(4/10) In a nutshell: Universal’s 1945 film marks the end of the era of the original Universal monsters, and at the same time the end of the American sci-fi film of the forties, more or less. Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine star alongside Onslow Stevens and Poni Adams in this rushed, inconsistent last huzzah for the monsters. Despite flashes of originality, it feels as if we are re-heating the same TV dinner for the umpteenth time as Frankenstein’s monster is once again found, buried in quicksand in a cave under a castle after having six building collapse on him in previous films, Dracula re-emerges after having been destroyed by the sun’s rays a third time in the last film, and we get to wonder if the Wolf Man will cheat death for a third time.
House of Dracula. (1945). Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr, George Bricker, Dwight V. Babcock. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Onslow Stevens, Lionel Atwill, Martha O’Driscoll, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stössel, Glenn Strange, Skelton Knaggs. Produced by Joseph Gershenson and Paul Malvern for Universal. Tomatometer: 56 %. IMDb score: 5.8
This here is the movie that ended the original Universal monster franchise, unless you count The Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954) to the same series. Personally I consider it more of a symptom of the second wave of monster films kicked off by the science fiction craze of the fifties, even though the films have since been repackaged in DVD boxes along with the original monster films. It was also the last film that featured the original Universal monsters before they began to get spoofed in the Abbot & Costello films, which you won’t see reviewed on this blog.
I love the Universal horror classics. Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931, review), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933, review) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) are all among my favourite films, and I consider Bride to be the best science fiction film made during not only the thirties, but the forties as well, along with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). But MAN am I getting tired of reviewing these mad scientist movies!
The thing is, I review the history of sci-fi films chronologically to better get a feel for what the films felt like when they were released by having the previous films in fresh memory. And as far as sci-fi was concerned, the forties really was a dark decade. Not counting Dr. Cyclops (1940, review) hardly anything original came out during the whole decade – apart from the Hungarian time machine film Sziriusz (1942, review), perhaps, and calling that original is stretching it. The only thing churned out during this decace was mad scientist films of ever-diminishing quality, and I am so happy that I don’t have to review another Frankenstein film for months, perhaps years to come. There’s still some years left of the forties, true, but everything released between 1945 and 1949 really was the final death throes of a genre that had been milked dry years ago.
That said, this movie isn’t at the bottom end of the mad scientist/monster movies that were made during this era. Say what you will about the waning quality of Universal’s horror movies, they always retained a certain element of class. House of Dracula recaptures some of the baroque gothic grandeur that was lost in House of Frankenstein (1944, review), has a few clever camera setups and some seamless optical effects, be it that the in-camera effects (hello rubber bat) aren’t always that confidence-inspiring.
Plot-wise the film is so hectic and convoluted that you’ll watch it faster than I can explain it in detail, but the very boiled-down version is this: Count Dracula/Latos (John Carradine in his second outing as the count) and Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (the original wolf man Lon Chaney Jr. in his third lycanthropic instalment) both separately seek out Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) in hope that he can cure them both of their monstrous tendencies. Edelmann succeeds in curing Talbot, but not before he escapes and finds a lifeless Frankenstein monster in a cave beneath Edelmann’s basement (how convenient). The monster is played by Glenn Strange, his second stab at the role. Fortunately for Edelmann, he has just the equipment for bringing the monster to life, which he starts to do, for no apparent reason, until reminded by his hunchbacked assistant Nina (Jane “Poni” Adams) that really, that whole ”monster killing people” thing may not be exactly what we need right now when we sort of have two monsters in here already looking for cures.
Unfortunately for Edelmann, Dracula gets enamoured with his other assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) and during a blood transfusion turns the tables on the poor doctor, infecting him with vampire blood. Before Edelmann turns vampiric, he chases Dracula to his coffin at dawn, then lets the sunshine in, unceremoniously turning the count into a skeleton (for the fourth time, if my calculations are correct). But alas, Edelmann himself turns into a monster, kills a civilian, and for no apparent reason starts reviving the Frankenstein monster again, and this time succeeds, then kills Nina, Talbot chickens out and runs for help, bringing along ”the townspeople” along with police chief Holtz (Lionel Atwill, playng his umpteenth police officer). Edelmann electrocuted Holtz, Talbot shoots Edelmann, the Frankenstein monster shuffles around a bit and, as these stories go, gets trapped inside a burning builing (for the sixth time, if I am correct).
You have to give credit to Universal for trying to expand the old monster myths. Granted: the idea that Dracula would seek medical help for his vampirism does sound like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit, but at least the idea is novel. And the notion that vampirism is nothing more than a curable disease is now a staple within the genre, but House of Dracula was actually the first film to come up with this idea, so credit where credit’s due. Of course this doesn’t really explain why Dracula is able to turn into a bat. The film actually addresses this inconsistency, but as the screenwriters were unable to come up with an answer to the question, it’s simply left hanging. As so much else in this film.
That Talbot would seek help for his malady is logical, since it is an on/off thing, and it’s been thoroughly made clear in previous films that he doesn’t much like the werewolf thing (in case someone missed the line ”No! I can’t go through this again! Sob sob” in House of Frankenstein, he conveniently repeats it word for word in this film). A better question is why Dracula seeks medical aid, since he hasn’t really shown any misgivings about the matter in previous movies. Unclear is also if he actually went in for the whole rehab thing, and then changed his mind after seeing Miliza, or if it was all a ruse from the start. And if so, why go through all the trouble, when he could have just grabbed the girl? Moreover, it is unclear what exactly Edelmann turns into. The setup with the parasite in Dracula’s blood causing vampirism would indicate that Edelmann would also turn into a vampire. He also shows the signs of vampirism as his image in a mirror slowly fades away (nice special effects work by Universal effects guru John P. Fulton). But instead of becoming a suave man of the world in a tuxedo, the change seems to wax and wane, and it comes in fits, more like lycanthropy. When he goes out on a killing spree, he doesn’t stylishly puncture a neck and take out his straw, but rather rips the victim’s throat out in werewolf fashion. And most telling of all, in the end he is killed by an ordinary bullet.
One problem of the film is that it is only an hour long, and has too many characters, too many setups and parallel plots. This means most of the clunky dialogue is expositional and most of the story arcs just lead to dead ends or are unresolved. Although there are three different classic monsters in the film, they never really interact. As Talbot goes out of one door, Dracula steps in through another. The Frankenstein monster isn’t revived until the very end, and even then doesn’t do anything but die again. Even if Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) was a horrible movie in many ways, at least the characters interacted with each other in that one. In this one Dracula is sort of ditched by the wayside halfway through, just like in House of Frankenstein. The screenwriters actually set up an interesting story arc for Nina the hunchback, but it’s like they’ve painted themselves in a corner, ran out of time and just simply kill her off because they don’t know where to go with it. Even the Edelmann story doesn’t really reach any sort of moral or emotional conclusion. He just goes bad and gets killed. The only actual story arc to get carried through is Talbot’s.
I personally have always had a hard time with films that assemble characters from different original stories into the same frame. First of all it has to do with the integrity of the characters, and even more importantly, showing respect for the authors or artists that created the stories in the first place. Of course the original Universal monster movies weren’t exactly true to the original novels when they brought Frankenstein and Dracula to the screen, but at least they retained something of their original mythology, story-specific rules, geography and time periods. Most importantly, they kept their dignity, dignity that was very carefully crafted by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Over the years, the Frankenstein monster suffered horrific mauling by the screenwriters, and Karloff simply refused to play the character after they dumbed it down to a brute prop, rather than the soulful creature of the first two films. Dracula got a right beating when Lon Chaney Jr. was woefully miscast in the role for Son of Dracula (1943), but at least John Carradine is a worthy replacement for Lugosi, even if the scripts he was given dis lessen the impact from the original film. When it comes to the wolf man I admit to not shedding many a tear, since I’ve never really been able to love the character like I love the other four Univeral monsters, including the invisible man and the mummy. Lon Chaney Jr. had his moments, especially in the original The Wolf Man (1942), but I’ve never held him in high regard as an actor. And as a monster I always thought the the wolf man looked mostly like a furry pig walking on its hind legs. I always preferred the more subtle look from Werewolf of London (1935). But regardless of the actual characters here, I always find it disrespectful when films change backstories, mythology, timelines and characteristics so they can fit a multitude of characters into a single film. The 2003 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a prime example of this (yes, I know it’s based on a comic, but that’s no excuse). Van Helsing (2004) is another one. But I do admit to loving the ongoing TV series Penny Dreadful – because it has such a strong mythology of its own to stand on. If your’re going to do it, do it right.
Another problem for me is logic. Now, I can buy the fact that the Frankenstein monster can be revived ad infinitum – he is like a used car. Just replace the worn-out bits and he keeps on trucking. But where it got tricky was when Universal started playing around with his brain. His ability to speak seems to come and go, and in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review) his brain was actually switched for Ygor’s, which he retained in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but in House of Frankenstein he seems to be back to his old brain again, for no apparent reason. The Wolf Man was killed in the original film, and to Universal’s credit, they actually did try to explain how he suddenly popped back to life in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – a silver bullet actually didn’t kill him, but just sent him to sleep so to speak. So then they kill him proper in that film. But just that, apparently not, since he’s back again in House of Dracula, this time without an explanation. Dracula has been killed by the sun’s rays so many times that you’d think that at some point someone would catch on to the fact that it really doesn’t seem to work. It happened in Dracula, in Son of Dracula and in House of Frankenstein. And then there’s the question of geography. In Dracula he was killed in Carfax Abbey, London. Somehow he revived himself and went to Massachusetts, USA, where he was again burned away to a skeleton in Son of Dracula. By some strange coincidence his bones suddenly pop up in Central Europe in the horse-cart of a travelling horror show proprietor (House of Frankenstein), but with a stake driven through them, and the idea is that if someone removes the stake he will return to life. How does this work if he was burned? Then he is burned again, and yeat comes to life for a third time.
Lon Chaney Jr. does a decent job within the limited parameters of hos acting talent. He’s always been best in his roles as a good-natured everyman, but as soon as he is required to show any sort of nuanced emotions, things get awfully amateurish. That’s why I think I’ve had such a hard time liking him in his later Wolf Man films. Instead of bringing forth the ”tragic” nuances that the leading ladies seem to be fascinated of in these films, for me he always rather evokes the image of an overgrown child whining endlessly about how awful everything is and hoping that everyone feels sorry for him.
However, Chaney was a huge star in the industry, so it is possible that I’m alone in having this problem with him. One of the best roles I’ve seen him in was his first sci-fi Man Made Monster (1941, review), which he got cast in after a small breakthrough in the prehistoric film One Million B.C. (1940). In 1942 he got to play the wolf man, which made him a huge star, and was badly miscast as the Frankenstein monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). That very same year he got his other trademark role besides the werewolf, when he was cast as Kharis, the Mummy in Universal’s first rehash of The Mummy with the film The Mummy’s Tomb. He reprised this role i 1944, twice, in The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse. Apart from the above mentioned Frankenstein films, he also more or less reprised his role from Man Made Monster in the 1953 film Indestructible Man, made a sci-fi called The Cyclops in 1957, and his final role on screen was the 1971 Z movie Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
Just as in House of Frankenstein, Carradine does Dracula with dignity and grace, and gets much more to work with in this film. Especially nice is a scene where he hypnotically seduces Miliza while she is playing the piano, showing his great performance talents and actually conjuring up images of Bela Lugosi at the top of his game. Carradine had a rollercoaster of a career, appearing in John Ford classics like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Stagecoach (1939), as well as Z-grade schlock like The Astro Zombies (1969). He became a noted horror actor, and featured in a slew of sci-fi films: The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Revenge of the Zombies (1943, review), Captive Wild Woman, (1943, review), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Voodoo Man (1944, review), The Incredible Petrified World, Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman, The Unearthly (all 1957), Invisible Invaders, Space Invasion of Lapland (both 1958), The Wizard of Mars (1965), Bigfoot (1970), and The Bees (1978). His last film was the horror movie Buried Alive in 1990.
Carradine was a larger than life character in real life, often cited as eccentric and flamboyant, he could often be seen in eye-catching clothes walking down Hollywood Boulevard citing Shakespeare to himself. Such was his love for Shakespeare that he founded his own travelling Shakespeare troupe. To be able to support it he needed money, and quick and easy money was to be found in film, rather than on stage, where one often had to commit to a project for a year or more. When he couldn’t find decent film roles, he took whatever he got, which is why he can be seen in many really bad Poverty Row features, the above mentioned Voodoo Man being one of the most brilliantly bad of the lot.
Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann comes through on the plus side in this film, although his role is so schizophrenic that it is impossible to get any hold of it. And that’s before he becomes vampirified. A prolific character and bit-part actor, he appeared in close to 200 films, serials or series and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to prove it (then again, so do the Olsen twins). His brushes with sci-fi were few and far between: he played a substantial role in the 1934 serial The Vanishing Shadow (review/), but his biggest claim to sci-fi fame is playing Brigadier General O’Brien in the seminal 1954 film Them! – the first giant insect movie (review).
Atwill was a staple character actor, often in B-movies during the twenties and thirties. He made his sci-fi debut in the early 1932 colour film Doctor X (review). He was absolutely brilliant as the one-armed police detective in The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), played alongside Chaney in Man Made Monster, and also turned up in The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and The House of Frankenstein, and appeared in The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942). His career took a sharp turn for the worse in 1943 when he was sentenced for an ”orgy” in his house, and was thereafter mostly shunned by all major studios. After this he mainly worked on minor B films, although Universal never abandoned him. Atwill was terminally ill with cancer during the production of House of Dracula. Although he passed away just six months later, he still had the energy two make two more films in 1946.
Martha O’Driscoll is droll in the the role of Miliza and doesn’t do much more than stare blankly into oblivion. IMDb describes her as ”another gorgeous “B” movie blonde who came and went uneventfully in the 1940s”, although she did have slightly more high profile career than some of the wall flowers we’ve covered on this blog. She is perhaps best remember for her role in the female lead Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner (1940) and for a featured role in the Barbara Stanwyck/Henry Fonda vehicle Lady Eve (1941). This was her only sci-fi, and she retired two years later.
Jane Adams was a slightly better actress than Martha O’Driscoll, although she never quite reached the same level of success that O’Driscoll did during her career. She really works hard with her role, and conjures up a very sympathetic portrait of the huchbacked Nina, who longs for the cure that Edelmann could give her, just to valiantly opt to wait when Talbot is in need of what little of the medicine (a fungus) there is.
Jane Adams turned down a full scholarship for studying the violin at Juilliard for her dreams of becoming an actress. Like O’Driscoll, she earned her first wages in Hollywood as a model, and that’s when she received the nickname Poni, which she used as a pseudonym up until the making of House of Dracula. During her career she acted in 31 films, serials or series and has the distinguished honour of having played on both the 1949 Batman serial (as Vicki Vale, immortalised in 1989’s Batman by Kim Basinger) and in a small part in the 1953 TV series Adventures of Superman, which would be her last role. Much of her professional work was done in western serials.
With time, her role of Nina in House of Dracula has remained remembered even after the memory of all her other work has faded, and in that sense she has fared far better then most B movie actresses that passed through Hollywood in the forties, often to make a few dozen appearances in B movies and serials, get married, retire and be forgotten. Because someone thought to include a female character with a back hump in this rather forgettable B sci-fi horror film, the character of Nina was added to the Universal monster gallery, where she remains as the only female monster alongside the bride of Frankenstein. She has been immortalised in figurines and artwork, and was still invited to horror film conventions to talk about her experiences in the nineties. Poni Adams sadly passed away in April 2014, and according to this really sweet obituary, she seems to have been just as kind-hearted in life as in her most famous role.
Glenn Strange, of course, doesn’t get to do very much in this film. For more on him, see my review on The Mad Monster.
In a small part we see Ludwig Stössel, a seasoned film and stage veteran from Germany (he appeared in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse , among a few dozen German films), who fled Nazism to Hollywood in the late thirties. Stössel appeared in close to a hundred films, serials or series in USA, mostly in small but memorable parts, even in big films like Kings Row, The Pride of the Yankees and Casablanca (1942), and is fondly remembered for his portrayal of Albert Einstein in the 1947 film The Beginning of the End. Stössel made only one other sci-fi apart from this film, which was the 1958 rendition of Jules Verne’s classic story From the Earth to the Moon, unfortunately a not so classic adaptation.
One of the most memorable (and annoying) characters of the film is the villager Steinmuhl, who basically does what Dwight Frye did earlier in these kinds of films. Just like Frye, the superbly named actor Skelton Knaggs (real name!) was small in stature, had a weasely-looking, sinister face and large, expressive eyes. Knaggs here turns up as the villager who’s pestering the police chief to deal with force with the monsters at the castle, and provokes the villagers to a rage. Great performance, but, again, we have already seen Frye do this character ad nauseaum.
The stars must have aligned right somehow when director Erle C. Kenton directed the marvellous Island of Lost Souls, because the film is in my list of great movies. But after that, things just never really took off for this journeyman director, whose four most famous films are Island of Lost Souls, House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein.
The story is credited to George Bricker and Dwight V. Babcock, staple studio writers who between them wrote a number of B horror films, inlcduding The Devil Bat (1940, review), The Mummy’s Curse and She-Wolf of London (1946). Bricker also wrote a few episodes for the TV series Captain Midnight in 1954. Screenwriter Edward T. Lowe Jr. is perhaps best known for contributing to the classic 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney Sr, and writing the screenplay for the 1942 film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, starring Basil Rathbone. He also wrote the script for House of Frankenstein. House of Dracula was his last screenplay.
The rest of the team is mainly made up of old friends from the Universal horror team, like cinematographer George Robinson, who filmed a bunch of sci-fi horrors in the forties, and is likewise known for filming the 1955 cult classic Tarantula (review). Back for the ride are also art director John B. Goodman and set decorator Russell B. Gausman, who won Oscars for The Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Spartacus (1960). Vera West had been making gowns for the heroines since the very beginning, and of course there wouldn’t be a Universal monster movie without monster maker extraordinaire, makeup legend Jack Pierce. And then we of course have the above mentioned special effects guru John P. Fulton. A shoutout should to Onslow Steven’s stunt double Carey Loftin, who makes a great show of what we would today call parkour. Loftin is otherwise best known as one of Hollywood’s greatest stunt drivers, who kept going up until his death in 1997.
House of Dracula was the last huzzah for the original Universal monster franchise (unless you count the Abbott & Costello comedies), and one could of course have wished for a more dignified funeral for our old friends. But as WWII ended, so did also the demand for the old-timey monsters diminished, and as a matter of fact, this film also marked the end of the first age of the mad scientist. Since the mad scientist genre had more or less been what had kept the whole science fiction genre alive within the movies, this also meant that a whole era of sci-fi films that had been kickstarted with Frankenstein in 1931 had now come to an end.
Nevertheless, science fiction was being kept alive by the waning medium of the serial film – incidentally the golden age of the serial format also ended with the closing of WWII. The serials had gone in directions that studios had shunned already 10 years earlier. Flash Gordon was flying rocket ships and fighting alien armies as early as 1936 (review), flying superheroes like Superman and Captain Marvel saved lives in Earth in the early forties, and some of the serials had alien invaders visiting our planet, such as The Purple Monster in the 1948 serial The Purple Monster Strikes. See my text on the superhero serials here.
1948 saw the first live action serial of Superman (review), starring Kirk Alyn, and in 1949 the Batman serial got an update. All the while the new medium of television was slowly gaining ground. The old radio show Lights Out made its transition to TV in 1946, and although it primarily focused on horror and mystery stories, there were rogue elements of sci-fi embedded in the format. 1949 marked the beginning of a new age, when the children’s TV show Captain Video and his Video Rangers (review) made its debut on American TV, the first all-out science fiction TV show. Science fiction pulps had been around for decades and were finding their way into the mainstream, and the kids who grew up on science fiction comics had entered their middle-ages and some of them had started to establish themselves within the film studios. In the late forties evening pages were starting to publish stories of UFO sightings, and soon America and the world were chatting about little green men from Mars. It didn’t take too long for film studios to catch on, and in 1950, as on cue, studio after studio started churning out films about rocket trips to the moon and flying saucers.
The old Frankensteins were now harmless boogie men of the past, best fit for lampooning on comedy shows. But of course the old monsters never died, even though they were temporarily forgotten by Hollywood. New version sprung up on the small screen, the theatre plays continued to herald the old fright masters, and in Britain a new force was rising in the fifties, with stars like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing – Hammer Films, that were soon making their own versions of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. The old mad scientist didn’t die, he just moved to Europe for a while.
But now I am getting ahead of myself.
House of Dracula. (1945). Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr, George Bricker, Dwight V. Babcock. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Onslow Stevens, Lionel Atwill, Martha O’Driscoll, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stössel, Glenn Strange, Skelton Knaggs. Music: William Lava. Cinematography: George Robinson. Editing: Russel F. Schoengarth. Art direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Arthur D. Leddy. Gowns: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce, Carmen Dirigo. Director of Sound: Ralph Slosser. Special Photography: John P. Fulton. Stunts: Carey Loftin. Produced by Joseph Gershenson and Paul Malvern for Universal.