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You're not from round these parts
A region 1 DVD review of SON OF DRACULA fro Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection box set by Slarek
 

The law of diminishing returns states that sequels will be increasingly inferior to the original that spawned them, and so by that reckoning Son of Dracula should play second fiddle not only to Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, but also Lambert Hillyer's intriguing 1936 sequel, Dracula's Daughter. To some extent this is true, but considering we are just one Universal Dracula film away from the last-ditch multi-monster House of Dracula, Son of Dracula has a lot more going for it than anyone looking back at the early days of the genre has a right to expect. Sure it takes a while to really kick in, and in its attempt to expand on vampiric lore it occasionally trips up over its own internal logic, but it is also stylish, inventive, and in the end a surprisingly downbeat entry into the Universal vampire cycle.

After the recreated settings of Transylvania, Whitby and London in previous Dracula tales, a member of the Dracula clan finally makes it to America, an unspecified southern plantation district where we are quickly introduced to young Kay Caldwell and her boyfriend Frank. Kay is set to inherit a plantation from her ailing father and marry the upright Frank, but has become fascinated by the supernatural and has befriended a Hungarian gypsy woman known as Queen Zimba, an ageing, witch-like recluse who is killed after prophesising a dark future for Kay. A short while later, Kay's father also dies, and it is then that the mysterious Count Alucard, who has been invited to visit by Kay and whose arrival the family had been anticpating all evening, shows up at their door. The local doctor and family friend, Dr. Harry Brewster, begins to suspect that something is not right about this unusual visitor, and sets about investigating his past.

There can be few, if any, vampire movie fans who do not know that Alucard is Dracula spelt backwards – this rather flimsy alias has been used more than once in genre history, most memorably by Christopher Neame as Johnny Alucard in Hammer's lacklustre attempt to update the franchise in Dracula A.D. 1972. Consistent with the use of the name is a scene in which the film's investigating Wise One writes it down in a way that can point out its reversal spelling to even the slowest member of the audience (it happens twice here). The name is only there to fool the locals anyway – no audience comes to a film called Son of Dracula and sits there wondering who that coffin really belongs to.

The journey to Alucard's first appearance is an uneven one – the introduction of Queen Zimba and her swampland habitat scores on atmosphere, but her off-screen death at the hands of a spectacularly unconvincing bat bodes less well, raising memories of the Count's anti-climactic demise in the original film and suggesting a low-rent sequel with wobbly production values. But although it re-appears more than once, the bat proves to be the exception rather than the rule, as one thing that stands out in this particular vampire tale is the special effects. For the first time we actually see a bat transform into a vampire, and, even more eye-catching, white mist roll out of Alucard's coffin and form seamlessly into the Count himself. The effects crew seem determined to show off at times, and more than once present us with a transformation in the same shot as non-effects action. For its time, this must have been jaw-dropping stuff, and still looks impressive today.

The two leads, played by Louise Allbritton and Robert Paige, are not initially that engaging. Kay's morbid fascination with the supernatural signals from her first appearance the direction her fate will soon take, and the would-be hero Frank initially comes across as in insensitive dufus – his method of consoling his bride-to-be on the death of her friend Queen Zimba is to tell her "it's good riddance if you ask me." Later, he reacts to being thrown over by Alucard, whose vampiric nature he knows nothing of at this point, by taking out a revolver and shooting him. Not a man you'd want to accidentally run into in the street, then. That the bullet passes through Alucard and hits Kay leaves him stunned, and proves to both him and Brewster that Alucard must be one of the undead. Presumably these Southern boys have never heard of the term 'exit wound'.

Kay's morbidity and Frank's dullness initially keep the audience at a distance, but once Kay is transformed into a vampire with a long-term plan and Frank starts to lose his marbles, they become altogether more interesting. So does the plot as it happens, offering up a rare twist on the vampire tale in which the victim has willingly made her transformation from human to vampire in order to attain eternal life – she then sets about convincing her lover to join her in eternity and ensure their safety, not by serving Alucard but killing him. By this time the film is on a roll and builds to a thoroughly satisfying and ultimately grim climax in which the roles of Joseph Campbell's traditional Hero and Princess are turned completely on their heads. It is ultimately they who drive the latter half of the plot forward – though Dr. Brewster and the soft-spoken Hungarian vampire expert Professor Lazlo put all the pieces together, they prove to be largely ineffective as foils, in part because the others are often one step ahead of them.

Alucard, of course, is what the show is ultimately all about, and opinion remains divided on the suitability of Lon Chaney Jnr. for the role. As the son of the man who was originally set to play Dracula in the first film (his premature death from cancer left the way open for Bela Lugosi, who had performed the role on stage), he would in some ways seem to be an ideal choice, but Chaney lacks not only Lugosi's accent (as a man who has just arrived from Hungary, his Southern twang is a little surprising), but his imposing presence. Certainly Chaney has the physicality to be threatening, but in the end is a tad too gentlemanly to sell the danger that the vampire represents. This is partly down to a script that has him play Alucard less as the traditional predatory monster and more a Southern cad – where Lugosi would come into the house of the woman he desires and kidnap her, Alucard chooses to woo Kay away from Frank and marry her. Apart from the somewhat peculiar notion of a creature that can be destroyed by symbols of Christianity freely taking part in a Christian ceremony, this all seems terribly conservative for the prince of vampires. If they had offspring, was he planning to have them christened and sent to good schools? Alucard clearly wants the plantation for his "experiments," but there is the nagging sense that this twist is trying to appeal to a very specific portion of the original American audience, one for whom there is little worse than the prospect of a devious and dangerous foreign swine popping over from his home country and tricking one of their good Southern women into – good lord – marrying him.

If Alucard is looking to move into polite society to carry out his work then he has no need, as his on-screen transformational abilities make him the most potentially dangerous vampire yet. Being able to assume the form of a drifting white cloud pretty much gives him access to anywhere and would make it exceedingly hard for any would-be slayer to drive a stake through his chest, or any part of him for that matter. This new twist is one of a small number of tinkerings with vampire lore, the most surprising being Professor Lazlo's proclamation that a vampire can assume the shape of, amongst other things, a werewolf. Excuse me? The professor is clearly getting his Universal monsters crossed. He also describes vampires as "earth-bound spirits," suggesting a more ghostly creature than the very solid undead human usually associated with the genre. This, at least, ties in well with Alucard's sometimes vaporous, very supernatural state.

Though there are no stakes, garlic or wolfbane on display, the crucifix still has the power to send Alucard scurrying. One of the film's most technically impressive sequences sees Alucard materialise in the same shot as Lazlo and Brewster (at the very moment Lazlo says the words "as a small cloud of swirling vapour" no less), then makes fine use of close-ups, and builds to an extraordinary shot in which Alucard is forced back by the cross as Lazlo, seemingly attached to the advancing camera, appears to float slowly towards him, a visual trick that was to be re-used much later by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver (1976). In fact this is the second time we have seen this effect in the film, as on materialising from his coffin (which is hidden in a lake, a little dangerous when you consider that running water is supposed to be deadly to vampires), Alucard floats towards the expectant Kay like a ghostly inversion of Jesus walking on water. These inventive cinematic flourishes give familiar scenes a freshness and style, and the film its own unique feel and identity within the series. This is down in no small part to the director, Robert Siodmak, who was soon to establish himself as a master of shadow and light with films such as The Suspect (1954), The Spiral Staircase (1946) and the seminal The Killers (1946). It could be argued that this very noir sensibility is what gives the film such a dark edge, especially in the later stages, and it is very much Siodmak and his team that make Frank's final confrontation with Alucard work so well when it could easily have been anti-climactic.

As with Dracula's Daughter, the nature of crucifix starts to become secondary to its shape and it is increasingly the cross itself rather than the sanctified symbol of Christianity that holds power. Thus Brewster is able to cure a vampire bite simply by painting a cross on each bite mark, and Alucard is forced away from the fallen Frank when moonlight passes through a hollow cross-shaped gravestone and strikes the ground before him. As the only real weapon (apart from fire) employed here against the vampire, it is nonetheless taken on trust by Brewster after Lazlo claims that "it would take too long to explain why they fear it," a clear message to the audience at a point in the film where action is soon to become more important than words.

Dramatically the film starts uncertainly but really gets going in the second half, though it does play games with generic logic in a way that sometimes confuses and certainly requires the audience to fill in a few gaps. There is an initial suggestion, for instance, that Alucard's first attempt to bite Kay is interrupted by the arrival of Frank (carrying through the earlier conservatism, Alucard seems to have waited until they were married before having his way with her), which explains why Kay is killed by a bullet that passes through the vampire. Later, when Brewster visits the pair, Kay is sitting up in bed reciting pre-fed lines in a zombie-like manner, and the impression given is that Alucard had placed her in a coffin on a layer of soil and brought her back to life, something of a genre no-no. Later still it becomes evident that Kay was willingly bitten, probably at an earlier date, so was already turned when the bullet hit her – so how come it killed her? We could say that she was only partly turned, so that she didn't actually die, but was still... you can add your own explanation. It's a good thing too that the cops, when they discover Kay's seemingly dead body in the plantation crypt, transport her to the morgue in the soil-lined coffin that is her only protection from the sun's destructive rays. Mind you, not all of them are that smart – asked what Frank was saying when he was heard talking to Kay in his jail cell, one hick replies, "That'd be a hell of a way to spend a rainy evening, listening to a goofball talking to himself!" Just how do these guys gather their evidence?

But these moments do not seriously hinder the drama, and by the end a combination of directorial inventiveness, a slightly other-worldly atmosphere (the somewhat artificial exteriors and the use of Twilight Zone-like electronic chords on Alucard's appearance give it an almost 50s science fiction feel at times), breezy pacing, and ambitious and sometimes surprising plotting come nicely together in an atmospheric and enjoyable vampire tale, and one with an unexpectedly dark edge.

sound and vision

As with Dracula's Daughter, the print has some flickering, but a fair amount of work seems to have been done to clean this up, and it generally the transfer here is in very good shape. Dust spots are surprisingly rare. Sharpness is sometimes very impressive, and the contrast is first rate throughout.

The Dolby 2.0 mono track is clean, functional and though lacks the dynamic range of more modern films, is perfectly in-keeping with other titles of its time. There is very minor hiss at times, but no pops or crackles to make you jump.

extra features

Included as part of Universal's Dracula: The Legacy Collection, Son of Dracula, like most of the films included, is itself listed as a bonus feature.

The only actual extra that relates directly to this film is the Theatrical Trailer, which surprisingly is included in the extras for Dracula's Daughter on the flip side of this disk. It is presented 4:3 with mono sound, and contains some expected but enjoyable collection of somber proclamations, telling us that the film is "Searing the screen with new terror in this weird tale of the living dead." We are also assured that we will "shudder at the screen's most fascinating woman vampire, luring men with cold beauty!" which, like the trailer for Dracula's Daughter, over-simplifies a far more complex storyline. There is also a modern aspect to this trailer in that it gets its best effects shots in there and includes footage from the climactic battle. The contrast varies quite a bit and there is plenty of dust damage, but it is still very watchable.

summary

The second sequel to Dracula starts hesitantly, but once it gets going reveals itself to be a rather smart little film with strong production values and very good effects. It remains one of the few early vampire films where things do no end on a happy note, despite the supposed triumph of good over evil, and on that score alone is a most interesting genre work.

Again, this film is not included on the recent UK region 2 release, So once again I'd say there is only one option for vampire movie aficionados – buy the region 1 set.

Son of Dracula
Dracula: The Legacy Collection

US 1943
80 mins
director
Robert Siodmak
starring
Lon Chaney Jnr.
Robert Paige
Louise Allbritton
Evelyn Ankers
Frank Craven
J. Edward Bromberg

DVD details
region 1
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
French
Spanish
extras
Trailer
distributor
Universal
release date
Out now
review posted
30 June 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