Retro Review: House of Dracula
Towards the end of the era of the Universal Monsters the studio was focused on maximizing the shared universal they lived in with what fans have dubbed the “monster mash” movies. These flicks often brought in a number of the classic monsters for a grand showdown. It kicked off with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which served as the sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. This paved the way for two movies which would serve as the Avengers equivalent to the monsters. First came 1944’s House of Frankenstein and the year after it was followed up with House of Dracula.
Claiming that he is searching for a cure for his vampirism, Count Dracula has come to the castle laboratory of Dr. Edelmann hoping for aid. With the reluctant help of his hunchbacked assistant Nina (played by a scene stealing Jane Adams) he begins a series of blood transfusions on the vampire. But he is not the only monster to turn up at the scientist’s castle as the Wolf Man himself, Larry Talbot also journeys there in the hopes that Edelmann can cure his lycanthropy. The Wolf Man would unwittingly lead the doctor to the Frankenstein monster and like so many before him Edelmann would become obsessed with continuing Dr. Frankenstein’s work. As expected having three monsters under the roof of his gothic castle, proves to be a nightmare for all as they inevitably wreak havoc on anyone unfortunate enough to be in their path.
The driving theme in House of Dracula is the idea of science versus the supernatural in regards to monsters. This conflict is embodied by Dr. Edelmann and the Wolf Man. Edelmann feels that through the proper use of science he can cure both the Wolf Man and Count Dracula while also rehabilitating Frankenstein’s creation. Talbot, on the other hand knows from firsthand experience that no innocent person is safe so long as these monsters are around. Both are men who, through no fault of their own, transform into monstrous entities who terrorize the populace. In the end the good doctor learns that there are things beyond the realm of science, and he learns it the hard way as Dracula poisons him. That being said as he is aware that his mind is eroding because of the vampire he puts his nose to the grindstone in an attempt to aid the others he vowed to help like fixing Nina’s hunched back and curing the Wolf Man’s lycanthropy.
The biggest pitfall to House of Dracula is oddly enough the Count himself played by John Carradine. While he definitely looks the part, the actor really does not bring any gravitas or intimidation to the role as he largely plays the character rather flatly. This is a shame because on paper this may be the most well-rounded Dracula the franchise has given us. Throughout this film, we are kept in the dark as to what the vampire’s true motives are. Despite his claims to Dr. Edelmann, it is clear he has no true intention of being cured of his bloodlust. We see clues this is all just a ruse to get close to Edelmann’s assistant Milizia Morelle as the scenes they share together shows that the vampire holds a certain obsession with her. Or perhaps his turning the good doctor into a monster like him was all part of some sadistic game. The Count is given so many great character fantastic character moments in this film that one wishes they had brought Bela Lugosi back to reprise the role with his dark charisma. Ironically in its original incarnation House of Dracula was instead The Wolf Man vs Dracula with Lugosi set to return.
As you may have gathered that the film packs so much with the Wolf Man, the Mad Scientist, and Dracula that Frankenstein’s creation is sadly almost an afterthought. With only a little over an hour of runtime, screenwriter Edward T. Lowe has to find a way to fit multiple storylines featuring multiple characters into a short time window. Despite this working against him, Lowe does an admirable job even if House of Dracula would have benefitted from having time to decompress and breath out. In addition to time restrictions, it is easy to tell the movie did not have the same budgetary advantages as previous films. Luckily, director Erle C. Kenton was clever and resourceful in his filmmaking process providing some great moments in the film often using low key special fx. A great example of this is the mirror scenes with Dracula as well as the count fading into oblivion after being staked.
In many ways this was the swan song of the golden age of the Universal Monsters. Following this the monsters were made the co-stars of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Behind the scenes this would be the final time we see the monsters as crafted by the legendary make-up fx artist Jack Pierce as the brilliant artist would be removed from his post shortly thereafter. While this franchise may have deserved a bigger send-off, House of Dracula is a far better movie than many would expect. For anyone who loves classic gothic horror this film is truly a must-see if they have never seen it or a revisit if they have.