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Universal Movie Monsters Sequel Mini Reviews: Dracula

by Steve Habrat

The first legendary monster from Universal Studios, Dracula is one of the most iconic movie monsters ever put on the big screen. Played brilliantly by Béla Lugosi, the original film recieved three sequels and a chilling Spanish language version. Without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews of the Dracula sequels. Just make sure you hold your crucifix close and have Van Helsing speed dial. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of Dracula (1931), click here .

Drácula (Spanish Version) (1931)

Young solicitor Renfield (Played by Pablo Álvarez Rubio) travels to Transylvania to meet the mysterious Count Dracula (Played by Carlos Villarías) about the Count’s recent purchase of a home in London. Upon Renfield’s arrival, he finds himself drugged and bitten by the Count’s trio of undead wives. With Renfield under his control, Dracula travels to London where he brings with him a plague of death and destruction. Shortly after his arrival, Dracula finds himself pitted against the cunning Professor Van Helsing (Played by Eduardo Arozamena), who is hell-bent on sending the undead terror back to his grave.

Shot at night on the same sets that Tod Browning and Béla Lugosi haunted, Drácula is a much more alive artistically than the rather comatose American version. Browning’s version was composed of multiple long shots that looked like the actors were performing on a giant stage rather than acting in a Hollywood motion picture. George Melford is much more sure of himself as he dares to move his camera around with the actors and in the process, wakes the film up from its dusty, cobwebbed slumber. Melford’s film also ends up being quite a bit longer than Browning’s, with a slower build up and a lengthier pay off than the sudden climax of the American version (this film is a whopping half-hour longer than Browning’s). It is blatantly apparent that this was made for an audience with a much longer attention span and a genuine love for character development. In addition to these touches, the film is much creepier than Browning’s, which ultimately gives it the upper hand. Your spine will tingle when Dracula’s brides emerge from their shadows and begin feeding upon the doomed Renfield and you’ll shiver when Dracula emerges from the dark depths of a ship braving stormy waters as Renfield roars with delight. The boat sequence was my personal favorite scene in the film. This one will give you nightmares, folks!

Then there is Villarías as Dracula and I must say, he comes dangerously close to toppling Lugosi but he just misses by a hair. The two have largely the same physical appearance but Villarías lacks the otherworldly gaze and the spidery fingers that Lugosi was so blessed with. However, Villarías has a curling lip and jagged sneer that makes him look like an unhinged madman who is seconds away from ripping out your jugular. He does have bulging eyes and a psychotic stare, which Melford likes to focus in on in extreme close-ups, but his gaze never really made my heart skip a beat. The rest of the actors and actresses do a fine job and match the American cast the entire way. Another standout is Rubio as Renfield, a man with a laugh that could wake the dead and a quiver that looks like the set temperature was below zero. It would have been perfect if Melford had included an equally hair-raising score but unfortunately, we don’t get one here. Still, Drácula is fully capable of giving you a few sleepless nights, that is, if you are one of the patient viewers. A stunning alternative that ranks as one of the best vampire films ever put on celluloid. Grade: A

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Picking up shortly after the events of 1931’s Dracula, the Hungarian countess Marya Zaleska (Played by Gloria Holden) emerges on the streets of London searching for the corpse of her father, Count Dracula. She is also searching for a way to rid herself of a mysterious curse that causes her to drink the blood of the living. With the help of her sinister manservant, Sandor (Played by Irving Pichel), Marya seeks out psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Played by Otto Kruger) in the hopes that he can cure her through scientific methods. Meanwhile, Professor Van Helsing (Played by Edward Van Sloan) is trying to convince Scotland Yard that there are vampires walking among the citizens of foggy London.

Exhibiting a much more artistic approach than Tod Browning’s original film, Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter is a creeping tale that draws you deep into its gothic atmosphere and slow building crescendo of tension. Rather than just a collection of stationary long shots of cobwebbed castles and misty gardens, Dracula’s Daughter is all damp, ominous streets and shadowy dens where Holden’s Marya grapples tragically with the curse that plagues her. The creepiest scenes come when Marya and Sandor slip around in the shadows and discuss ways to quench Marya’s unquenchable thirst. The film can also be relatively humorous, which does undercut some of the scares that generate, making Dracula’s Daughter a bit kid friendly, even more so than Dracula. Lengthy dry spots where thinly written background characters step into the frame and babble on, forcing us to drift out of the action until Holden reappears also trip up moments of Dracula’s Daughter.

Dracula’s Daughter is probably best remembered for the lesbian subtext that runs heavy through the second half of the film. This subtext is crystal clear in a sequence between Marya and a young girl named Lili (Played by Nan Grey), who is supposed to acting as a model for Marya. One thing is for sure, you have to see the scene to believe it. It is surprising that the scene made it past the production code authority but it actually makes Dracula’s Daughter all the more fascinating and thought provoking. It may not rank as one of the best Universal Movie Monsters sequels out there, but Dracula’s Daughter manages to be a smidgeon better than its predecessor, at least in construction. It would have also been nice to get a cameo from the legendary vampire himself but sadly, this film is Dracula-less. Overall, this gothic follow up will stick with you due to its dreary ambiance and nightmarish imagery that will have you switching the nightlight on before bed. Grade: B

 

Son of Dracula (1943)

After taking a trip to Hungry, the beautiful Kay Caldwell (Played by Louise Allbritton) returns to United States with a morbid curiosity with the supernatural. She returns to her family’s southern plantation with a gypsy fortuneteller named Madame Zimba (Played by Adeline DeWalt Reynolds) and the mysterious Count Alucard (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.), who only makes select appearances after the sun has gone down. After Madame Zimba warns Kay that death looms over the plantation, several individuals close to Kay are discovered dead. To make matters worse, Kay informs her fiancé Frank (Played by Robert Paige) that she does not intend to marry him anymore. She instead plans on marrying Count Alucard, with the hopes of obtaining immortality.

Don’t be fooled by the title, there is no son of Dracula in Son of Dracula. I guess it was just a catchy title that everyone could agree on. The third installment in Universal’s Dracula franchise does find the legendary bloodsucker (thankfully) returning after his absence in Dracula’s Daughter but this time he is portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr. Unlike Béla Lugosi, Chaney is never really able to own the fangs and it shows. Chaney lacks Lugosi’s horrific grin that just spelled pure evil and his piercing eyes, but he does an adequate job with the role. You are left wishing that Lugosi would show up and relieve Chaney of his duties here and sometimes, I got the feeling that Chaney was secretly hoping the same thing. His casting here has been widely considered one of the worst casting choices in the history of cinema and he does seem a bit awkward at times but he is aided by the stellar direction from Robert Siodmak, who ratchets up the eeriness with a relentlessly gloomy landscape.

More of a film noir with vibrations of terror, Son of Dracula has some superb moments of paranormal horror. Alucard drifts silently over the murky waters of a desolate swamp while another character chats with a ghost in a dingy jail cell as police officers murmur amongst themselves that the prisoner must be crazy. Dropping the comic relief that Dracula’s Daughter was fond of, Son of Dracula is done in by a thinly spread plot that ultimately got a bit monotonous for me. I did enjoy the somber tone and I have to say I really liked the scenes in which Alucard would transform from a bat into his human form. I also was quite fond of Allbritton’s distant femme fatale who has big plans for Chaney’s bloodsucker. I was thrown off by the idea that Dracu… I mean Alucard was looking to settle down and take a wife, especially after Dracula shows three of his wives slithering out of their graves. Overall, Son of Dracula plays things gravely serious and more power to it for that, but a bone-dry script and a dull monster cause the film to be a bit stiff. Grade: C+

 

House of Dracula (1945)

Count Dracula (Played by John Carradine) arrives in Visaria at the castle of Dr. Franz Edelmann (Played by Onslow Stevens) and asks the doctor to cure him of his vampirism. The good doctor agrees and just as he begins work on a cure, Larry Talbot (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr) comes knocking on his door seeking a cure him of his lycanthropy. As the doctor races to find cures for both monsters, he stumbles upon the ultimate discovery— Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Glenn Strange). With all the ghouls together, Dr. Edelmann races the clock to protect his two assistants, hunchbacked Nina (Played by Jane Adams) and beautiful Milizia (Played by Martha O’Driscoll), from certain death, but Count Dracula has other plans for Dr. Edelmann, a plot that could unleash pure evil on the local villagers.

The lash hurrah for three of the most iconic movie monsters in Universal’s arsenal, House of Dracula does end with a big bang, lots of flames, and even a few fireworks. You’d think with three of the studio’s main monsters in the same picture, there would be plenty of murder and mayhem to go around but sadly, that is not necessarily the case. There is quite a bit of down time in House of Dracula and only some of it works. A scene where Count Dracula attempts to seduce Milizia is effectively frightening and a horrific vision by Dr. Edelmann is a hair-raiser but things are forced here. Screenwriter Edward T. Lowe, Jr really hopes for smooth sailing but some of these chance encounters are strained, especially the way Frankenstein’s Monster is discovered. Furthermore, the film lacks the unshakable gothic mood of some of the better Universal horror offerings, which further throws the film off. Luckily, this monster mash only goes on for a measly sixty-seven minutes.

As far as acting is concerned, Chaney is the only one reprising a role that he perfected. Béla Lugosi is replaced by John Carradine, who does more with the role than Chaney did in Son of Dracula but still lacks the allure of Lugosi. Glenn Strange steps in for Boris Karloff and has little to do as the Monster. He mostly just stays rooted to an operating table and flails his arms around in the film’s final minutes. It is Chaney’s Talbot/Wolf-Man who really steals the picture with his sympathetic performance of a man terrified of himself. Stevens also does an above average job with Dr. Edelmann and gets to really have some nasty fun in the home stretch when he descends into madness. The other memorable aspect of House of Dracula is the inclusion of female hunchback Nina, an unusual touch for a horror film at this time. As the last gothic gasp before the explosion of atomic terror and Cold War fears, House of Dracula attempts to send the terrifying trio back to the grave in grandiose style but ends up ushering them out with a big yawn and a faint snore. Grade: C

 

Drácula (The Spanish Version), Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula are all available on DVD.

The Artist (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After its sweep at the Golden Globes, the silent French film The Artist finally received a wide theatrical release. With all the hoopla and chatter about how wonderful this film is, I braved a snowstorm with two of my buddies who were intrigued by a silent film but were conflicted on the idea of seeing one. So is it worth the hype? Yes, The Artist is a testament to our imagination and is a vivacious spectacle without explosions. It’s comical, touching, smooth, and cute with two leads who have classic Hollywood movie star stamped all over them. To be fair, it is a intrepid move on the part of the filmmaker and the studio to take a risk on this film, mostly because American audiences wouldn’t give it the time of day. Yes, it is silent and yes, you have to pay attention to the screen or else you will get lost. That means you have to slide your phone back into your pocket, pause the Angry Birds, and ignore that text for an hour and forty minutes.

The Artist picks up in 1927 with amiable silent film star George Valentin (Played by Jean Dujardin), who proudly wears a pencil-thin mustache, greased back hair, and bops around with his dog costar, at the height of cinematic fame. As he departs the premier of his new film, A Russian Affair, photographers swarm Valentin and in the hysterics, he bumps into a strikingly beautiful woman named Peppy Miller (Played by Bérénice Bejo). She plants a big kiss on Valentin’s cheek, igniting a swarm of speculation in the papers: “Who’s That Girl?” Peppy uses her tabloid fame to get a job as a back-up dancer for a movie studio where she slowly climbs the ladder of celebrity. While in production on another film, studio boss Al Zimmer (Played by John Goodman) approaches Valentin and tells him he has something to show him. Zimmer introduces Valentin to a new kind of film—the talkie! Valentin waves the talkie off as just a fad that will never catch on, but as the years pass, Valentin watches as audiences embrace the new approach to this medium. As a result, Valentin’s fame and fortune slowly fades away, leaving him a broken man. Peppy, on the other hand, finds herself rapidly rising as the new “It” girl in Hollywood.

The film tells a timeless tale, one we are all accustomed with—a story of swallowing one’s pride, adjusting to the new times, and reluctance to accept change. Yet director Michel Hazanavicius tells it with a fresh visual approach, making us forget we have heard this story before. I would say that The Artist turns itself into an event film, yes, like Avatar or Grindhouse, because it dares to show us something we do not go to the movies and see every week. Sure, it doesn’t feature blue aliens or go-go dancers with machine guns for legs, but it does transport us to the early years of cinema, much like Grindhouse took us back to the rundown movie palaces of the 1970’s and Avatar felt ripped from the distant future. It is not satisfied with simply evoking, much like the other nostalgic films of 2011 were. It is a blockbuster of romanticized imagery. I found myself wishing that I would have worn a three piece suit and the theater would have been filled with cigarette smoke.

The Artist features some dazzling physical performances from both Dujardin and Bejo, both sweeping us up with the batting of an eyebrow and a smile. Dujardin is so damn magnetic that I can’t wait to see what he does after this film. While he flashes pearly smiles and looks cool strutting in a tux, he is capable of dramatic emotional lows. We feel for him as his marriage and career unravels even if we are saying, ‘Told ya so” in the back of our minds. Dujardin really sparkles when he breaks into a tap dance or performs slapstick with his four-legged companion. Bejo blazes up the screen with her bouncy sexuality and old Hollywood glamour. She is classy even when she is haughty, an imagine she embraces even if she is aware that it isn’t her true character. When the two share a scene, they have unlimited chemistry that Hazanavicius is fully aware of. A tap dance sequence at the end of the film left me wishing for a musical sequel that would feature George and Peppy together again. Goodman as the studio boss is right on the money. It was strange not hearing his gruff voice but even silent and chomping on a cigar, he is just as scene stealing.

Don’t worry if you feel like a fish out of water when The Artist first rolls onto the screen. It will take you a minute to adjust to it but when you do, you will forget that it is silent. Ludovic Bource’s old-fashioned score is a standout, as the music was the punctuation to the stories being told in silent films. The real beauty of The Artist comes from the message it sends to the audience. Film doesn’t need sound or flashy set pieces to send a profound statement and sometimes minimalism can stir up the strongest emotions in any given individual. The most important aspect of any work of art is the love, care, and attention the artist gives to their work and their willingness to stand by it. The Artist is bursting with Hazanavicius’ love, care, and attention in every single frame, which is why this film wins us over. It speaks a universal language without saying anything at all.

Grade: A