“Son of Dracula” (1943)
by A.J. Hakari
Universal just had to make poor Lon Chaney Jr. play nearly every monster, didn’t they? Well, with Boris Karloff missing in action for most of the ’40s, the fright factory was in search of a new golden boy. After his starring turn in The Wolf Man became such a hit, it fell upon Chaney to become the face of Universal horror and portray whatever creature he was assigned…whether he was right for the part or not. At the very least, 1943’s Son of Dracula allowed him to shed the layers of make-up that rendered him unrecognizable as the Frankenstein Monster and Kharis the mummy, so that he might appear as (more or less) himself for once. Unfortunately, Chaney’s folksy charm proves to be an ill fit for a character who’s meant to be an exotic charmer, but this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all that’s amiss with this wreck. Son of Dracula‘s intent was to introduce the Count into a then-modern environment, but from how this enterprise turns out, the king of the vampires must have left all his evocative atmosphere and storytelling tact back at Carfax Abbey.
Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) is a dedicated student of the supernatural. She believes wholeheartedly in telepathy, fortunetelling, and all that jazz, but this time, she might have bitten off more than she can chew. While on holiday in Budapest, Katherine made the acquaintance of one Count Alucard (Chaney), a man who harbors the dark secret of being a blood-sucking vampire. Having been tempted with the prospect of eternal life, Katherine forges an unholy alliance with Alucard, having him shipped over to her Louisiana plantation and rule forever as a bride of the damned. Luckily, her odd behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed by her fiancé Frank (Robert Paige) or Henry Brewster (Frank Craven), a doctor who’s among the first to acknowledge that the occult has made its home in his neck of the woods. But as they race to convince the authorities of the danger they’re all in, Katherine’s diabolical plot slowly comes to fruition, with Alucard getting closer and closer to spreading his undead curse across the U.S. of A.
My relationship with the Count’s big-screen depictions has always been weird (I’ve adored about as many features as I’ve despised), but there’s no question that Son of Dracula ranks pretty low on the totem of terror. And yes, Alucard really is the Big D himself, and the fact that the story attempts at all to disguise his identity — despite no character being familiar with Dracula anyway, thus requiring him to travel incognito — is but one of the numerous aggravating things about it. Even the title is a misnomer, since at no point does Alucard present himself as a descendant of the Count in any way at all. But nitpicks aside, Son of Dracula is still a slog of a movie that doesn’t do justice to its atmospheric predecessors. Transylvanian cobwebs have been traded in for Louisiana crypts and swamplands, which might have made for an effective new setting, had the script not been actively working against letting the viewer experience any unease. A good deal of the spooky goings-on actually take place off-screen and are described to us by other characters; it isn’t even that such moments were too pricey to film, since from the sound of it, they might have lent a subtly chilling air to the plot. Mystery is one thing, but to be told what a creepy dude Alucard is without cleverly contrived examples to back it up reeks of storytelling of the cheapest, sloppiest order.
Then again, from how well its star fares at donning the Count’s legendary cape, maybe it was for the best that Son of Dracula keep him hidden in the shadows as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong, Chaney’s done some great, surprisingly heartbreaking work when it comes to horror (look no further than the underrated Man Made Monster for a touching treat), but when called upon to play a suave and evil creation like totally-not-Dracula-you-guys, he’s not even close to convincing. Part of this is because of his performance (he uses a down-home accent, yet everyone refers to him as all foreign and mysterious), and part is due to the script doing a terrible job of making sure he stays a threat. You really don’t see much of Alucard here, with Allbritton’s Katherine emerging as a more villainous presence than he. Katherine is one of the coldest and most conniving characters I’ve ever seen in a Universal genre jaunt, and the way she manipulates everyone around her (the Count included) makes you wish she was headlining her own franchise, rather than being forced to serve as second fiddle to a more noteworthy bloodsucker who barely shows up. The remaining cast members do just fine but are mostly unmemorable, with Paige growing progressively insane, Evelyn Ankers fretting up a storm as Katherine’s sister, and Craven providing a Van Helsing surrogate who hasn’t a thing on the real deal.
My hatred for Son of Dracula has simmered down since I first watched it, but although it strikes me as more boring than offensive now, it’s still weak sauce. Outside of the eerie opening titles, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything about the film that flirts with suspense, be it with the bad guys or the heroes as they try snuffing out the vampiric scourge before it gets a chance to bloom. I’ll give Son of Dracula this, though — while Universal made it through the Frankenstein saga with no major missteps, they brought the prince of darkness here down for the count in just his third outing.