Friday, September 5, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

I've generally tended to view 1945's HOUSE OF DRACULA as the poor cousin of the previous year's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, even though the films shared the same director, Erle C. Kenton, and one of the credited writers, Edward T. Lowe Jr.  In my review I championed HOF for its "dark romanticism," while admitting that the film had a strong appeal to me in that it was the first "Classic Universal" horror-film I ever saw.  When I saw HOUSE OF DRACULA much later, it seemed to me that it had none of the previous film's romanticism, as well as an even more rickety plot.  However, on a recent re-screening, I find that HOD has its own strengths.

The greatest contrast between the two plots relates to nature of the "mad scientist" protagonist in each. The 1944 film had an active agent who brought three monsters into his sphere, though not always intentionally. By stealing Lampini's wagon, Doctor Niemann gets ahold of the corpse of Dracula and makes the vampire do his bidding  Later, when Niemann deliberately seeks out the Frankenstein Monster, he also finds the Wolf man. He plans to use both of them in his revenge against old enemies, though he seems to take his bloody time to execute said revenge-- just long enough, in fact, for the Wolf Man to set off a chain of events that dooms the mad doctor's plans.

In the 1945 film, however, all roads lead to the home of Doctor Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a researcher who lives in a castle-cum-laboratory in the monster-haunted Middle European realm of Visaria.  Edelmann does absolutely nothing to solicit the three monsters who, by devious routes, make their way to him, nor has he any grand plans for vengeance.  Edelmann is the ethical opposite of crazed egotist Niemann, for he and his two lab assistants-- gorgeous Milizia and tragic, hunchbacked Nina-- are busy researching a species of plant-spore whose fluids can soften bone and make difficult operations easy.  Edelmann plans to operate upon Nina and reshape her back as soon as he can harvest enough of the rare fluid.

Dracula (John Carradine), again keeping a discrete distance from the other two monsters, arrives first to ask Edelmann's help. In contrast to other Universal Draculas, this one has become weary of his life as an immortal bloodsucker. Edelmann is leery of this supernatural creature, but scientific curiosity-- as well a Christian religiosity rare in Universal scientists-- move the doctor to examine the vampire. Edelmann prescribes a blood transfusion treatment to rid the Count of his diseased blood-cells, and the doctor even allows Dracula to keep his coffin in the castle's basement.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) shows up on Edelmann's doorstep slightly later, having apparently read the same scientific papers that Dracula did. He explains his werewolf curse to Edelmann and later has himself locked in the town jail so that Edelmann, Milizia, and local constable Holtz (Lionel Atwill) can witness his transformation. Edelmann eventually comes up with a method to cure lycanthropy, but it requires a great quantity of the spore-juice, so that Edelmann can perform operation to relieve pressure on Larry's brain and free him from the werewolf curse.

(Possibly this business about Larry's head-injury hearkens back to 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, for in that film Doctor Mannering observes that Larry has recovered from head-wounds, which the viewer knows were inflicted by Larry's father at the end of 1941's WOLF MAN. But in that film no head-trauma was involved in Larry's curse.)

Larry, impatient with the delays, tries to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean from a cliff near the castle. Edelmann goes after Larry and finds him alive, but transformed into a killer werewolf. Fortunately for the doctor, the full moon wanes just in time to banish the wolf and bring back the man.  The search for Larry also reveals that both the body of the Frankenstein Monster and the skeleton of Doctor Niemann have improbably ended up in a cavern beneath Edelmann's castle-- so that now Edelmann himself gets the idea of reviving the Monster. Unlike most mad scientists in this series, Edelmann lets himself be convinced to put the Monster on the back-burner, influenced by Larry's advice to keep hands off.

Up to this point Edelmann is perhaps the most monster-friendly scientist of all time: he feels pity for all three monsters, and does what he can to alleviate their sufferings. However, Dracula soon goes back to his old vampiric ways, for he fancies Milizia and wants to add her to his vampire harem.  When Edelmann attempts the next transfusion, Dracula double-crosses the doctor and causes Edelmann to receive vampire-blood-- a much less visceral way of blood-transfer than one sees in the Stoker novel.

Edelmann doesn't become a vampire, though. Instead, he transforms into a sort of manic "Mister Hyde." The doctor manages to maintain his good self for a while, exposing Dracula's sleeping body to the sun and destroying it, and then performing the crucial operation on Larry, curing him of werewolfism. But "Hyde" will have his day. Edelmann has dreams of unleashing the Monster's power on the world, and, more perversely, of first curing Nina of her deformity and then strangling her. Evil-Edelmann kills one of the locals-- easily the film's scariest scene-- and the constable suspects Larry of the crime. But Edelmann is exposed in the end: he makes his dream come true by choking Nina to death, and then successfully revives the Monster. In an ironic touch, Larry, who has been saved from his curse, is forced to shoot Edelmann to end the physician's affliction. Unfortunately, the hurry-up-and-finish conclusion undermines the emotional tone:the Monster is apparently-- and too easily-- destroyed in a blazing laboratory and Larry escapes with Milizia, his new lover.

HOD's idea of treating monsters with modern medicine proves inimical to the atmosphere of fantasy pervading the early Universal works. But the film remains interesting, for it's arguable as to how the viewer ought to regard Edelmann's sense of Christian charity.  Clearly he's taking a much higher road than many previous Frankensteins, both "real" and "would-be."  Yet, he's destroyed because of his pity and generosity, and even Larry, who has actually been a monster, counsels him not to extend his charity to a kindred creature.   Though the film wasn't necessarily meant to take a distinct moral view, it does sound like the reigning ethos here remains the old  "don't meddle in things beyond the pale of science."

In closing I'll note that Onslow Stevens gives his Jekyll-Hyde mad scientist great intensity, and easily wins the honors for the film's "best monster."

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