The Fall of the House of Dracula, or, Hard Times Are A-Coming
Between 1931 and 1948, Universal Studios released six films featuring Dracula or one of his progeny. This very long essay examines these films in terms of wealth and power, demonstrating that, as the series progresses, the Dracula clan’s fortunes regress. After high points that occur in 1931’s Dracula and 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, the family experiences clear, if gradual, losses in a number of areas: land, money, wardrobe, victims, and supernatural powers. Without further ado…
(I guess I should mention that there are spoilers for just about every film)
Dracula (1931): I Bid You… Welcome
Despite its lofty position as the one that started it all for Universal, Dracula isn’t very good. It’s little more than a supernatural-tinged drawing-room melodrama with a good first act. Once it gets to England, it’s a series of scenes wherein people stand around in rooms talking about what might happen or what’s already happened; all of the spooky stuff happens offscreen. Even that first act is weighed down by a leaden pace and actors who seem to be performing underwater. The worst of the lot is Bela Lugosi, whose propensity for loooong and weirdly timed pauses, whether a result of his unfamiliarity with English or of poor direction by Tod Browning (when Browning bothered to show up on the set), make his performance borderline laughable. He might be the Dracula that all others were modeled on, but that doesn’t mean he’s very good.
But he has it pretty well. Sure, his gigantic castle is run down, with “broken battlements” that Dracula pines for once he gets to England. But it covers a lot of real estate, and it has such nice amenities as doors that open by themselves and a basement big enough for at least four coffins. Upon arriving, Renfield says “With all this, I thought I was in the wrong place,” undoubtedly referring to the decadent (and decaying) opulence. His property in England, Carfax Abbey, has one of the cinema’s greatest staircases, in addition to a roomy basement that would show up in most of the sequels (watch for those arches). Dracula has an abundance of wives, and is apparently wealthy enough to have armadillos imported from the American Southwest. And he’s decked out splendidly: among so many other things, this film gives us the template for what Dracula should wear. There’s the black tuxedo with tails, the white vest with mother-of-pearl buttons, and the white shirt underneath; for outerwear he has a fine black silk cape and a top hat (which his son and some of his later incarnations lack). He wears a large ring, which later films will imbue with powers of its own; he also has several accessories that none of his offspring or future incarnations would have: a pentagram pendant, a walking stick, a white handkerchief, and a monocle. His traveling clothes include what looks like a turtleneck (worn on his way to England) and a hat/scarf combination (when he’s disguised as a carriage driver).
The first Dracula was also very powerful and effective, something that disappears as the series of films goes on. He can hypnotize by staring at someone, or even, late in the film, by use of a dramatic hand gesture. He doesn’t need to be invited into a home to enter, although none of the films are all that fussy about this. More importantly, he racks up an impressive number of victims: I counted at least seven men (most of whom were on the ship that brought him to England) and three women; his progeny attack at least two children. Later films, laboring under the Production Code, severely limited how much Dracula could get it on (demonstrated most effectively, and amusingly, in 1943’s Son of Dracula).
The focus on real estate is strong. The first Brit he contacts is a real estate attorney, Renfield (Dwight Frye), who helps him lease Carfax Abbey. Once he arrives in England, Dracula introduces himself to his new neighbors, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) and his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé Johnathan Harker (David Manners), and their friend Lucy (Frances Dade). On learning that Dracula has taken Carfax Abbey, Harker is pleased that someone is going to fix up the neighborhood eyesore: “The abbey could be quite attractive, but I should imaging it would need quite extensive repairs.” He’s undoubtedly disappointed when Dracula replies that “I shall do very little repairing. It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle in Transylvania.” There goes the neighborhood.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936): The High Point
It took Universal a while to put together a sequel to its box-office bonanza. Writer after writer, including John Balderston, who had written the stage treatment of Dracula as well as adaptations or screenplays for several other Universal horror films, turned in treatments, and at least two directors were involved before Lambert Hillyer finished the film. By the time it was finished, so was the financially troubled studio: the Laemmles had to sell to new owners two months before its release. It’s arguably the best film of the Dracula series, which isn’t saying much given what came later. It’s also the best the Draculas were going to get: the film represents them at their financial and sartorial peak, and it was all downhill after this.
The film opens minutes after the end of its predecessor. Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan again, and don’t ask me why they changed it from Van Helsing to Von Helsing) is arrested for the murder of Dracula (a wax dummy looking nothing like Bela Lugosi), and he enlists the aid of psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), his former student, to convince the authorities that he’s not insane. Dracula’s daughter is Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who steals Dracula’s body and burns it, thinking that this will free her from her vampiric curse. Her plan fails, though, and she seeks out Dr. Garth too, first to get his psychological help and then to get him to join her in unholy, unending matrimony.
Dracula’s Daughter stands out from the other films in the series as the only one with a “gowns by” credit, and Zaleska is a clothes horse. She wears at least five, perhaps six, different outfits. She’s a typical rich daughter, using her father’s money to attempt to flee the family business, and her choice of profession (she’s a painter) seems designed to elicit the most hand-wringing from her famous dad. She has a manservant/procurer, the evil Sandor (Irving Pichel), and enough cash to rent a flat in Russell Square (an upper-middle-class area of London; maybe she hung out with the Bloomsbury Group) and an art studio in bohemian Chelsea. She still has the ancestral castle in Transylvania to flee to when things don’t work out in London.
She’s well-stocked with vampiric powers, too. Her ring hypnotizes people left and right. She’s able to touch a cross without pain. She doesn’t get as many victims as her father did, but the ones she gets are choice: first, a well-dressed man-about-town, and then a beautiful young woman she lures into her studio to “model” for her. The film seems to invite us to see lesbian undertones, both in the suggestive scene with the model—as she’s leaning in toward the half-naked woman, the scene ends with a quick tilt up to a grinning demon mask—and in an angsty scene where she’s struggling against putting the moves on Dr. Garth’s hypnotized assistant Janet (Marguerite Churchill).
Universal, under the ownership of the Standard Capital Corporation, took a long break from Dracula after the box-office failure of Dracula’s Daughter. They didn’t abandon monster movies entirely, of course: they kept the Invisible Man (three films), the Mummy (two films), and Frankenstein’s monster (three films), busy, and also introduced the Wolf Man (two films). By the time they got around to using Dracula again, they had a new star to promote: Lon Chaney Jr. It was the beginning of the long, long end for Dracula.
Son of Dracula (1943): Been Down So Long
By 1943, with the war on in Europe, the lone scion of the Dracula family is a refugee looking for love (and perhaps a green card) in the swamps of Louisiana. This is the kind of film that an essayist relishes: one that completely fits his thesis, without any pesky differences to explain away. The focus here is clearly on land: Dracula’s son plans on marrying an heiress to gain possession of both her and her plantation, which under the Napoleonic Code would become his land and thus a place for him to sleep at night (he still needs to satisfy the vampiric requirement of sleeping on one’s home soil). The Dracula clan has fallen from being European aristocracy to hiding out in a coffin sunk in a drainage ditch, hoping to snag a rich wife.
The homeless count’s luggage arrives in town, but Count Alucard (clever, that) isn’t on the train. That night, at a reception for him, Alucard puts the bite on Colonel Caldwell, the father of his target Kay (Louise Allbritton). It turns out that Kay had her father change his will: instead of selling everything and splitting the dough between Kay and her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers), Kay gets the plantation and Claire gets everything else. Alucard and Kay get married, but various people, including Kay’s former fiancé Frank (Robert Paige), Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven), and Professor Laszlo (J. Edward Bromberg), conspire to screw things up for the happy couple.
So what has the Dracula family lost this time around? First of all is the homeland: Alucard is a refugee. Although World War II isn’t mentioned, the timing couldn’t be more convenient, and lots of Europeans came to the United States during this time, some of them probably pretending to be people they were not. (Also, Transylvania is referred to as part of Hungary, which it was during World War II.) Dr. Brewster and Frank express suspicion of his intentions; on seeing his pile of suitcases and coffin-shaped crates, Dr. Brewster says “Does this look as though he’s come to stay for just a couple of weeks?” Later it will turn out that the cases, aside from the coffin-shaped one, are empty: Claire protests that “He can’t be traveling around with only the clothes he’s wearing,” but that’s just part of life in late-period Universal films. For most of the film, Alucard is wearing the traditional Dracula garb: a black cape worn over a black tuxedo with a white tie, white vest with mother-of-pearl buttons, and a white shirt. He also wears a large ring (in other films, the ring has hypnotic powers, but it doesn’t seem to here). After Alucard marries Kay, we see him wearing a dressing gown instead of the cape, but he could have borrowed one from the late Colonel Caldwell.
There’s also the somewhat amusing loss that was probably dictated by the Hays Code: poor Alucard’s sex life is a joke. It’s not enough that his only victims are an old man and a little boy; it’s not enough that the film requires him to drive his blushing bride to the justice of the peace like someone in an Andy Hardy movie. (There’s a nice bit of perhaps unintended commentary here: right after the door closes behind them, a furious storm kicks up, which I like to read as Alucard’s father’s impotent rage against the Code.) No, the indignity doesn’t even end there. He carries her across the threshold, leans toward her romantically as she exposes her neck—and her ex-fiancé comes barging in, interruptusing their coitus. In fact, Alucard never gets to put the bite on her. She does turn into a vampire, but this is explained as not being the result of a bite from Alucard, but of her excessive morbidity: “She’d gone overboard on the subject of the supernatural,” Brewster says, as if this explains anything, especially when it comes from a character in a horror film. Finally, the whole thing turns out to be a trick: Kay just wanted him to vampify her, and now she wants to get rid of him and bring Frank into the fold. Yes, that’s right: the family Dracula’s last surviving member ends up a third wheel.
Of course, the biggest indignity that the Dracula clan suffers in this film is Lon Chaney Jr., whose corn-fed Midwestern-ness just doesn’t fit the role. Chaney was never a good actor, although he was effective, I guess, at playing the tortured Lawrence Talbot of the Wolf Man series (a role he’d return to in the following year’s House of Frankenstein, discussed below). The fleshy and jowly Chaney looks terrible here, and he recites his lines like he’s explaining something to a kindergarten class.
House of Frankenstein (1944): As Bad as It Gets?
Earlier in 1943, Universal execs had had a brainstorm: audiences like movies featuring a single monster, so they’ll like movies featuring multiple monsters even more, right? Right. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a hit, so a year later they released House of Frankenstein, which teamed up their biggest monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster.
The last time around, Dracula’s son ended up crawling toward his coffin through the mud, but that wasn’t the Dracula clan’s last encounter with mud, or with indignity. House of Frankenstein, which implemented Universal’s quantity over—well, quality wasn’t always the word for it—rule, starts out with Dracula as a sideshow attraction in a wagon stuck in the mud. That’s where, figuratively if not literally, he remains. This isn’t about Dracula; he’s just the opening act for the real movie, which is about a mad scientist (Boris Karloff) who was imprisoned for trying to put a human brain in a dog’s body. (Q: Why would he want to do that? A: Because he’s mad.) He escapes from prison, commandeers the traveling freakshow that features Dracula’s skeleton, and sets Dracula loose, ordering him to kill the men who locked him up. When that doesn’t work out (poof!), Karloff frees the frozen bodies of the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney again) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and sets to work mad-sciencing.
Despite the definite upgrade in casting—John Carradine steps into the role effortlessly, perhaps looking more like a Southern plantation owner than Eastern European aristocracy, but that’s a mild quibble—poor Dracula is mistreated here more than in any other Universal film. He starts out the film a skeleton, and then he’s put to work as little more than an errand boy. He has no possessions aside from his coffin and the usual black tux, cape, and ring (although he does have a top hat, which his son lacked in Son of Dracula). He passes himself off as a baron instead of a count, a loss of two ranks (baron being the lowest peerage, underneath viscount and count/earl). He has the power to hypnotize, but it seems to require the ring to work. His only victim is an old man, whom he attacks in bat form and in silhouette. He’s powerful enough to hypnotize a woman, but not capable enough to make good his escape, being foiled by a combination of the sun and a hunchback named Daniel. He even drinks… wine. And he’s dust by 27:30.
House of Dracula (1945): Don’t Trust the Title
It seems like things are looking up by 1945’s House of Dracula: I mean, at least he has a house, right? Wrong. Although the opening credits tease us with a castle perched on a cliff above the ocean, it’s not Dracula’s house. Instead, it belongs to Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens), a scientist who thinks some spores he’s cultivating are the new miracle drug. Dracula, traveling incognito again as Baron Latos, stops by hoping that Edelman can somehow cure his vampirism. But this ends up being another con, both by Dracula and by Universal. He doesn’t really want a cure (or at least he stops wanting one; this isn’t made clear), and he’s not really the star of the show.
At first glance, Dracula is looking well. John Carradine returns to the part, and again he’s got the right gauntness and patrician good looks. In fact, he might even be doing better sartorially: he’s wearing the usual Dracula outfit, but his cape looks nicer, with what appears to be a fur-lined collar. Oh la la! But again, the outfit is all he owns, aside from his coffin, which he’s forced to stash in Dr. Edelman’s basement like a kid visiting college friends. “Mine is a world without material needs,” he tells the beautiful nurse Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) he gets a hankering for, and that’s a good thing, because he doesn’t have any material to fulfill them.
Even when they treat him badly otherwise, Universal films sometimes provide Dracula with at least one great scene. He comes upon Miliza playing “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano, and just through the power of his soothing voice, he hypnotizes her into playing a jarring, ominous song. It’s a nice scene, even if it’s recycled from Dracula’s Daughter. However, it’s not enough to make up for the fact that he’s again just the opening act in a movie that’s really about the Wolf Man (Chaney again) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange again). As soon as Lawrence Talbot arrives looking for a cure for his lycanthropy, Dracula is shoved offstage. He’s toast by 43:00, but even before then he’s as good as gone: the film discards him for a full 15 minutes before remembering to kill him off. (Note to Dracula: don’t piss off the mad scientist who knows where you hide your coffin. On top of everything else, Universal apparently deprived Dracula of good decision-making skills.)
Dracula loses other things besides screen time. First, and most important, is his mystery. The late-period Universal horror films seem a lot more comfortable with the science side of the science/supernatural divide, perhaps because sparking electrical machines were cheaper than good screenwriters. In House of Frankenstein, they had the goodwill to kill Dracula off before the mad sciencing started, thus preserving at least a little of his dignity, but here, he can’t escape because the script has him seeking it out. Edelman erases Dracula’s mystique, explaining that vampirism is just a blood parasite that supposedly can be cured by transfusion. In Dracula’s Daughter, Von Helsing had asked “Who can draw the boundary line between the superstition of yesterday and the scientific fact of tomorrow?” He meant it as a rhetorical question, but Universal answered it.
Dracula is also still demoted to Baron instead of Count, in one of the film’s few attempts at continuity (perhaps to distract audiences from wondering how he suddenly isn’t dead after being sun-dried in House of Frankenstein). Finally, he is deprived of understandable motivation. He starts out the film wanting a cure for his vampirism, but halfway through he decides, without the benefit of a Marlon Brando-style shirt-tearing angst session, that he in fact likes being a vampire, wants to bite Edelman’s pretty assistant, and wants to muck up Edelman’s blood experiments. And it’s not until after his death that we learn that he’s also lost his potency: his blood doesn’t vampify Edelman, it turns him into a Jekyll and Hyde type.
The One That Doesn’t Fit
And that would have been the end of Dracula’s partnership with Universal, if not for the fact that Universal’s comedy team, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, had also spent the 1940s raking in piles of money for the studio. I wouldn’t be the first to consider this the end of the line for the Universal horror films; you’ll notice the convenient end date on Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver’s encyclopedic Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931–1946. But this article is about Dracula and his progeny in Universal horror films, and in 1948 the studio put together one last monster mash: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which I can’t explain. No, not that: it’s easy to explain its existence, as Universal’s more-is-more mentality inevitably led to this teaming, as it had led to the monster mash movies; I suppose we should be glad the Andrews Sisters didn’t meet Frankenstein. No, what I can’t explain is why this cash cow features the single best Dracula in the long, long history of Universal and vampires. Played once again by Bela Lugosi, Dracula is at his suave, powerful best; he’s rich and in control, and, perhaps most damning to my pet theories, he has a nicer cape.
The film, like many of these mashups, is mistitled: Frankenstein’s monster is little more than a prop. Dracula is the main bad guy, with a typically angsty wolf man, played once again by the whiny Lon Chaney, thrown in as a good guy. Talbot is desperate to stop Dracula from mad-doctoring Frankenstein’s monster back to life. Dracula has decided that the monster’s history of behavioral problems stems from his criminal brain, so he’s going to have his beautiful but mad doctor assistant Sandra replace it with the brain of a simpleton. Good thing this is an Abbott and Costello movie.
So Dracula is a mastermind again, instead of being a dupe: “I am accustomed to having my orders obeyed,” he says, and we can believe it. He has super-duper ring that can charge the monster’s batteries as well as hypnotizing people. He has a castle (in Florida!), even though its ownership is a little muddled: he seems to have to wait for an invitation from his mad scientist babe Sandra before entering it the first time, but he quickly takes over (lounging around in a robe equals ownership in my book), and later Talbot tells Abbott and Costello “I believe you are in the house of Dracula.” He has more than one outfit: in addition to the usual tuxedo combo, he has a nice velvet robe with an embroidered Dracula crest and tassels. And of course there’s that new cape, with its white silk lining. He can make people faint by simply looking at them (well, just Costello, but still), and he even gets to put the bite on Sandra, the first time a Universal vampire has been allowed to bite a woman since 1936.
Lugosi delivers the best performance by a vampire in a Universal film, in addition to the best performance of his career. He looks terrible physically, of course: his legendary drug addiction had left him looking like a puffy cartoon of his former self. But otherwise, he’s a dream. Gone are the tortured pauses and glacial pace of his dialogue in the 1931 film; his delivery is snappy, his English improved (the accent is actually more effective here). Throughout is a wry commentary on his typecasting, which made him a household name but effectively destroyed his career.
There are two things that help Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein fit my thesis. First is that we see his reflection in a mirror in several scenes, which is probably the result of haphazard filming conditions but which I choose to read as a loss of power. The second, and most important—damning, really—is right there in the title: Abbott and Costello. Despite his best efforts, Dracula is in a halfwit comedy: powers and poise be damned, he ends up throwing potted plants and chairs at the Wolf Man as Abbott and Costello run around in the foreground.
Wrap It Up Already, Man
The fact is, Universal never treated Dracula very well. The first film, while immensely influential (Bela Lugosi is Dracula to most viewers), is also a tough slog with few redeeming qualities. It’s marred by a glacial pace and hammy acting by just about everyone involved. Dracula was little more than a cameo in the later monster-mashup films of the mid to late 1940s; the studio was more interested in the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Even in the oddly titled House of Dracula, Dracula gets short shrift: it wasn’t his house, and the film is more concerned with mad sciencing, into which it attempts to graft the Dracula mythology with predictably sorry results. (And then there’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein…) We’re left, then, with Dracula’s children. Dracula’s Daughter, heavy with atmosphere and featuring a good lead turn by Gloria Holden, is probably the best of the lot, although it’s nowhere near as good as the pinnacle of Universal’s monstering, Bride of Frankenstein (an admittedly unfair comparison). Son of Dracula was decent—it has the most promising story—except for the Lon Chaney-shaped hole in the middle.
A thread that runs through all of the films, even when it’s not stated outright, is Dracula’s obsession with real estate. Because vampires (at least these vampires) always need to sleep on their home soil during the day, land is literally always on their minds. Well, it should be, even if it isn’t: the Draculas of later films always seem to plan their big escapades for a few minutes before sunrise and a few miles from home, dooming themselves. In the first film, Dracula wants English women, yes, but he also wants English land. The first step in his plan to invade England is to hire a real estate attorney to lease Carfax Abbey for him. Only Son of Dracula has a more strongly stated focus on real estate: the entire film is about a land grab. Dracula’s Daughter has the least emphasis on land, but it certainly operates with an understanding of real estate: Countess Zaleska presents herself as a woman of society and keeps a flat in an expensive section of town, but she does her dirty work in bohemian Chelsea, where her lesbian inclinations are less likely to attract attention (and, not surprisingly, where she keeps her coffin—she’s trying to keep the dirt, literal and figurative, separated from her other life as a society lady).
Dracula‘s behind-the-scenes story is often more interesting than what’s going on onscreen; I recommend David J. Skal’s Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen for the full story (the book is only slightly longer than this blog post). Skal’s The Monster Show is another good resource. But for those interested in Universal’s films and history specifically, Brunas et al.’s Universal Horrors is indispensable. It demonstrates that the sometimes-precipitous decline in Family Dracula’s standard of living that I’ve written 4500 words about is mostly a mirror image of the decline of Universal Studios. Brunas et al. discuss this decline in minute, film-by-film detail, but in short it was due to the Great Depression. While other studios either triumphed or closed, Universal foundered along, supported (but not enough) by their monster movies. Lack of money to put into the movies led to lower production values, quicker shooting schedules, and a general loss of talent as actors, writers, directors, and crew fled to studios that could pay them better.
That they managed to maintain a theme over five films (damn you, Abbott and Costello) was probably accidental, as was my “discovery” of it: I watched Son of Dracula and House of Dracula in quick succession and noticed the connection, which I might have missed had I watched them in order. Even the bad films in this series are fun (except the first one), and I doubt Universal ever intended to make Great Cinema: they wanted to make money, and they were willing to lower the quality as long as it didn’t keep audiences away. More than 75 years on, they’re still attracting audiences.