Horror Is Universal: “House of Dracula” (1945)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to 1945. World War 2 is over, the Cold War is just beginning, America is entering a long period of economic prosperity, and we have another monster crossover movie.

You may recall how I found House of Frankenstein to be rather lacking in the “crossover” aspect of its main gimmick. And in the “monster” part as well, let’s be honest. So you can understand my not being too enthused about watching House of Dracula. But was my trepidation justified? I would say yes and no, but leaning slightly towards “no.” While the film has its fair share of awkward moments and missed opportunities, there are some great ideas and clever filmmaking hidden beneath all that clumsiness.


The Plot: In the village of Visaria, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) has converted his castle home into a hospital/research lab with the help of two assistants, beautiful Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) and intelligent hunchback Nina (Jane Adams). Edelmann is a rather straight-laced fellow who believes only in what science can show him, but his worldview is shaken when two most unusual men — Count Dracula (John Carradine) and Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) come seeking his aid. They want to cure their respective supernatural afflictions, and Edelmann’s extensive medical knowledge might be the key to doing so. Undeterred by the odds being against him, Edelmann sets out to treat his new patients, developing a new type of medicine in the process. But Dracula may not be as well-meaning as he claims. When things go wrong, Edelmann must team up with Larry and Nina to save Milizia from the vampire’s clutches. But can he save himself?


This is another instance where I was surprised by the amount of information I could find on the development and filming of this movie. House of Dracula began life as Wolf Man vs. Dracula, which was first announced in April 1944 with Ford Beebe attached to direct. Bernard Schubert, who wrote The Mummy’s Curse, turned in the first draft of the script a month later. Development of the project was put on pause when Boris Karloff returned to Universal to do House of Frankenstein, making that the more important film for the studio. After complications led to the script being shelved until the following year, House of Frankenstein writer Edward T. Lowe made another pass at it. Lowe would create the final versions of the script and also gave it the frustratingly vague title of Destiny. The final title was chosen to capitalize on House of Frankenstein‘s success. By this point, the project had also acquired a new director: Erle C. Kenton, who directed The Ghost of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein.

The story about the film’s cast is equally convoluted. Obviously you’ve got Lon Chaney Jr. back as Larry Talbot, but the film was originally touted as being Bela Lugosi’s return to the role of Dracula. But he doesn’t appear in the final film, and although his schedule was open, there was no evidence that he’d even been asked to play the role. Instead, Universal got John Carradine back to reprise his extended cameo in House of Frankenstein. And let me tell you, not until Robert Pattinson got cast in Twilight did an actor hate playing a vampire this much. “I pity anyone who plays the part,” Carradine would say in a 1986 interview. “The role holds a curse greater than Hamlet! Give the audience Richard III, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and what will they remember? A Vampyer!” [sic] But he did the movie anyway, resolving to make his Dracula “as evil as possible, for I learned long ago that if I wanted to continue to eat, villains find steadier work than artists.” And yes, his performance reflects just how happy he was to be here. More on that later. Another returning cast member from House of Frankenstein was Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Creature. Lionel Atwill also has a small role here, his fifth appearance in a Universal Horror film — and sadly his last, as he would pass away from lung cancer shortly after filming. But what about our newcomers? Onslow Stevens was a prolific character actor who had a few notable films under his belt, like 1935’s The Three Musketeers and 1956’s The Ten Commandments. Martha O’Driscoll also played mostly small roles, and she would retire from acting altogether a few years after this film. Jane Adams didn’t do much else of note, though Wikipedia informs me that she was in a 1949 Batman serial and the 1950s Superman TV show, and that must count for something.

House of Dracula opens with a somewhat cool sequence in which the opening credits melt into the frame and form words while playing over a shot of a spooky seaside castle. It’s an image that grabs your attention, but when it’s gone, things start to go downhill quick. Our first proper scene establishes two things: that Dracula is the most obvious villain to have ever villained, and Dr. Edelmann is the most gullible man to have ever gullibled. In flies the Count with his tuxedo and top hat to break into Edelmann’s house at five in the morning, wake Edelmann up and immediately ask the guy to follow him into the basement, all while asking if he believes in vampires and the supernatural. Edelmann’s resistance to/suspicion of this lasts for a good healthy ten seconds. He isn’t fazed when he learns that the guy speaking to him claims to be Dracula, nor when he finds out that Dracula somehow smuggled an entire coffin into the castle basement. By the end of the scene he’s like “Yes, creepy stranger, I will let you stay in my house and help cure your vampirism.” The worst part is how Dracula and Edelmann are just speaking in exposition, and not even important exposition: they’re just spouting off info about common vampire traits and weaknesses. Every stupid word is magnified by the flat performances from both actors.

It doesn’t get any better when Larry Talbot shows up a few minutes later. I can’t tell if Lon Chaney Jr was beginning to grow weary of the character by this point or if the dialogue was just so stilted that he couldn’t do anything with it. Regardless, Larry comes off as well here as he did in House of Frankenstein — which is to say, not well at all. I don’t think any of the Wolf Man sequels have written Talbot in an interesting way, to be honest. His complex feelings and relationships in the original movie have been boiled down to “I gotta kill myself no matter what, that’s my only goal and it never changes.” Understandable? Perhaps. But it makes him a much more boring character. Though not quite as boring as Edelmann and Milizia, who witness Larry transforming in front of them and can’t work up much more than mild fear and surprise.

So, the first 20 minutes setting up the characters isn’t that great. But after that point, things do start to pick up significantly. With Dracula and Larry both established as patients in Edelmann’s hospital, the main plot can finally get going, and the movie can focus on its primary ideas and themes.

First off: like House of Frankenstein with its Chamber of Horrors, House of Dracula has a solid premise for a monster crossover film. Unlike House of Frankenstein, it actually does something with said premise. While it’s true that the interaction between the monsters themselves is limited, all the characters do feel like they’re part of the same story. The hospital setting also serves another purpose: similar to Werewolf of London and Dracula’s Daughter, the film tries to look at these monsters through a scientific/medical lens. Edelmann believes that both vampirism and lycanthropy can be traced back to treatable medical conditions. And guess what? He turns out to be right! This is especially interesting in the case of Dracula’s vampirism. Edelmann describes it as a parasite in the man’s blood which can be eliminated through multiple blood transfusions. A far-fetched explanation, of course, but barely more so than the science in Richard Matheson’s landmark vampire novel I Am Legend, which this film predates by nine years. Less convincing but still entertaining is the attempt to explain why Talbot is a werewolf. Edelmann describes it thusly:

Examination discloses one condition, pressure upon certain parts of the brain. This condition, coupled with your belief that the moon can bring about a change, accomplishes exactly that. During the period in which your reasoning processes give way to self-hypnosis, the glands which govern your metabolism get out of control…when this happens, the glands generate an abnormal supply of certain hormones — in your case, those which bring about the physical transformation which you experience.

The solution, then, is to enlarge the cranium to relieve the swelling of the brain. How are we going to do that? Why, with our favorite bit of horror movie science, of course! That’s right, it’s time for another crash course in Occult Botany! But instead of magic moon flowers or magic leaves, we have something new. We have…MAGIC MUSHROOMS! Wait, no, we can’t do that. Uh…MAGIC MOLD! Yeah, that’s better.

So it’s like this: we learn early on that Edelmann is working on a project that involves growing large amounts of fungus, which apparently has the ability to temporarily soften up bone and make it more malleable. By making a topical paste out of this fungus, Edelmann hopes to cure Larry by relieving the pressure in his skull. While he uses his discovery to help his new patient, he was originally developing it to use on Nina.

I want to switch gears for a bit and talk about Nina, because I really like this character. When we first see her, her physical appearance is meant to evoke memories of the Igor archetype. But the film proceeds to subvert our expectations by making Nina more well-adjusted and sensible than her employer. She picks up on Dracula posing a danger to Milizia well before Edelmann does (more on that in a bit), and she cautions him away from making risky decisions that could endanger a bunch of people. Even when it’s an obviously stupid decision, like resurrecting Frankenstein’s Creature. Oh, did I mention they found Frankenstein’s Creature? Larry tried to kill himself by jumping off a cliff, and when they went to drag his ass out of the cave system under the hospital, they found Creature + the body of Dr. Niemann. Yes, this is allegedly a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein. Don’t think about it too hard.

Another fascinating aspect of Nina is that her altruism comes off as being more genuine than Edelmann’s. Edelmann was growing the magic mold for Nina in order to correct the curvature of her spine, and it’s implied that this is at least partially because he’s in love with her. Nina, however, doesn’t seem to feel any shame or anxiety about her hunch. At one point, she directly refuses the mold treatment when Edelmann offers it to her, rightfully pointing out that curing Larry’s condition should be the doctor’s priority. The film positions Nina as a sort of living conscience for Edelmann, and when he disregards her counsel, it’s presented as a bad thing.

Meanwhile, Dracula is off doing another speedrun of a Dracula movie. But he’s doing better this time! Sort of. Carradine described this take on the character as “a type of dope fiend…he knows he is doing something wrong, and yet he cannot stop himself.” For the most part, he doesn’t even try to hide his disdain for the film he’s in, and the majority of his lines are delivered in a bored, barely convincing monotone. But when the script calls for him to be menacing, he actually pulls it off. This is accomplished mainly through extreme close-ups of his eyes, an image which is legit unsettling. And the point where Dracula goes after Milizia is where he starts to get more interesting.

Milizia is probably the most nothing character in the whole film. It’s obvious that her only purpose is to be a sort-of love interest for Larry and a potential victim for Dracula, the latter more so than the former. The upside of this is that the scenes she shares with Dracula are not terrible. Like Son of Dracula, we start out on a different note because Dracula and his victim already know each other at the beginning of the story, giving the relationship a new dynamic. What’s more, there seems to be a mutual attraction between the two characters, which is rare for a Dracula storyline. As Carradine said, Dracula knows that he’s doing a bad thing, but there comes a point where he can’t stop himself. The way that Dracula takes control of Milizia is also more overtly unsettling to the viewer. She’s playing piano when it happens, and the vampiric influence is represented by her veering off from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into something far more hectic and sinister.

Things start going haywire for Dracula when Nina catches him and Milizia together and sees that he has no reflection. She brings this information to Edelmann, and the two of them starting figuring out how to eliminate this threat to their friend. After a botched attempt to limit his power via blood transfusion, Edelmann resorts to the old-fashioned method of curing a vampire: chasing him down and exposing him to sunlight as he hides in his coffin.

So, we’re about forty minutes into the film, and our main villain is dead. We have twenty minutes left. What are we to do?

WELL. You see, this Dracula has pulled off a trick that we haven’t seen Dracula pull off before — he accounts for the possibility of his own death. And during that final blood transfusion, he turns the tables on the heroes by breaking out of his bonds, subduing Nina and then switching the pump so his blood flows into Edelmann’s veins instead of the other way around. Even when the vampire dies, then, his evil still has a vessel from which to wreak more havoc.

It’s at this point, in the last third of the film, that House of Dracula starts to get entertaining.

It’s unclear exactly what happens to Edelmann at this point. We get a sequence where his reflection disappears, but the film does not call him a vampire. He actually becomes more of a Jekyll & Hyde-esque figure, alternating between moments of lucidity and moments of homicidal malice. This is probably the best part of the movie for a number of reasons. Onslow Stevens is clearly having a good time portraying this transformation, especially when Edelmann is in full evil mode. The filmmaking itself also gets more creative when Evil Edelmann is in control: you start to see more dramatic camera angles and lighting setups that use shadows to make the character look more menacing. Those moments have a late-stage German Expressionism feel to them. I was reminded of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse a few times, notably during a surreal sequence where the spirit of Dracula reappears to tempt Edelmann into following his dark impulses.

And those impulses are another part of what makes this last stretch of the film more entertaining to watch. Is it padding to get the runtime to an hour? Oh, absolutely. But it’s padding that actually serves as a pay-off to character elements established earlier. Edelmann’s turn doesn’t come completely out of nowhere. Throughout the first two-thirds of the film, we see him flirt with ideas that are selfish and/or outright dangerous, only to be pulled back by more levelheaded friends and his own morality. And when that morality is gone, well…you can guess what happens.

The last act of the film flies by in a blur. Edelmann murders a townsperson for the fun of it, which causes the requisite angry mob to rise up and start marching towards his castle. At the same time, Edelmann successfully revives Frankenstein’s Creature (don’t worry, I also forgot he was here) with the intention of using him to cause destruction. Nina catches him in the act and tries to stop him, but he just snaps her neck and tosses her aside. The best character in the movie, gone like that! What a shame. The mob has a battle with the Creature, Larry shoots Edelmann dead, and all the surviving characters watch from a safe distance as the castle burns down with the Creature (who did nothing) still inside. It’s a standard Universal Horror climax.

Well, standard except for one thing. Remember that magic mold treatment that Larry underwent? Turns out it actually worked! He is no longer a werewolf, as he demonstrates when he’s able to stand under a full moon safely, and it’s implied that he goes off with Milizia when all is said and done. We know in our hearts that it won’t last, that the status quo will be restored when the next movie begins. But for now, this detail manages to make the downer ending a little more bittersweet. Good for you, Larry.

So, what are we to make of this weird little film? Is it any good?

Well, I wouldn’t call it good, per se. It’s not especially competent on a technological level or a storytelling level, and you have to get through forty minutes of mostly dull material to get twenty minutes of somewhat good stuff. But I’ll tell you what, House of Dracula didn’t burn me nearly as hard as I feared it would. It tries to deliver on its promise of being a genuine crossover between all these characters, something that House of Frankenstein failed to accomplish. There’s a single ongoing story, the characters’ actions make sense within that story, and there are a few good plot twists. I could criticize the film for wasting the Creature, but this is hardly the first Universal Horror film to have done that. It was not made to be a great piece of art, but to entertain audiences for an hour. And in that regard, it (mostly) succeeded. Just not as well as it could have. It’ll be good for a one-time watch, but I doubt it will stick in your memory. Despite its occasional good ideas, it’s not quite strong enough to rise above the rest of the studio’s horror output around this time.

Rating

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In several ways, House of Dracula was the end of an era for Universal Horror and the studio as a whole. It was the last attempt to make a serious, dramatic film starring several of the classic monsters. It was the last time Jack Pierce would design the makeup for these characters. Most significant of all, the film came out only a few months before the studio underwent another major restructuring of the kind it had done when the Laemmles were forced out. But that will be a story for next time, as it takes us into the late 1940s and beyond.

UP NEXT: She-Wolf of London (1946)


You may be wondering what will happen to this series now that my Substack is up and running. New installments will continue to be posted here at least once a month. Beginning in the new year, I will be publishing re-edited versions of the older installments on Substack. With my greater experience and expanded library of research materials, revisiting my first articles is sure to yield new insights on the films in question.

But for now, I hope you’ve had a safe and happy holiday season. I’ll see you in 2022!

— Dana

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