Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part II – The Dracula Series (1931-1945)

I recently reviewed the classic Frankenstein film series by Universal and am continuing on in my quest to cover all their old school horror franchises. This round, I am reviewing the Dracula series.

Dracula (1931):

Release Date: February 12th, 1931 (New York Premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning, Karl Freund (uncredited)
Written by: Garrett Fort
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

Universal Pictures, 85 Minutes 

dracula1931Review:

Dracula was released the same year as Frankenstein and both of these films started what became the Universal Monsters franchise, which also encompassed a film series for The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. By the end of the franchise’s run, these monsters started crossing over into each other’s films. In the beginning however, they were focused on one monster and on creating a terrifying piece of film art. Dracula in many ways is a masterpiece.

Starring the iconic and legendary Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, the first film in the series was eerie, chilling and an incredibly fantastic adaptation for the resources of the time. It was directed by Tod Browning and Karl Freud (who was uncredited). Browning was also known for directing the infamous film Freaks, a year later. Regardless of which director was responsible for what, the end result was a film that still holds a place in the upper echelon of great horror films. Historically, it is still one of the top five Dracula films ever made.

This movie made Bela Lugosi a household name. He is still the most recognized version of Dracula in human history. In fact, just about every Dracula since has tried to emulate what Lugosi did in this film. He made the role his and this is one of the most iconic performances in cinema history.

Apart from the mesmerizing performance of Bela Lugosi, I have to point to Dwight Frye. Frye gave us the best version of Renfield that has ever appeared on film, even to this day – 83 years later.

Additionally, Dracula is gothic horror perfection, visually speaking. There are very few films that have been able to emulate the ambiance of this picture. Although, hundreds have tried.

If you are ever going to give a course on the history of horror movies, this, along with Universal’s Frankenstein, must be showcased.

Dracula – The Spanish Version (1931):

Release Date: March 11th, 1931 (Havana Premiere)
Directed by: George Melford
Written by: Baltasar Fernández Cué, Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, Eduardo Arozamena

Universal Pictures, 104 Minutes 

draculaspanishReview:

The Spanish language version of Dracula is pretty unique. It was filmed alongside the Bela Lugosi film using the same sets. The English version filmed during the day and the Spanish version filmed at night. Both movies had two entirely different casts and the Spanish cast and crew had the benefit of watching the English version being made, which gave them an edge when they went on to film the same scenes. The Spanish cast and crew wanted to make the superior version and according to many historians and critics, they did.

Conde Dracula was played by the very talented Carlos Villarías, who may not have been as iconic as Bela Lugosi in the role but wasn’t too far behind him either. Villarías was legitimately scary and acted with his facial expressions much more than Lugosi.

A notable difference with this film is that the girls were able to show a bit more skin. The dresses were different even though the wardrobe for the male stars was generally the same.

Also, some of the scenes played out longer, giving the film a slower pace. Actually, the film is about a half hour longer than the English version.

While I prefer the English version, the Spanish film is a solid piece of work and worth a watch by classic horror aficionados.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936):

Release Date: May 11th, 1936
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Written by: Garrett Fort
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by:
 Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

draculas_daughterReview:

Dracula’s Daughter was the first sequel to the Bela Lugosi classic. Unfortunately, Lugosi would never reprise the role of Dracula (for fear of being typecast) but Universal wanted to capitalize on the character after the success of Bride of Frankenstein.

This film follows a completely new character, Countess Marya Zaleska played by Gloria Holden. Zaleska is the daughter of Dracula and she shows up after her father’s death to properly dispose of his corpse in an effort to free herself from vampiric urges. One thing leads to another and eventually, the urges take over.

Holden’s performance as Zaleska was pretty enthralling and the premise was interesting enough but I feel like this film was a pretty weak sequel, especially after how well Bride of Frankenstein followed Frankenstein.

This film wasn’t as huge of a hit as Dracula but it did go on to spawn more sequels in the franchise.

Son of Dracula (1943):

Release Date: November 5th, 1943
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Curtis Siodmak, Eric Taylor
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by:
 Hans J. Salter
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 80 Minutes 

son-of-draculaReview:

How do you get things rolling again after a seven year hiatus in the Dracula series? Well, you hire Lon Chaney Jr. to play the son of Dracula. In this film, Dracula’s offspring uses the name Count Alucard (Dracula spelled in reverse). While that has been done in other Dracula tales, I believe that this was where it originated.

This chapter is also unique in that it takes place in and around New Orleans, which is a place that would become synonymous with vampire-lore after Anne Rice penned Interview With A Vampire decades later.

I prefer this film to the previous one and it is the best of the Dracula sequels. Chaney does a great job as the antagonist and even if he is villainous, he feels like a tragic character in the same fashion that he does when he plays the Wolf Man.

House of Dracula (1945):

Release Date: December 7th, 1945
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Dwight V. Babcock, George Bricker
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: William Lava (uncredited)
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

house-of-draculaReview:

This is the film where all of the classic monsters ended their run. There was one other film that featured them Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but that was more of a parody than anything.

Like House of Frankenstein, the year before it, this film featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. It also had a mad scientist and a hunchback character – this time a female. I’m not quite sure why they never threw the Mummy or the Invisible Man into these crossover pictures and the Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon is excluded because his first film actually came out nine years later.

This film features John Carradine returning as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. returning as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange returning as Frankenstein’s monster. This film would’ve benefited from the inclusion of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone but that much star power may have caused the Earth’s magnetic poles to reverse.

This film is entertaining and it is a proper goodbye to these beloved characters. While I have no problem with Carradine as Dracula and Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, it would have been nice to see these characters go out with the original actors back in these parts. The amazing believably that Lon Chaney Jr. can bring to any role actually propelled this film forward and once again showed how talented he was as he stole the scene every time he walked on screen.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Mummy series.

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