Thursday, March 25, 2010

SON OF DRACULA (d. Robert Siodmak, 1943)

"A little irrational, maybe, the same as anyone after committing murder."

This is a weird, weird picture, unlike most of the Universal horror film I've seen. Imagine if Flannery O'Connor & Raymond Chandler had written a Dracula screenplay and you've got this film.

At the aptly named plantation Dark Oaks, Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) has had an anxious couple of days. Her father died on the night of her coming-out party, family friend Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.) showed up on her doorstep the same night, and, in her father's will, she's received the almost worthless plantation property and her sister's received all the money. However, it seems that she understands the connection between these weird events and she's happy with the way it's all happening. Why, she's even in a rush to get married to Count Alucard, even though several people have told her the Hungarian government has never even heard of the Alucard family...

I know the plot sounds a little obvious, but trust me, the screenplay knows what we're assuming, and pretty quickly starts suggesting that there's something going on beneath the surface.

In fact, for a 1940s vampire film, it gets pretty "meta". One would-be vampire hunter actually reads Bram Stoker's novel, while a newly turned vampire outright treats the "v-word" as a pejorative ("Don't use that word, Frank, we don't like it."). And there are a couple of hints at the idea of vampires as immigrants coming to the New World to start over.

In general, the film hits a weird mix of Southern gothic/horror (there's an early scene in the swamp that reminds me of Val Lewton) and noir. And while few of the elements in the film are original (you can play "spot the convention" pretty easily), the combination of these elements is unique. For example, the "Renfield" of the film is also the "fall guy" for one of Dracula's victims, while holy crosses are less deadly to the vampires than double-crosses (pardon my pun).

Most of the players are pretty generic, in the less-insulting meaning of the term. They mostly play to type & genre, and most of them feel more comfortable in the noir style than the horror. Louise Allbritton seems like she should have gone into bigger and better things, and Robert Paige's initial freak-out when he realizes the world isn't behaving rationally any more is quite effective. And the comic relief, which is at its most odious in horror, is acceptable. It's at least believable, instead of jaw-droppingly stupid.Which leaves Chaney...

On a conceptual level, even Chaney's limited skills should serve the film well. He's not THE Dracula, merely one of the last survivors of that line, who has been scraping by on the picked-over remains of post-World War I Hungary. He's supposed to be a pale imitation. He's come to the New World in hopes of fresher, more virile blood, but the film makes apparent that he's not ready for the ambition and recklessness of America. Unfortunately, playing a buffoon who thinks he's smart takes some self-awareness, and Chaney doesn't have it. He has one or two moments (the ending moment where he realizes how screwed he is actually does have some pathos to it) that work, but mostly he drags the film down slightly when he's on screen (though he never ruins it).

Visually, the film is very well put-together, no matter which mode it's functioning. There's a beautiful shot of Dracula's coffin rising out the swamp, for example, and another great one of Paige in his jail cell. Even some of the effects are well done. For some reason, the mythology has vampires using smoke forms as well as rubber bats to get around, and the smoke certainly works better than the normal "fly a rubber bat in, turn off the camera, put actor on mark" effect.

But I have to say it's the intriguing mix of genres that works best. Even when a character makes a mistake, it doesn't feel like a bone-headed error so much as they don't understand the kind of story they're in.