As we near the April 2009 release date of my vampire novel Blood Groove, I’ll periodically discuss favorite vampire-themed books and movies, looking at what makes them special.
It’s not every movie that can overcome the total miscasting of its titular character, let alone a title that is completely misleading. Yet 1943’s Son of Dracula, starring Lon Chaney, Jr., does exactly that. Not only does the beefy roughneck Chaney attempt the role of the sophisticated Eastern European count, but there is no “son”: the story features Dracula himself. But if you can look past these shortcomings, a surprisingly easy thing to do, there are some real treats in this second-tier Universal film.
Dracula arrives at Dark Oaks, a plantation somewhere in American’s Deep South where no one has an actual Southern accent. Since he’s apparently a well-known fiend, he calls himself Count Alucard (the first use, I believe, of this popular hiding-in-plain-sight anagram). He has been brought back as a souvenir by Kay (Louise Albritton), an American tourist and proto-Goth just returned from Hungary.
Kay’s nefarious but ingenious plan: have Dracula turn her into a vampire so that she can then vampirize her childhood sweetheart Frank (Robert Paige); together they can kill Dracula and live forever. But she neglects to let Frank in on her plot, which leads to misunderstandings and apparent murder.
It’s hard to imagine an actor less suited to Dracula than Chaney. Thick-necked and with the diction of a factory worker, he looks out of place and uncomfortable in Dracula’s dinner suit. Luckily the film keeps him mostly off-screen and builds its story around the gradual freak-out of hero Frank Stanley. Frank begins the film as a standard dishwater-dull young male lead, but as things go to hell, he goes to pieces. Albritton makes a deliciously strange heroine, and as her chilling plan emerges she becomes far scarier than Dracula. Still, I defy anyone to really watch the film and not get a twinge of heartbreak at the abrupt but poetic ending.
What makes this film exceptional, and different from all the other Universal Dracula films, is that ultimately Dracula is as much a victim as anyone else. In effect he’s outsmarted by one of his own brides, and part of me wishes the film had him join forces with the other mortals against Kay. But that wasn’t the story the Siodmak brothers (director Robert and screenwriter Curt) chose to tell; instead they remained in the realm of fairy tales, telling an Orpheus-istic story about love that transcends, for a while, the grave.