Monday, October 12, 2009

“We're here to meet a friend of the Caldwells, a Count Alucard.”

Watch out! The Drac Attack is back for more. 1943’s Son of Dracula put horror vet Lon Chaney, Jr. into the cape and evening wear and moved the Transylvanian to the American Deep South. The end result was, let’s be honest, definitely a case of diminishing returns.

In a sleepy town in the Deep South, Kay Caldwell, a woman so obsessed with the macabre that she has traveled to Transylvania and brought back a gypsy woman, awaits the arrival of a friend and guest, a certain Count Alucard. Some of her friends look for him at the train station, but only his luggage, several large oblong boxes, arrives. That night, the Caldwells throw a party where old man Caldwell dies under mysterious circumstances (circumstances that are obviously Alucard related). Weirdness abounds and after Alucard makes his official debut to the characters, Kay and he wed, much to the surprise of Kay’s former fiancée Frank. Through all this, one of the Caldwells’ friends, a Dr. Brewster just can’t shake that something is wrong about the count, and brings in a Hungarian professor to help sort things out.

Katherine “Kay” Caldwell: Louise Allbritton plays the most interesting character of the movie (and arguably the center of it). Kay is…well, Kay’s just not right in the head. She’s way more than a little obsessed with the macabre, and inviting Alucard to the US was her idea. As the movie progresses, it seems that she’s in over her head with her new vampiric beau, but a few twists get tossed in that make you wonder who’s playing who in her new marriage.

Claire Caldwell: Evelyn Ankers is Kay’s kinder, nicer, brighter, more boring sister. She’s pretty much there to serve as a normal member of the family and doesn’t do much else.

Doctor Brewster: Frank Craven plays a character that is more or less the plot’s Hero. He’s a friend of the Caldwells (not sure how exactly) and a doctor (not sure of what) and when he starts investigating he just kind of barges his way through places, bossing people around because I guess that’s what the guy trying to piece together the mystery of why Alucard’s name spelled backwards is Dracula is supposed to do. I don’t know. I didn’t like the character.

Professor Lazlo: J. Edward Bromber plays a portly Hungarian professor and “expert” on Dracula type stuff. Essentially, he provides exposition like Van Helsing does, but brings little else to the movie.

Frank Stanley: Robert Paige plays Kay’s mortal lover. He really doesn’t know what the hell’s going on when Alucard shows up and his confusion only grows when he tries to shoot the count on his (the count’s not Frank’s) wedding night with a revolver. Obviously bullets don’t work, passing right through the vampire, but they apparently work on the person that was hiding behind the neck sucker. Faster than you can say “I done a bad thing, George,” Frank’s wrought with guilt and questionable sanity that actually gets kind of interesting (as far as bad movies go) and by the end of the movie, he ends up being a wild card that wraps things up in a pretty nice twist that more or less makes him the movie’s badass.

Count Alucard: Lon Chaney, Jr. just doesn’t look comfortable in the outfit. Maybe its because the Count’s more or less playing second fiddle here to other characters. Sure, he gets some decent scenes, but the way the movie halfheartedly teases out the “mystery” of Alucard’s nature (Surprise! He’s Dracula!) is pretty obvious. It also negates the title of the movie, because we get Dracula. Not a son, not a descendent, just a grumpy looking Dracula with a pencil thin moustache.

Robert Siodmak, a German director apparently influenced by earlier Expressionist films and later an influence on film noir, seems to be doing the best he can with the movie. The lighting on the sets is absolutely fantastic with the play of shadows on light, and there are some great shots. I particularly love the opening where the title gets revealed. A hand hurriedly clears away some cobwebs to reveal “Son of Dracula!” Its simple, yes, but it’s a great way of telling the audience what you’re getting. The visual pacing of the film is hit and miss, but when it does work, its appropriately atmospheric.

The movie also does some really good special effects for the time. Vampires leaving their caskets don’t open the lid and sit up, they waft out as pale smoke. The rubber bat on a string returns, but sometimes when its supposed to be crawling on a victim, its more of a puppet that has a moving head and arms with belies some sophistication. Moreover, I really liked the animated transition that Dracula does from bat to human forms. For the time, it looked pretty good.

Curt Siodmak (the director’s brother) and Eric Taylor worked on the story and script. The dialog is forgettable, the characters mostly uninteresting and continuity seems to be an issue. Often characters will mention events having happened sometime in between one scene and the next, like when Frank is telling someone that a tree fell on his car several times and the audience is left going “Wait, I don’t remember that. Do you?”

Still, in its own B movie way, the story does try to bring some new ideas to the table. First, the change of scenery is kind of nice and the reason for it, while not very inspired, does make at least some kind of sense. Second, the plot does throw some interesting twists into the mix in a very noir-esque style (which would be spoilers). Also, the idea of destroying a vampire’s coffin/resting place before he can reach it at sunrise is a pretty interesting way of screwing over the bloodsucker.

Hans J. Salter wrote the original music and it’s the usual old school Hollywood industry style that does the job nicely but you can’t remember a damn thing of later. Not bad.

Son of Dracula is a forgettable, ultimately anemic (see what I did there?) effort that has flashes of interesting bites-- I mean, bits. It’s the kind of movie that MST3K would poke fun at, and really, that’s probably the best way to watch it; sitting on your couch with your buddies and making jokes about buying war bonds, how “white folks crazy,” and singing the beginning of “Amos Moses” when characters are running around in the swamp. Outside of that context, not really recommended, but if you’ve got it in the boxed set, you might as well watch it.

Gee, the, uh, trailer kinda spoils everything.

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