It's the Lon Chaney Jr. Dracula! That's what I was thinking. Dear old Lon Chaney Jr, that sweet old heffalump who also happened to be one of the mainstays of one of the great horror studios, appears here in his least likely role. Burdened with a moustache and perhaps a more rounded midriff than most vampires, he's been attacked in the past as wrong for the role of Dracula. However I'm a Chaney fan and I was looking forward to this.
In the end, I thought he was surprisingly subtle and good. Not "watch this now" amazing, but good. He's following in the footsteps of Gloria Holden in that he's portraying a character with inner life rather than simply an animal, but he's livelier than she was. Sometimes he can seem to be underplaying it, but then someone gets him mad and you realise that he's doing something rather unusual in vampire cinema. He has motivation. He listens to his fellow actors and reacts to them. He's acting instead of just glowering.
Most screen vampires have only two modes: "being polite to the little humans" and "snarling beast". There's more than that to Chaney's Dracula. He's a less striking actor than Lugosi or Karloff, but I think he tended to give a more complete performance than they did. Note that for once the trademark Chaney childlike vulnerability has been erased. I also think he looks good in the role. Somehow he makes the moustache work, while his size makes him the only black-and-white vampire who might have lasted five seconds in a fight with Christopher Lee. I even don't mind his American accent, which he's not even trying to hide.
Incidentally, I don't think he's playing the original Count Dracula. Universal always tried to be as literal as possible about these things. Ghost of Frankenstein really does contain you-know-who's ghost. Gloria Holden really was Dracula's daughter in Dracula's Daughter. The film itself could be read either way, but if nothing else, the title seems to suggest that this Son of Dracula is indeed his son rather than the man himself, with the title and name having simply been inherited. This would presumably make John Carradine in the "House of..." films yet another descendant, then. Inbred step-nephew, perhaps. Besides, they have changed the actor. I know we're normally expected not to notice these things, but this is Universal we're talking about here. This theory would even explain that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein line about Bela Lugosi's Dracula being "the original", a family line of Draculas being in many ways more sensible than Hammer's never-ending sequence of resurrections.
What about the film? Broadly speaking, its first act is a bit rubbish, but then it comes alive with a bang and just keeps getting better. Its first twenty minutes left me a bit bored, largely thanks to the acting of Louise Allbritton. Upstaged by her own breasts, she's fairly rubbish and keeps everything tepid. The best scenes in Act One are those where she's absent.
However Robert Paige is fantastic as Frank Stanley and the real power fuelling the film. Things perk up once he's been drawn into the plot, which surprisingly enough turns out to be interesting. Vampire films tend to have thin plots even by the standards of the horror genre, but I liked this.
There's some offbeat vampire lore, while the obligatory info-dump doesn't come until the 49-minute mark. I'd even dared to hope that it wouldn't come at all. Spelling out the rules is obviously more audience-friendly, but this film's Dracula has some mildly surprising powers and it's much more fun to be allowed to discover them. Among other things, this was the first film to show a vampire changing into a bat, thanks to John P. Fulton. He'd been Universal's special effects wizard since The Invisible Man in 1933 and he won an Oscar in 1957 for The Ten Commandments. This is also the only film I know of that says vampires are also werewolves, while another peculiarity is the fact that they can't be killed at night! Presumably if you hammered a stake through their hearts, they'd just pull it out again and bite your head off unless it happened to be morning. There's also a novel way of treating vampire bites. That was weird.
I believe this was also the first film to use the Alucard pseudonym. That was stupid.
This might be the only black-and-white Universal horror film that's set in the USA. I haven't gone through and checked, but it feels that way. All the others seem to have been set either in England or somewhere near Transylvania. This however is set in the Deep South, with plantations and black servants, which might explain why a page of one book on Dracula is made up of the same text repeated three times. Presumably they don't read much in Louisiana.
Despite James Whale, I think I prefer Universal's Dracula films to their Frankenstein ones. Both had some magnificent performances, but the latter were more lively and inventive. The Frankensteins hit their groove immediately and never really seemed to want to leave it, whereas all of the Dracula films were completely different from each other. I dislike John Carradine, but the Glenn Strange Monster is a poor shadow of his Karloffian glories and those films are Frankenstein-Dracula crossovers anyway. Despite a slow beginning, I find Son of Dracula one of Universal's strongest and also more imaginative horror offerings. It took me a while to accustom myself to Chaney's Dracula, but in the end I thought he was impressive and very much giving his own performance in the role. He's imitating neither Lugosi nor Holden, but creating something that feels fresh even today.
Not to be confused with the 1974 film of the same name starring Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. I think I've just found myself a favourite.