In which I watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning. Let us continue Operation Mistake Binge: The Original Draculas…
Where’s This One Fit in the Dracula Franchise?
It’s been seven years since 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and let’s face it: the planet has changed a lot. Charles Curtis is no longer Vice President, the Baby Boomers are almost born, and World War II is a thing. Also, the dominant fashion is no longer the 24/7 tuxedo, but instead the much more relaxing huge fedora + overwhelming trench coat.
Seven Years! Worth the Wait??
I watched it three hours after I hit “submit” on my Dracula’s Daughter post. It is worth a three-hour wait.
The movie opens with a small-town Louisiana doctor, Doc Brewster, waiting at a train station to greet Count Alucard from Hungary. Alucard has been invited by local rich white girl Kay. Kay went to Budapest on a vacation last year (a 1942 visit to Eastern Europe? Sure, WHY NOT), met Alucard, and came back stuffed with notions of the occult. People think she’s “morbid” now. Anyway, Alucard isn’t on the train, but the doctor picks up a coffin-sized piece of luggage. Then he proves he is a genius by immediately figuring out that the name on the luggage tag is Dracula backward.
That night there’s a big “Welcome to Our Rural Horse-Drawn Town, Alucard” party at Dark Oaks Plantation (Kay’s dad’s place). At which Alucard is still a no-show. It’s in full swing when suddenly, smoke billows from an upper window and the servants (all of whom are black; more on this in a minute) run in a panic to alert the rich people (all white). Everyone dashes upstairs. There, the white people immediately ignore the fire in order to stand quietly around Kay’s ancient dad, who they notice is dead in his bed. We (the audience) quickly conclude the fire started because the old man dropped his cigar while being killed by Dracula. Meanwhile, right next to the medium-sad white people, the black people do the actual work of saving the house.
Okay, racially? This movie is not up to 2017 specs. It is embarrassing to behold. Yes, you will wince as you are transported back to an era before time began (aka when our grandparents were 35). Because every time a black person appears, he or she is there solely to gush some variation on “I’ll handle that right away, white people, and thank you for the opportunity to serve!”
Your patience will not increase when you find out what a dope our Dracula is this time. Lon Chaney Jr has the job, and his intent with the role is hard to discern because he delivers his lines like it soaked up all his resources just memorizing them. There’s a chance his standing around is aimed at being lurksome. But when people don’t do what he says, instead of flashing supernaturally intense eyes or a sinister hypno-jewel, he… raises his voice and repeats his command.
And, quod dope, it develops that Drac aims to marry Kay and kick back in Louisiana because he has exhausted the blood of Transylvania. At Dark Oaks, “vital” blood will be easier to find. Yes, that is the plot: Dracula schemes to marry rich.
Which he botches. Like, he declares to the local authorities that no one can visit the property anymore… and then leaves the front door wide open when he goes to sleep at dawn. That’s a brand-new-henchman mistake, not a mastermind-level oversight. Naturally, heroes wander in and make all kinds of inconvenient discoveries. Oh man, what a dope this vampire is.
Hold on. Whoa. Hold it right the hell on.
The Rhett/Dracula match hit me when I went back for screen grabs. I mean come on:
This movie just got waaay more interesting. Because viewed through that mustache, it starts to stick a clever shiv into fellow plantation-based adventure Gone With the Wind (1939, therefore fresh in everyone’s 1943 mind).
What I mean is: The people I’ve met who love Gone With the Wind appear to think it’s a great romance. Let me tell you: My very different impression was that Scarlett O’Hara was a self-involved monster willing to kill a horse just to get where she wants to go a little faster. (She kills a horse. That is the best scene in the movie.) Maybe that’s who you gotta be to run a plantation? I feel like Scarlett O’Hara is a horrible person but the people I’ve met who love the movie never say, “Oof, more like Scarlett O’Hitler, amirite?” No, instead, they take on the dreamiest look. So I’m going to go out on a limb and postulate that the dreamy reaction was common in 1939-1943, and that Son of Dracula was made by people who looked at those people and thought, “Jesus.” And so they gave us Kay, a monster-movie version of Scarlett. Kay is a determined but not brilliant schemer willing to kill her father, alienate the town, pimp herself out to the undead…
So, wow. Maybe in all its depictions of black servility, this movie isn’t crazy racist—instead, it’s about crazy racism. Then, among all these white assnozzles clinging to the plantation and its antebellum dickwittery, vampirism becomes an analogy for institutional racism: not without its charms, I’m sure, but also a consistently brutal, soul-sucking force of evil that just won’t fucking die. Wow, movie!
And even Doc Brewster, our Van Helsing stand-in, is assiduously (that’s right) depicted as waited upon hand and foot by a black maid every minute he’s home. His relationship with her is not without affection, but it is clear who lives to serve. So the movie subtly indicts even its chief hero as beneficiary of a morally disastrous system. Like, he is kind of a vampire too. That’s great.
The problem is… uh… maybe the movie doesn’t intend any of this. Like, maybe we meet Brewster’s maid not because she’s here to remind us of Everything Wrong, but because the movie simply thinks she illustrates what a well-respected success story Doc B is.
Because what we’ve got here is a movie where the Alucard ruse fails immediately. Where Dracula has a foolproof underwater hiding place for his coffin and then for no reason moves it onto dry land where the good guys can find it. Where Drac & Kay concoct the stupidest possible cover story to keep curious locals away from the house (“We’re scientists now. We need total privacy to conduct experiments”). Where Drac kills the old man who owns the plantation so that his future wife can inherit it but doesn’t bother stepping on the cigar that is about to burn the place down.
So who knows. Maybe it is fully aware, undercutting Gone With the Wind superfans, the state of race relations in the American South 1865-1943, and “white privilege” in general. Orrrr maybe it is truly moronic, not even aware that it is about a vampire dumb enough to move to the one U.S. state so religious, the counties are called “parishes.”
Airtight fact: This movie has terrific CGI. We see vampires turn into bats, into smoke, into skeletons. There’s no panning away, we watch it happen—a big step forward since ’31. Plus this movie gets genuinely creepy/cool a couple times. There’s a scene of Dracula drifting over the waters of the swamp, and a shot of Kay sitting alone in bed—moments ghostly, moody, memorable. If only Bela Lugosi had played the man. He deserves to be in those moments, and he might have exerted his weirdness all over this sequel and made it great instead of the jumbled footnote it is.
Gavel Bang! Rank It!
Did this movie decide to make Dracula Hungarian for obscure World War II reasons? Dracula says Louisiana (or America?) is home to “a vital race”—is that wartime propaganda for a population hungry to think of those Euro-Nazis as a bunch of doomed subvitals? When he says “race,” does he mean American, or more specifically black or white? So many puzzles. What IS this movie up to? Here’s how it ends:
So I give (not lend!) Son of Dracula Three war bonds, in the hope it will sort itself out and win whatever war it’s fighting, unless victory means enslaving us on a vampire cotton farm. Who knows. I’m ranking it #287, after Monsters, Inc., which is equally scary, and above Barb-Wire, which equally should be better than it is.