House of Dracula is one of Universal's portmanteau movies, in this case bringing together Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster. It had never even occurred to me to take these things seriously. I'd always mentally shelved it alongside the Abbott & Costello films (one of which is incidentally a direct sequel to this, making a trilogy with House of Frankenstein). However I'd been getting back into the Universal classics, so I ordered the monster mash-ups on DVD. Horror of Dracula happened to come first and I watched it. I must now admit that I was wrong. It's great!
Specifically it's a proper movie rather than a spoof, cash-in or camp runaround, easily deserving a place alongside their better-known horror films. It looks great. It's well shot, it plays its monsters for real and it takes itself seriously. Dr Edelman is a brilliant doctor performing pioneering treatments for apparently incurable conditions. Soon two of his patients are Count Dracula and the Wolfman, with Frankenstein's monster waiting in the wings. Can he cure them? Can he save himself?
First up, Dracula (or as he sometimes calls himself here, Baron Latos). He's played by John Carradine, who's rubbish. Oh, he's tall, he's handsome and he looks good in the costume. However he's pretty much sleepwalking through the role, doing nothing whatsoever to shed light on the script's big unanswered question. Dracula came to Dr Edelman to escape his "life of misery and horror". However on the other hand, he's still unapologetically evil and goes around doing appalling things for kicks. Dracula's the one and only baddie. The Wolfman hates his condition and Frankenstein's monster is dead to the world for almost the whole movie. The script gives no explanation for what the hell Dracula thinks he's up to and John Carradine doesn't seem to have much of a clue either.
In his scenes with Dr Edelman he's a blank. He walks, he talks and he doesn't bump into the furniture. He's a little more sinister when making the moves on one of Edelman's nurses, but even so that's not what I'd call a performance. It also breaks the vampire rules, in that female vampires are classically allowed to bemoan their condition and seek a cure (c.f. Carmilla) but male vampires aren't. They've started doing so in more modern vampire films, but only the narcissistic and annoying ones. On the upside, though, they have an astonishing special effect for turning Dracula into a bat. It's fantastic! I couldn't believe it! How did they do that?
He looks weird in a top hat, though.
Lon Chaney Jr is back again as the Wolf Man. Karloff and Lugosi both ended up relinquishing their signature roles, but every time we met Larry Talbot he was Chaney. (That's five films, in case you were wondering.) I thought he was great, actually. It's the same performance we've seen before, but that doesn't mean it's not a good one. Chaney's Talbot is a thoroughly nice guy who's been driven to despair by his condition. You'll like him. He's cool.
About Frankenstein's monster there's little to be said. Suffice to say that despite the fact that the role is being played by Glenn Strange (who played the monster in the 1940s and 1950s), as far as I can tell you see almost as much of the monster as Boris Karloff (in footage lifted from Bride of Frankenstein) and Lon Chaney Jr (Ghost of Frankenstein). He doesn't get much to do, although you'll never forget about him. He's the self-destruct button waiting to happen, the sword hanging over our heads. Dr Edelman finds the monster's body and carries it back to the sanitarium, after which you're just waiting for the inevitable to happen. He's just lying there on a slab. The equipment's ready and waiting.
Other cool stuff includes Dr Edelman's hunchback assistant (officially turning him into a mad scientist), who also happens to be a beautiful girl. This film has an awesome cast. Even the bit players are a laugh, such as Skelton Knaggs as a freaky-faced inbred local and Lionel Atwill back again as the local authority figure. I recognised his face and was ready to swear up and down that he'd been the policeman in Casablanca, but I was getting him confused with Claude Rains. Both of them were veterans of Universal horror films, for what it's worth.
Apparently this film started life as a treatment for "The Wolf Man vs. Dracula", rejected by the Hays Office as too violent. That could explain the underuse of Frankenstein's monster. It's also the only Universal Frankenstein film to star neither Karloff nor Lugosi.
I take back everything I said about portmanteau movies. They're fun! If nothing else, you'll have no idea where the story might be going. There's no road map. The writers could do anything. My only comment is that until Dracula proved to be evil after all, I was wondering where the story was going to come from. Everyone seemed to have good intentions and to be on the level. Oh, and the nature of Dr Edelman's character (a medical miracle worker) means we get medical technobabble that explains away vampirism and lycanthropy. The former is merely weak, but the latter is hilarious.
That's about it, really. Initial prejudice = You Must Be Joking. Final reaction = That Was Actually Good. Go watch it.