Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday, April 24, 1971: Son of Dracula (1943) / The Invisible Man (1933)

Synopsis: At the Caldwell plantation in Louisiana, a huge celebration has been prepared for the arrival of a Hungarian nobleman named Count Alucard. He has been invited by Kay, one of Colonel Caldwell's two daughters.

Kay, we are told, has been interested in the occult for some time. Now she is acting strangely and her fiance, Frank, can't fathom why. When the mysterious Count arrives, weird things start to happen. Col. Caldwell dies under mysterious circumstances. The will he drafted shortly before his death leaves all of the money to sister Claire, and only the plantation to Kay -- but strangely, Kay seems perfectly satisfied with this arrangement.

That night, Kay and Alucard roust the justice of the peace out of bed and insist on being married immediately.

Frank, believing that Kay has fallen into the orbit of a con man, confronts Alucard with a revolver, but when he fires the bullets pass through the Count, killing Kay, who was standing behind him. Confused an distraught, Frank goes to see Dr. Brewster, who tells him he will look into the matter. But when Brewster visits Black Oaks he finds Kay very much alive, albeit a little spooky.

By the time Brewster returns home he finds that Frank has turned himself in to the sheriff.  Brewster insists that the whole thing is a mistake; he saw Kay late the previous evening, after Frank came to him with the story of the murder. But when the Sheriff searches the estate he finds Kay's body and, sure enough, it's thoroughly dead.

Now under suspicion as an accessory to murder, Brewster consults with Professor Lazlo, an expert on the occult. With Lazlo's help Brewster begins to realize that Count Alucard is in fact Count Dracula, who has left his depleted homelands of Transylvania for fresh hunting grounds in America.  Meanwhile, in his jail cell, Frank is visited by Kay, who tells him she doesn't love Alucard, but has only been using him. Now that she is one of the undead, she can turn Frank into a vampire as well, and the two of them can destroy Alucard and begin their own immortal reign of terror....

Comments: Robert Siodmak's first directorial assignment for Universal was a relatively undistinguished one, but even so I was a little unfair when I wrote about it previously.  Son of Dracula is quite an entertaining movie, once you set aside the film's two glaring imperfections.

The first, of course, is the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr as Dracula.  Brunas and Weaver claim that Universal was trying to build Chaney into a bankable horror-movie star by systematically embedding him in all of their big franchises (by the time Son of Dracula premiered on November 5, 1943, Chaney had already played the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein's monster).    It's a reasonable explanation, or at least not an unreasonable one, and perhaps on paper he seemed like a good choice.  In practice, meh, not so much.

 His hulking screen presence works against him, though that in itself isn't fatal to his performance.  His voice is problematic as well, though he manages to smooth out his blunt midwestern delivery somewhat.  The real trouble with his performance, I think, is in his body language.  Dracula is, after all, a nobleman as well as a gentleman, but Chaney never moves like one or gestures like one.  He seems awkward, flat-footed, never comfortable in the fancy clothes he is wearing.  So he never convinces us that he's Dracula, even when he turns into a bat in front of our very eyes.*

But Universal could do worse, and they did: the role would next go to marble-mouthed ham John Carradine.  So perhaps it's time to quit pillorying poor Lon Chaney and move on.

The second strike against this movie is the absurd notion that Dracula can evade detection by spelling his name backwards.   Just about everyone sees through this one right away; he might as well have introduced himself as Dr. Acula.  If he was looking for an anagram of his name, he might have tried harder, though I admit that Nat Cuduralco or Toucan LaCrud might have come off as a bit eccentric.

Previously I'd complained about the lack of a clear protagonist in this movie: Alucard is a non-starter in that category. Kay is prominently featured early on, then Frank, then Dr. Brewster; and finally Dr. Lazlo.  It seemed to work a bit better seeing it again, but the structure still strikes me as quite odd.  Perhaps it would have been smarter to have more of the story told from Kay's perspective, rather than pushing her into the background in favor of Brewster in the second act.

The poster above is clearly trying to sell Kay as the protagonist, though if Universal wanted to go that route  (TEMPTRESS OF TERROR!  A Vampire's Bride -- With Blood On Her Lips!) shouldn't they have gone with the title Bride of Dracula?  Admittedly the poster we're seeing here is from a re-release, but still.  There's nothing in the movie that suggests Alucard is the son of Dracula anyway, and Bride of Dracula would have been a helpful title; it would have let the audience know where to focus their attention.

Interestingly, this is Lon Chaney Jr.'s fourth appearance in a row on Horror Incorporated.  I am not sure if this is a record (I suspect it isn't) but it would be interesting to find out.   Perhaps at some point in the future I'll pull together some stats of highest number of consecutive appearances, and highest number of appearances total.

My guess is that Evelyn Ankers will sweep all categories.  But we'll see.

The Invisible Man

Synopsis: A stranger walks along a country road into the small English village of Iping. The man wears a coat and hat to protect himself from the late winter snow, but he also wears tinted goggles and his head is wrapped in bandages.

He enters an inn and rents a room. There he works feverishly on some sort of medical experiment.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (William Travers) , his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan) are trying to understand what has become of Dr. Cranley's underling, Jack Griffin. Griffin had been experimenting on his own with a dangerous chemical called monocaine, a substance which, when injected into animals, bleaches them white -- and drives them mad.

Back at the inn, a crazed and paranoid Griffin causes havoc whenever he is disturbed, and he is soon ordered to vacate the premises.

Refusing to do so, a group of townsfolk and the local police attempt to evict him. Griffin begins removing the bandages on his head -- revealing himself (or perhaps not revealing himself) to be an invisible man. Causing considerable property damage and bodily harm, he removes the rest of his clothing and flees the scene.

At first, the people of Iping are held up as laughingstocks by the police and the media; but soon enough the reports of an invisible man on a rampage are confirmed.

That evening Kemp is visited at home by Griffin, who tells him that he had indeed discovered a monocaine derivative that causes complete invisibility. However, Griffin can't reverse the process and he wants to use Kemps's laboratory to work on a solution.

But Griffin has more than a simple problem of chemistry on his mind. He has clearly been driven mad by his formula, and when he isn't imagining how he can "make the world grovel" at his feet, he is delighting in the chaos and destruction an invisible man can cause...

Comments:  Okay, I'll admit I had previously judged Son of Dracula too harshly.  I tend to have strong opinions, and I try to be open to new evidence even though I don't always succeed.  But what a treat we have for the second feature. The Invisible Man works as well as the day it was released.  Crackling dialogue, special effects that still hold up well, a towering lead performance, and a story that actually improves upon the novel it was based on.  

It was a smash hit when it premiered on November 18, 1933. "Photographic magic abounds in the production, the work being even more startling than was that of Douglas Fairbanks's old picture The Thief of Bagdad", wrote the Times' film critic Mordaunt Hall.   "The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner. Now that it has been done, it is a remarkable achievement."

James Whale's original Frankenstein did not capture the director's wicked sense of humor, but this one does.  And The Invisible Man benefits greatly from the contributions of screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, who also wrote The Dam Busters, one of the best war movies ever produced.

It's hard to even talk about the movie without considering the performance of Claude Rains, who vividly portrays the mad scientist who is, as the opening credits call him, "The Invisible One".  It's difficult to imagine how the movie would have worked with another actor in the lead; Rains brings such authority and urgency to his largely vocal performance that he winds up carrying a good deal of it on his own.  No actor of the time could have equaled that performance; even Karloff, who had been briefly considered, was not up to the task -- he was primarily a physical actor, and his vocal range would not have been impressive enough to pull it off** . 

Rains' performance is even more impressive when you consider that the actors he worked with -- especially Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan -- were hapless examples of Hollywood cinema of the early 1930s: stuffy, stagebound and dull.   In spite of this, the movie clips along nicely, and nothing seems superfluous.  It's one of the best movies of its era, one that simply improves on repeated viewing.  

*This was, by the way, the first time that particular trick had been shown on screen.

**However, had the movie been made five years later, one could easily imagine Orson Welles playing the role of Griffin.


kochillt said...

This was very reminiscent of the kind of double features that Pittsburgh viewers were accustomed to on CHILLER THEATER. First up was a more recent title, usually a first run and often in color, but the second presentation would inevitably take one back to the 30s with a beloved Universal classic. For this major monster lover, Lon Chaney wasn't really a problem in SON OF DRACULA, it was the lack of screen time, less than 12 minutes. The second half does suffer from its focusing on less interesting characters, but Chaney more than held his own with actor/playwright Frank Craven, who later appeared in DESTINY (he died in 1945). First ever transformation from man into bat, coffin rising to the swamp's surface, and a Dracula displaying the kind of superhuman strength that would become a staple for Sir Christopher Lee, nostalgic memories. How my father laughs whenever someone makes a reference to the Invisible Man, prompting all the characters to look about nervously, hoping he wasn't nearby! How many actors could pull off a star making performance without being seen? Kudos to director James Whale for encouraging Claude Rains to come out and do the film, after a disappointing initial screen test for a different film that didn't pan out.

Uncle Mike said...

HORROR INCORPORATED would eventually have a similar format to CHILLER THEATER: most often the SHOCK! titles would end up in the second slot. The first feature would be of more recent vintage -- though, as we shall see, the "newer" films were usually from the 1950s.

kochillt said...

As The Supremes once sang, "you just keep me hangin' on."

Post a Comment