily fluid. It's something that would be taken up by later genre works but rarely as directly as it is dealt with here – we even get to see a microscope slide of the parasite that Edelman believes is responsible for Dracula's condition. Once the disease is caught, its development is rapid but uneven – Edelman appears to be able to fight it and at times control it, but at others is clearly very much its slave. Most intriguingly, having established that the generic rule of vampires not casting reflections is in play here, Edelman is horrified to watch his own reflected form slowly vanish before his eyes. Once again, the film is anticipating a similar scene in The Lost Boys some years later.

Stylistically the film also has its moments. The introduction of Nina behind a row of scientific apparatus appears to establish her as Edelman's beautiful assistant in familiar style – only when she emerges into full view is her hunched back revealed, which both drives Edelman's desire to find a cure for her and sets her up as a female Igor substitute for the Frankenstein bits. As in the earlier Son of Dracula, the Count transforms into a bat on screen, but here the bat is rather good, having the size and grace of a large sea bird. The use of shadow as an expressionistic representation of Edelman's darker side once he is possessed is sometimes very impressive, and is even a little creepy when advancing on the terrified Nina, while Dracula's demise, though undramatic, is rather nicely done, providing brief glimpses of his muscle structure and blood vessels before he is reduced to skeletal form.

With its allegiance split between three monster franchises, though, vampire lore becomes entangled with that of other Universal horrors. Thus when Edelman becomes infected with the blood of Dracula he initially appears to be developing vampire characteristics, but when he makes his first kill he tears out the man's throat, a werewolf-like attack that prompts blame to fall squarely on Talbot's recently operated-on head (typical of the film's quantity-over-depth approach sees this resolved in little more than a minute). Later the possessed Edelman is killed with a couple of shots from a bog-standard revolver – no stake through the heart or sunlight for this vampire and no silver bullet for his werewolf tendencies, suggesting that all Dracula's blood really did was to remove his reflection and drive him bonkers, dulling the edge of the thematic invention of the film's vampirism by infection proposal.

In the end House of Dracula tries to cram too much into too short a running time, often doing precious little but briefly recycling a good many overly familiar ideas and situations from earlier films. There are some nice moments nestled in here, but they are largely lost in the scrabble to deal with three monsters instead of focussing on one, sometimes clumsily and never in any real depth. It still has undeniable appeal for genre fans, despite some poor dialogue and wooden performances, and remains an interesting pointer to where the vampire movie sub-genre was later to head.

sound and vision

Much like the transfers for Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula, House of Dracula is pleasingly free of dust and dirt, and though there is some minor flickering and print damage, it has been most effectively cleaned up for this release. There are a couple of very visible vertical scratch marks at one point, but they do not last long. Contrast and grey levels are good, but black levels in some of the darker scenes are not quite as solid as they are on the other films in this set, though are never distractingly washed out. Sharpness is reasonably good throughout

The Dolby 2.0 mono track is, much like the other films, clean and free of pops and crackles. Very minor hiss is detectable if you crank the amp up, but no more than you expect to find on any film of this vintage.

extra features

Included as part of Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection, House of Dracula, like most of the films included, is itself listed as a bonus feature. Otherwise there are no features specific to this film included in this box set, not even a trailer.

summary

In retrospect this very much feels like what it is – the end of the line for Universal's classic monsters. Dracula is killed off unfussily, Talbot finally gets his cure (and the girl) and the poor Frankenstein monster is persecuted and killed just a couple of minutes after he is revived, and for no other crime than rampant clumsiness. Fans of Universal's vampire movies will still find a small place in their heart for the film, and as part of Universal's region 1 Dracula: The Legacy Collection it is an essential component. That the region 2 release includes only the first film and this one, and thus omits the three most interesting works of the series, makes it a no-brainer as to which one to go for. Get the region 1 release – as a package it offers excellent value for money, and for vampire movie fans it is a virtually complete catalogue of the vampire genre's development in the early days of Universal studios.

House of Dracula

USA 1945
67 mins
director
Erle C Kenton
starring
Lon Chaney Jnr.
John Carradine
Martha O'Driscoll
Lionel Atwill
Onslow Stevens
Onslow Stevens
Jane Adams
Ludwig Stössel
Glenn Strange
Skelton Knaggs

DVD details
region 1
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
French
Spanish
extras
none
distributor
Universal
release date
Out now
review posted
9 July 2004

Dracula: The Legacy Collection
This Universal region 1 box set contains the following films. Click on the appropriate title to read a detailed review of that film.
Dracula
Drácula (Spanish language version)
Dracula's Daughter
Son of Dracula
House of Dracula

See all of Slarek's reviews