When 1945’s House of Dracula debuted into theaters, the writing was on the wall for the future of Universal horror. Not counting the impending Abbott & Costello monster comedies or ’50s sci-fi fare, the studio’s grip on fans of fright flicks had just about completely loosened. Universal’s crypts and cobwebs just weren’t having the same effect on viewers anymore, so after their “more beasts for your buck” gamble paid off with the all-star monster party that was House of Frankenstein, a second fearsome family reunion was quickly commissioned. The result was House of Dracula, a film suffering from most of the same ails as its predecessor, yet what works about it does so to the extent of making it an improvement by default. It still experiences an unreasonable amount of difficulty in creating enough engaging busywork for its characters, but at the very least, its narrative is less meandering than the last one’s. While House of Dracula hasn’t a thing on any of the times its creatures stalked the silver screen in their own solo vehicles, its occasional flashes of cleverness do make for a more tolerable picture.
After terrorizing Transylvania for centuries upon centuries, Count Dracula (John Carradine) is doing the unthinkable: retiring. Apparently, he’s grown weary of all those years of jugular-guzzling, as he wants to be rid of his supernatural curse once and for all. To do so, he calls upon the services of Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a kindly surgeon who cautiously agrees to help out the Count and see if his vampirism truly can be cured. At the same time, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives in search of the good doctor’s aid, as well, hoping to find a way of relieving his habit of transforming into a bloodthirsty werewolf upon each full moon. Having two creatures of the night on his hands is enough trouble for Edelmann, but it’s not long before the fates end up doubling the terror. One of Larry’s outings as the Wolf Man leads to the discovery of Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), with the thought of resurrecting him for science’s sake piquing the doc’s curiosity. Unfortunately, Edelmann is about to find out what it’s like to be a fiend firsthand, as his blood becomes mixed with Dracula’s, warping him into a Mr. Hyde-like cretin with nothing but murder on his mind.
House of Dracula incorporates enough interesting angles into the story to make the multitude of moments when it backs away from doing anything cool with them that much more disappointing. This holds especially true for Dracula, who — despite getting title billing and a heightened presence in the plot — is bestowed with a neat-sounding arc that amounts to precisely zilch. Obviously, the Count has no intention of shedding his otherworldly gifts, but to what end does he maintain the ruse with Edelmann? To get closer to the doc’s fetching assistant (Martha O’Driscoll), which he could’ve done right from the start? Or did he really want to bid his curse adieu after all and just ended up changing his mind? That so simple of a narrative hang-up goes by unaddressed drives you up the damn wall, leaving Dracula with no reason to stick around other than infecting Edelmann and bringing out his dark side. As intriguing of a twist as it is, though, it arrives awfully late in the game and feels as if it might as well have been engineered to leave out the Count wholesale, for how little the story would lose. But stuck in even worse shape is the Frankenstein Monster, who seems frantically written in as a last-minute afterthought and is just there to give the requisite angry villagers something to chase at the end (as if there were no other villains present to assume such duties).
The closest any character comes to making it through House of Dracula as unscathed as possible is our buddy, the Wolf Man. As with House of Frankenstein, Talbot spends most of his screen time as a one-man pity party, although Chaney’s performance really has you believing that this guy has endured so many horrors, death is the only release he has left. I won’t reveal whether or not Edelmann’s experiments free him of his lycanthropic ways, but I will say that the movie is decent enough to give Talbot some sense of closure…at least until the next time Universal felt the need to dust him off for another appearance. Carradine makes the most out of his unwisely truncated role and delivers another fairly stirring interpretation of Dracula, with his craggy looks doing most of the heavy lifting. As Dr. Edelmann, Stevens (Them!) does solid work, playing a saintly man of science and his demented alter ego without having to exaggerate himself too much (just some droopy eyelids and teased hair, and boom, instant convincing nutcase. Fun little character parts are filled by the likes of Universal stalwart Lionel Atwill (playing his umpteenth police inspector) and Skelton Knaggs (as a suspicious townsperson), but the film’s real find is Jane Adams as Nina, a hunchbacked nurse plugged as a monster on the poster but whose incredibly sweet personality makes her anything but.
House of Dracula is closer to what you’d hope to see from a vehicle that gathers some of cinema’s most influential monsters under the same roof, but it’s still not the flick that they deserve. Though the story earns credit for the few novel paths it opts to tread, it still all boils down to diluted depictions of iconic characters whose glory days had long since passed them by. There’s charm within House of Dracula, but most of it remains buried beneath the sound of your own disappointed sighs.