The Walking Undead: Universal’s Classic “Dracula” Films

Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

If Universal’s classic series of interlocking monster movies stands as the forbearer to Marvel’s current superhero franchise, then Dracula is surely the original Iron Man. His film was the one that began it all, and I loved it so much that I chose the Transylvanian icon as my final Halloween costume in sixth grade. Imitating the strange accent of Bela Lugosi was nearly as much fun as replicating his hypnotic hand movements that caused his fingers to tremble, as if he were latching onto the very soul of his prey, luring it towards its doom. I’ll never forget the shot in “Dracula” where the camera closes in on his coffin before it creaks open and his hand scuttles out like an insect. Instead of saying, “Trick ‘r treat,” at every house I approached, I spread out my cape while cackling, “I vant to eat some candy!”

It was great fun, though there is a deeper reason why monsters have proven so appealing. They embody our own primal instincts and fears that we are taught to repress in order to maintain an image of civility. Frankenstein’s monster is the infant overwhelmed by a world it cannot comprehend. The Wolf Man is the teenager grappling with the troubling physical transformations of puberty. Dracula is the adult whose unquenchable thirst for sex flies in the face of Christian ideology, thus making the crucifix its greatest enemy. These misfits are often guilt-ridden, seeking a cure that will never arrive, as long as their franchise remains lucrative. Yet the supposedly civil society where they desire to find acceptance routinely proves to be just as monstrous, represented en mass by a torch-wielding mob. It’s ironic that Dracula often seems to be the only person onscreen with blood running through his veins.

With All Hallows’ Eve on the orange-tined horizon, Indie Outlook is revisiting all seven of Universal’s original Dracula films, which are chock-full of fascinating elements, though they begin and end with the only Count who, quite frankly, counts.

Dwight Frye in Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Dwight Frye in Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Dracula (1931)

Audiences had never seen anything like Tod Browning’s immortal classic upon its premiere in 1931. The German expressionism of “Metropolis” cinematographer Karl Freund’s imagery combined with the striking lack of score made the picture’s opening 20 minutes deeply uncomfortable for moviegoers, and it remains among my favorite stretches in any movie. Though Philip Glass later wrote a score for home video releases, it is wholly unnecessary, disrupting a ghostly atmosphere distinguished by the muted sound of howling wolves. The silence becomes especially deafening as the tension reaches its peak, while making the interactions between Dracula (Lugosi) and Renfield (Dwight Frye) all the more ominous. Lugosi learned English phonetically to play the role onstage, and his measured pauses (“I never drink—wine”) and oddly elongated syllables (“We leave tomorrow eeeevening”) give him a wonderfully alien quality.

Frye is equally impressive, evoking the schizophrenic agony of Gollum and Sméagol. The shot of him perched at the end of the stairs, laughing maniacally with his eyes gleaming, while found aboard a ship full of corpses, is one of the most singularly unsettling images in all of cinema. Though the script’s staginess kicks in once the story shifts to London, Lugosi’s turbulent expressions jolt it to life—his stare could shatter glass. Van Helsing (a superb Edward Van Sloan) may appear to be his nemesis, but he plays a crucial role in bringing about what is—in fact—a happy ending for Dracula, since the Count openly considers “true death” to be a glorious fate. He knows all too well that there are fates worth than death, though one could argue that marrying David Manners (the insufferable, well-mannered schmuck who also gets the girl in “The Mummy”) would be included in that category. By the umpteenth time he hollers, “Mina!” during the film’s climax, you’ll wish that he was staked too.

Carlos Villarías in George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos’s “Drácula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Carlos Villarías in George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos’s “Drácula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Drácula (1931) 

Contrasting Browning’s film with George Melford’s Spanish-language version is, in itself, an invaluable film class. It was shot simultaneously on the same sets at night, and the actors are often hitting the same marks and delivering the same lines. Even some of the footage (particularly of the local villagers Renfield encounters) is the same, though many of the cinematic devices utilized here are unquestionably superior, resulting in a more chilling picture, despite the conspicuous absence of Lugosi. Carlos Villarías’s bulging eyes can only take him so far, and he is thoroughly upstaged by the fierce intensity of Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield. In what should be the Count’s big scene, as he rises above deck just before devouring his victims on the ship, it is the mad hysteria displayed by Renfield—observing the carnage through a window—that horrifies.

Though there are no overt additions to the script, “Drácula” is a half-hour longer than Browning’s film, in part because it enables various scenes to breathe. There are less inserts of distracting close-ups and more extended takes, as well as a wealth of visual invention. We share in Dracula’s POV as he glances at his nonexistent reflection in Van Helsing’s mirror. When Dracula and Van Helsing stare each other down, they are looking directly into the camera (a technique that would become a Demme trademark). And whereas Dracula visibly descended the stairs before startling Renfield in the Browning version, here he startles the viewer as well, materializing out of thin air as the camera—in an amazing shot—floats up the stairs toward him. By allowing actress Lupita Tovar to dress more provocatively, complete with a see-through dress, Melford more effectively conveys the female sexual liberation resulting from Dracula’s spell. Not only is the film creepier and sexier, but it’s also surprisingly moving toward the end, as Helsing affirms his loyalty to Renfield (who dies a more brutal death, plummeting headfirst off the vampire’s vertiginous staircase).

Nan Grey and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s “Dracula’s Daughter.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Nan Grey and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s “Dracula’s Daughter.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

From the bizarrely awful mannequin stand-in for Lugosi to the inexplicable switch from “Van” to “Von” Helsing (did the screenwriters simply forget the character’s name a mere five years later?), Lambert Hillyer’s sequel to “Dracula” is nutty right off the bat. It takes place immediately after its predecessor, yet feels completely different—frequently succumbing to silliness and fraught with tonal inconsistencies. At the center of it all is Gloria Holden, an actress fusing the qualities of both leading ladies from Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”—she exudes the chilly radiance of Judith Anderson as well as the melodramatic neediness of Joan Fontaine. As Countess Zeleska, the Count’s morose daughter, Holden utters Lugosi’s famous line, “I never drink—wine,” without any attempt at getting laughs. She’s a tragic figure wracked with guilt over her addiction to female blood, which is observed in a taboo-busting scene where she instructs an impoverished street urchin to remove her blouse.

In many ways, it’s a gay panic horror film about the sin of homosexuality, and it would’ve been far more interesting had Zaleska and the street urchin become a lesbian couple that took part in “Thelma and Louise”-style misadventures. Alas, this is still the ‘30s, which means that Zaleska can never take unabashed pleasure in her lesbianism. Instead, she seeks the help of a stuffy psychiatrist, Jeffrey (Otto Kruger), to “cure” her of all devilish impulses. This leads to an amusingly inane running gag where Jeffrey proves entirely incompetent when it comes to tying his necktie. The only person on the planet apparently capable of tying it just happens to be his annoying, prank-calling girlfriend, Janet (Marguerite Churchill). This is the only conceivable reason for why Jeffrey would choose her over spending eternity with the seductive Zaleska. Seriously, dude, get a new tie!

J. Edward Bromberg and Lon Chaney Jr. in Robert Siodmak’s “Son of Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

J. Edward Bromberg and Lon Chaney Jr. in Robert Siodmak’s “Son of Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Here’s the most frustrating film of the bunch. It’s still worth seeing for the fine direction by Robert Siodmak (“The Killers”), yet the lackluster use of star Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards—get it?) is a letdown, to say the least. The actor’s father was the natural first choice for Dracula, considering the numerous great monsters he embodied during the silent era, yet he died before production began. It’s fun to see Chaney Jr. devoid of the vulnerability that made his Lawrence Talbot in “The Wolf Man” (the most well-acted of all Universal creature features) so sympathetic—there were shades of Ernest Borgnine’s Marty in Talbot’s sensitivity and self-loathing. Who knows what Chaney Jr. could’ve done with the role of Count Alucard—had he been given the chance. Instead, he’s shoved offscreen for much of the picture, while the loathsome protagonist, Frank (Robert Paige), takes center stage. His violent possessiveness of his longtime flame, Kay (Louise Allbritton), is no less sinister than that of the vampire, who takes her for his bride only to have Frank gun her down—by accident (what a nice guy).

It’s in the second half where the film improves considerably, as Frank finds himself imprisoned and must defend his sanity, all the while being visited by the resurrected Kay. There’s an especially eerie shot of her smiling in bed, resembling the apparition of Father Karras’s deceased mother in “The Exorcist.” Some striking subtext reverberates throughout the dialogue, as characters ponder how Kay could’ve “made the transition” to a sinful lifestyle—by choice (mirroring the argument that people “choose” to be gay). The snooty arrogance of the white characters toward their black servants, and the contempt Frank displays for a dead gypsy (by far the most interesting character in the film) will cause viewers to quickly start rooting for the undead. And yes, Capra fans, that is Samuel S. Hinds (a.k.a. Pa Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) as Judge Simmons.

John Carradine in Erle C. Kenton’s “House of Frankenstein.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

John Carradine in Erle C. Kenton’s “House of Frankenstein.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

More consistently entertaining than the previous two pictures, but also more disposable, Erle C. Kenton’s farce officially marked the moment when Universal’s franchise entered its desperate “Avengers” period, stuffing as many monsters as possible into a scant running time. The posters read more like ads for a carnival freak show (“Hunchback! Mad Doctor!”), and none of the monsters have enough screen time to leave much of an impression. Only J. Carrol Naish as the hunchback, Daniel, develops a compelling personality while lusting after a gypsy (Anne Gwynne, grandmother of Chris Pine) who is repulsed by his deformity—after all, there’s no dame like a Notre Dame! If you thought that joke was cornball, get a load of the introductory scene for mad Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff), who chokes a prison guard before delivering the unforgettably badass line, “Now will you give me my chalk?!” The guard calls him a “would-be Frankenstein,” and indeed Karloff had no intention of reprising his role as the monster, which he rightly believed had devolved into overkill. The perfectly named Glenn Strange filled in for him, and was tasked primarily with walking toward flames before crashing and burning (he’s treated like the elephants at the end of a parade).

Though his character is confined to an episodic subplot, John Carradine fares much better as Dracula. One of the film’s most hilarious conceits is the notion that the vampire will instantly reconstitute itself once the stake is dislodged from its skeleton. We see the nervous system and muscles fade in until Dracula is back in the flesh, looking far more like Vincent Price than Lugosi (perhaps all that time in the netherworld led him to grow facial hair). Carradine does pull off some truly frightening expressions, though he often seems more like Dracula’s distant cousin. There are some nice effects and sets, such as a glacial ice cavern where poor Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) is thawed out, sporting the cantankerous demeanor of a post-carbonite Harrison Ford. Chaney Jr. just appears pissed that he was called back for yet another film (“Wasn’t ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’ good enough?” he seems to be asking between takes), and the anticlimactic ending is just plain lazy. All that’s missing from the bone-headed final fade-out is the sound of a sad trombone. Wah waaaaaah.

John Carradine and Martha O’Driscoll in Erle C. Kenton’s “House of Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

John Carradine and Martha O’Driscoll in Erle C. Kenton’s “House of Dracula.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

House of Dracula (1945)

Considering how Kenton’s films amount to the cinematic equivalent of the plate-spinning routine on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” it’s all the more remarkable how his follow-up to “House of Frankenstein” manages to be the best of the official “Dracula” sequels. Though it never coalesces into a satisfying whole, there are a handful of terrific scenes here, the best of which occurs when Dracula (Carradine) comes upon his latest potential blood donor, Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll), playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano. Under the vampire’s influence, she starts improvising a feverish atonal piece, giving into her instinctual passion until she clutches the cross hanging around her neck and switches back to the rigid structure of the original composition. This may be the purest illustration of how the monsters liberate their victims, breaking them out of the conformity of their stifling society. In fact, the creepiest guy in the picture is Steinmuhl (Skelton Knaggs), the perpetually paranoid local bumpkin who tries whipping the mob into a frenzy. Billing the lovely hunchback Nina (Jane Adams) as a monster simply because of her deformity is flat-out cruel.

Though there is a half-assed attempt at continuity in regards to the fate of Frankenstein’s monster, no effort is made to explain how Dracula and the Wolf Man could’ve survived their previous demises. Talbot gets to emerge as a full-on hero and finally manages to face a full moon unafraid and unaltered, though it must not have been completely full (as evidenced by the next picture). Another great sequence occurs when kindly Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) undergoes a hideous transformation after unwisely receiving blood transfusions from Dracula. His Jekyll/Hyde split identity is revealed during a splendidly designed nightmare where the doctor is seen combating himself, thus externalizing the duality of the monsters’ tormented psyches. Stevens is so good that he frankly renders his more famous co-stars an afterthought.

Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello in Charles Barton’s “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello in Charles Barton’s “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) 

Since Universal’s franchise was, in essence, a gradual descent into self-parody, the monsters’ deaths at the hands of Abbott and Costello feels all the more appropriate. The comic duo renowned for their brilliant verbal banter, best showcased in the legendary “Who’s On First” routine, had a dynamic that fit impeccably into the monster movie formula. Abbott was the cynical straight man while Costello was the foolish comic relief, yet the irony in this film is that Abbott, in fact, is the one who’s thick, while Costello sees everything with a childlike clarity. The fact that the monsters play it straight is the chief reason why the comedy works as well as it does. This is the horror satire that stands as the precursor to Mel Brooks’s masterpiece, “Young Frankenstein,” which shares several notable elements, such as brain-swapping procedures and secret revolving doors. Various routines from the duo’s previous pictures, particularly the underrated “Hold That Ghost,” inspired some of the film’s key scenes. A gag where Costello mistakes a bear for a guy in a bear suit in “The Naughty Nineties” served as the template for his accidental duels with the Wolf Man. Chaney Jr. proves to be a wonderful straight man in his own right, confessing that when the moon rises, “I’ll turn into a wolf,” only to have Costello quip, “You and 20 million other guys.”

In many ways, this is the most sublimely crafted film on this list. It’s clear that no one was slumming either in front of or behind the camera. The sets are deliciously spooky, the score by Frank Skinner is genuinely spine-tingling, and the exchanges between Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello) are laugh-out-loud funny. A priceless running gag revolves around Wilbur’s ability to attract gorgeous girlfriends, an anomaly that bewilders Chick. When the sultry Sandra (Lenore Aubert) asks if he’s been unfaithful, Wilbur moans, “How can you look at me in the face and say that?”, to which Chick exclaims, “How can you look at him in the face—period?” When Chick insists that he’s paired Wilbur with beautiful women in the past, Wilbur reminds him of his last assigned date: “Mine had so much bridgework, every time I kissed her, I had to pay toll.” It’s a wonder how the monsters didn’t break character in take after take, considering the inherent absurdity of the plot. Dracula thinks that he’ll have better control over Frankenstein’s monster if he replaces its brain with Wilbur’s (does he really want the monster squealing, “Chick! Oh Chick!”). Thankfully, Dracula is played by Lugosi, and the 17-year gap between his two onscreen appearances in the role proved to be more than worth the wait. He’s as electrifying as ever, and matches the comic timing of the vaudeville veterans with effortless grace. “Oh, you young people!” he muses. “Making the most of life…while it lasts.”

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