Universal’s third monster mash film from 1945 is a decent, if not necessarily worthy, farewell to the studio’s legendary ghouls. Despite flashes of originality, it feels as if we are re-heating the same TV dinner for the umpteenth time before the SF movies of the US caught up with the new post-war reality. (4/10)
House of Dracula. 1945, USA. 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.
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. It was also the last film that featured the original Universal monsters before they began to get spoofed in the Abbot & Costello films.
As far as sci-fi was concerned, the forties really was a dark decade. The only thing churned out during this decade was mad scientist films of ever-diminishing quality. 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 aren’t always that confidence-inspiring (hello rubber bat).
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 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. And this time there is no Wolf Man to stop him …
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. It is as if Universal wanted to get Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the picture as well, while they were at it.
At only an hour long, House of Dracula 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. 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 did lessen the impact from the original film.
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-tipped cane to the head 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 yet comes to life for a third time.
The stars must have aligned right somehow when director Erle C. Kenton directed the marvellous Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), one of the best, if not the best horror movie of the thirties. 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 and writing the screenplay for the 1942 film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. He also wrote the script for House of Frankenstein. House of Dracula was his last screenplay, along with Babcock.
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 diminish, and this film also marked the end of the first wave of the mad scientist movies. 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.
1948 saw the first live action serial of Superman, 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 1949, 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 versions 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.
Bosley Crowther at The new York Times wrote about the film: “Frankenstein’s little boy doesn’t die easily. And, unfortunately, neither does this type of cinematic nightmare.” Variety, on the other hand, called it “a nifty thriller for the chiller trade”.
While House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein generally get a bad rap not only from casual viewers, but from Universal horror fans alike, they have their defenders. Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind gave House of Frankenstein a terrific 4/5 star rating, and he does the same for House of Dracula. Rosengren writes: “Having [screenwriter] Lowe on board was helpful in the fact that he already understood the characters, having written them previously in House of Frankenstein. He knew what made each one tick and he knows how to write a good screenplay with all the right things in it to make a successful horror film.” Stephen Larson at blu-ray.com is another champion of House of Dracula, awarding it 3.5/5 stars: “House of Dracula is the kind of ensemble film that I hoped House of Frankenstein would evolve into. […] Edward T. Lowe’s screenplay is compact and efficient in reaching a satisfying conclusion for at least one of the anthology’s principals.” Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum gives House of Dracula another positive review at 3/5 stars: “House of Dracula is on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1945 at the Number 5 spot”. Another 3/5 rating comes from The Video Graveyard, writing: “House Of Dracula is a lot of fun and actually brings together the Universal monsters quite well. The cast is obviously star studded, with all the main characters putting in exceptional performances.”
Doug Gibson at Plan 9 Crunch calls the film “a well-directed, economical, lean Universal B 60 minutes-plus time-waster that is well directed by Erle C. Kenton. It serves as a reminder that even the most formulaic big-studio production always outshone similar cheaper efforts from the Monograms and PRCs of that era.” Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews gives House of Dracula 5/10 stars, as does JP Roscoe at Basement Rejects. A similar 2.5/5 stars come from Matthew Foster at Foster on Film who concedes that “Fans of the classic monster movies will enjoy House of Dracula, but only because it is a reminder of better films that came before it”. Richard Scheib at Moria is mildly positive, giving the film 2.5/5 stars, writing that Kenton’s direction is “largely pedestrian but not without occasional flashes of interest”.
Business giant Entertainment Weekly gives it the equivalent of a 6/10 score, and TV Guide awards it 2/4 stars, calling it an “entertaining if not frightening horror film”. AllMovie likewise gives House of Dracula a decent 2.5/5 stars, and Craig Butler writes: “the mere presence of the monsters in a “serious” (rather than farcical) film is a plus, and the cast is worthy, if not perhaps capable of providing the same impact of a Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff“.
All are not amused, however. Dario Lavia at Argentinian Cinefania gives the film 2/5 stars, writing that “the direction and action fail to compensate for a script lacking even a minimum of internal logic”. A.J. Hakari at Cineslice notes that “House of Dracula incorporates enough interesting angles into the story to make the multitude of moments when it backs away from doing anything cool with them that much more disappointing”. Over at our friends at Cracked Rear Viewer, Gary Loggins writes that “the film tries to put a new slant on things, using science to conquer the supernatural, but winds up being just a hodgepodge of familiar horror tropes without much cohesion”. At French DVD Klassik, Julien Léonard calls House of Dracula “a nice little film full of flaws, but a necessary conclusion to this second and last great period of Universal fantasy cinema”. Léonard still notes that Kenton directs the “dully written film without inspiration and without much interest”. Finally, Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button, who probably gives out more zero-star reviews than any other critic I have hitherto encountered, unsurprisingly gives House of Dracula 0/5 stars. Wickliffe writes: “House of Dracula barely runs sixty-five minutes. It’s boring from the first three minutes. Nothing so short, so full of monsters and effects and Universal contract players should ever be boring.
My personal opinion on the matter is that House of Dracula succeeds better than House of Frankenstein in some regards, worse in others. As a book-end to the Universal monster franchise it is disappointing, even if not terrible. Onslow Stevens carries the movie, showing off some great acting chops in his Jekyll/Hyde role at the end, even if the focus on his character ultimately means that we are robbed of the classic Universal monster showdown, as all our favourite ghouls are strewn unceremoniously along the wayside to make way for a villain none of us asked for or are very interested in. The “midiclorians” explanation for Dracula’s and The Wolf Man’s conditions is an interesting slant on the supernatural elements of the Universal monsters, albeit highly illogical and at odds with most of what we have previously seen. It also robs Dracula in particular of any menace and mythology. I have learned to like Carradine’s Dracula, even if the top hat was a confounding wardrobe choice, and he has some terrific moments in the movie, as does Jane “Poni” Adams, playing the hunchback Nina. Too bad they fall victims of rushed scripting, as Lowe fails to bring their initially intriguing stories to any sort of satisfactory conclusion.
Erle C. Kenton was a competent director and even with a tight budget he creates some good atmosphere and a few nice action shots, and the film pays homage to the German Expressionist films, in particular The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He is aided by overall strong performances and a few nifty visual effects by John P. Fulton. Even at their worst, Universal’s monster movies never descended to the level of incompetence that marked some of Poverty Row studios Monogram’s and PRC’s lesser films. House of Dracula can be an enjoyable and even inventive little movie if you get past the fact that it drags the legacy of its great monsters in the gutter.
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 (1932) with the film The Mummy’s Tomb. He reprised this role in 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 1956 film Indestructible Man (review), 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, John 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, review), 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 was unfortunately stuck with the leading part in the turgid low-budget film Life Returns (1934, review), and played a substantial role in the 1934 serial The Vanishing Shadow, 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).
Lionel 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 got into trouble over a contrived legal case regarding one of the sex-fuelled parties he organised at his home. 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 “Poni” Adams never quite reached the same level of success that O’Driscoll did during her career, although she impresses in House of Dracula. She 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.
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.
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.