Halloween Helpings: Some Observations on 1943’s Son of Dracula

I) Vampires and Diet:

A viewing of Universal’s 1943 horror opus Son of Dracula prompts the following observation: Nobody likes a fat vampire. In the popular imagination, vampires are always fashionably svelte. Our modern conception of them is even close to emaciation, if those wispy teen bloodsuckers of the Twilight film series are any indication. Not to mention the metrosexual vamps of the True Blood TV show, who look as if they spend as much time pumping iron in a gym as pumping blood from their victims. Yes sir, the vampire of today exemplifies the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and a low-fat diet, and you probably can’t get a diet any more fat-free than what sustains Dracula and his ilk.

Vampiric Diet: Lon Chaney as Dracula about to partake of dinner.

The mention of Dracula brings up the original Count himself and his famously trim outline. The tradition of the skinny vampire didn’t begin with Interview With a Vampire’s Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt sucking in their cheeks to give themselves that modishly hollow look. In Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula is described as a tall, thin gentleman, and his portrayers have generally followed suit. The three most famous movie Draculas, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and Christopher Lee, were tall, lissome guys, with just the right lean look for those body-defining white-tie evening clothes that an aristocratic fellow in Dracula’s station in life must affect. Carradine was so thin his profile even stuck out at bony angles, as if any wastefully spare flesh had been scraped away, prior to his walk down the runway modeling the latest in high-necked capes (stroll down the ramp here, pause, turn, then swirl the cape round, so the front-row customers can get a good look at that red-silk lining).

Weight Watchers: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi are three very thin Draculas.

We haven’t even gotten to the cadaverous Max Schreck of Murnau’s famous silent Dracula rip-off, Nosferatu. Schreck looks as if he could have slipped out of his coffin without bothering to raise the lid.

The thinnest Dracula of all: Max Schreck occupies very little screen space as Nosferatu

However we may imagine Dracula, we never think of him as pudgy.

That’s until Lon Chaney, Jr. came along. Chaney, the title star of Son of Dracula, had by then done about all the other monsters in Universal’s canon: He was the original Wolf Man and had also taken a crack at the Mummy and the Frankenstein Monster. So maybe the big chiefs at the studio thought Chaney should, uh, flesh out his resumé with the guy who started the 1930s horror craze, Dracula himself. We should probably take that back about Chaney having done all of Universal’s monsters, as he never did the Invisible Man nor the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Chaney was a big, hefty chunk of an actor (he first made his mark as the giant Lenny in 1939’s Of Mice and Men), with a large, blocky head and a well-defined paunch. It’s hard to think of him undertaking those last two monsters. There seems too much of him to become invisible; and a clinging wet suit wouldn’t have suited him at all.

Stout Fellow: Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dracula/Alucard, about to get some exercise with a shovel.

But here he is as the son of Dracula, presumably the heir to a line of lanky lords who never tipped the scale above 160 pounds. Dracula, or Alucard, as he’s called in the film (merely reverse the spelling), shows up at the home of a wealthy family in the Louisiana bayou, invited there expressly by the elder daughter, Katherine (Louise Allbritton). The count has accepted the invitation because, as he explains, the population of his own European country has lost its vigor. There’s no more pickin’s for this picky fellow to feed on. As the old joke goes, if there’s a famine in the country, Alucard probably caused it. So like any good trencherman, he’s just following his stomach; and the New World offers a more nutritious menu. Alucard’s not what you would call obese; but let’s just say that there’s enough of him to be charmingly chubby. The kind of guy who may have been athletic in his youth, but now, liking his homey pleasures a bit too much, has acquired that spare tire around the middle. It’s not surprising when, midway through the film, Alucard, having married Katherine, settles comfortably into her Louisiana mansion. There he goes, stately, plump Count Alucard, pattering about the old homestead in his bathrobe and slippers. Just sit him down by the fire, give him a pipe, a good book and a glass of his favorite…beverage, and he’s all set. It makes for such a cozy, domestic scene, don’t you think?

At Home with the Alucards: a VERY pale Louise Allbritton (left) sits up in bed, while a robed Alucard (Chaney, on right) greets house guest Frank Craven (center).

II) Noir Implications:

Two examples of noir stylistics in Son of Dracula: 1) Stark shadows are cast on the wall just before Alucard enters the scene. 2) High contrasts in lighting emphasize Allbritton’s sinister appearance.

We don’t wish to sound as if we’re picking on Lon Chaney here, who’s actually not bad in his Dracula role. With his silver-touched hair and elegant clothes, he looks the very image of European nobility—that is, until he opens his mouth. Then any illusion of Continental sophistication fades like the darkness at dawn. Chaney lacks the incisive tones that Lee or the orotund boom that Carradine brought to the part. If Carradine’s Count sounds like a ham Shakespearean actor (which Carradine, in part, was), Chaney’s sounds like an American gangster. It’s that distinctly flat, nasal twang of his, combined with an emphatic, unnuanced vocal delivery. He really does sound as if he has an offer for you that you can’t refuse—which happens to be eternal life as one of the undead. (For an idea of how Chaney sounds, go to about the five-minute mark in the clip below:) 

That, essentially, is SOD’s plot twist: Katherine, knowing very well who the Count is, has explicitly accepted that offer. She wants to become a vampire and achieve immortality—the kind where you get to party all night, sleep all day, and wear ultra-chic evening clothes all the time. It’s how an adolescent might picture the Afterlife (which may explain the teen-angled popularity of the Twilight series). However, Katherine, although having married Alucard, doesn’t intend to stick to her vows. Her real intention is to offer immortality to her long-suffering beau (Robert Paige) so that they may live forever in eternity to come. But first the beau has to get rid of Alucard, who now occupies the category of inconvenient spouse. What started out as a horror film seems to have taken a sharp left turn into Double Indemnity territory. Katherine doesn’t sport an ankle bracelet, but she’s as cold-blooded (if you’ll pardon the pun) as any ambitious vamp out of James M. Cain.

Till Death Do Us Part: Katherine marries Alucard for a chance at immortality.

As the mention of Double Indemnity indicates, although SOD features the familiar vampire trappings—fog, darkness, swirling mist, swirling cloaks, eyes glowing in the dark, and bats flapping against the window pane—it exhibits a marked noirish atmosphere. Not only does it make use of stark, diagonal shadows and ominous lighting, it has that particularly fatalist sensibility of great noir. Note particularly its unhappy ending, in which the romantic lead must cremate his beloved’s body in order to save her soul. SOD’s director, Robert Siodmak, made some of the best-known noir classics, including The Killers, Phantom Lady, The Spiral Staircase, Criss-Cross, The File on Thelma Jordan, and Christmas Holiday. (He also directed the camp classic Cobra Woman, which features Maria Montez wriggling to beat the band in her Cobra dance, but we’ll leave that one aside.) Siodmak and his cinematographer, George Robinson (who’s probably best known for his work on the eerily suggestive Dracula’s Daughter of 1936), create some startling effects, one of the best being the camera sweeping back from an interior party scene to a sinister-looking person standing outside. That person happens to be Alucard, who then turns and looks right at the camera, breaking the fourth wall to stare at the audience. This direct confrontation with the viewer is one of the most unsettling moments in the film, as if the vampire intends to share a secret with us. Siodmak doesn’t take the implications of this scene beyond Alucard’s bold glance, but it does create a mystery around his character that even Chaney’s bland performance can’t dispel. (To see this shot, scroll forward to about the six-minute mark in the clip below:)

III) The Migrating Wig Mystery:

Fashionable Topping: Allbritton in her brunette forties-fashion wig.

Speaking of mysteries, we all love one, don’t we, and SOD has one of its own—what we call the Mystery of the Migrating Black Wig. It’s not a mystery within the film itself; we’ll call it an extra-digetic adventure. Our search began one dim, foggy evening, when, having just laid down our violin to partake of tea brought to us by our faithful landlady, Mrs.—no, wait, wrong narrative. Actually, our search begins with our taking note of the striking wig that adorns Louise Allbritton (see photo above)—embodying, with its bangs, top curls, and pageboy flip, echt 1940s styling (it also gives Allbritton an odd resemblance to Rosalind Russell).

Jeez Louize: Beautiful Louise Allbritton with her natural blonde locks and a different kind of topping.

Allbritton was actually a vivacious blonde actress, who appeared in such bubbly comedies as Sitting Pretty, The Egg and I, and San Diego, I Love You. However, in SOD, since she’s sort of the villainess, the powers that be presumably decided to top her off with a false top to give her a more sinister look. Still, we thought the wig looked vaguely familiar. Somewhere, we mused, we’d seen that hairpiece before. Some concentrated squinting at the screen and rummaging through our cinematic memory finally stirred up a clue. We’re not claiming it’s the same wig, only the resemblance, once the top curls are removed, is striking:

Silence, Please: Jean Brooks in similar black wig in Val Lewton’s production of The Seventh Victim.

Jean Brooks was another blonde actress who donned a black peruke for her role in a horror film. In RKO’s 1943 The Seventh Victim, she’s an inscrutable, neurotic woman who’s on the run from a society of devil worshippers. Perhaps the wig was meant to make her look more mysterious, but for us it produced the opposite effect. Shaped like a large, furry Samurai helmet, the wig simply takes over Brooks’ face; she looks like a small, porcelain doll, the kind with those mechanical eye-lids that click up and down whenever it moves:

Doll Face: Brooks’ face overwhelmed by the Wig.

But now the Mystery of the Migrating Wig had taken hold of our senses!, and we pursued our researches further. Next candidate: Virginia Christine in The Mummy’s Curse of 1944:

When I Was a Queen in Babylon: Virginia Christine as the resurrected Egyptian princess in The Mummy’s Curse.

Like Allbritton and Brooks, Christine was an attractive blonde called on to play the sinister woman in a horror film. Here she’s the resurrected Princess Anaka, a mummified Egyptian princess who comes back to life in the Louisiana swamp. How an Egyptian mummy ends up in a Louisiana swamp is never explained; the plot instead follows her pursuit by the lovelorn Kharis, the titular, revived Mummy (Chaney) who loved her way back when in ancient Egypt, and lost his life in trying to bring her back to the land of the living. No doubt, Anaka’s Egyptian origins called for appropriate Egyptian-style headgear, and hence Virginia’s blonde hair was covered up. It also meant that for some scenes poor Virginia had to be entirely wrapped up for the full mummy-in-the-swamp effect:

All Wrapped Up: Christine has to crawl out of the swamp in her mummy get-up.

By now, we’re aware of all you die-hard noir fans out there, frantically waving your hands and calling our attention to another be-wigged actress with a similar sable-locked look. We refer, of course, to Jean Simmons in Otto Preminger’s 1952 Angel Face. Simmons wasn’t a blonde, but she got the wig because, not wanting to make the movie at all (she was involved at the time in a contract dispute with producer Howard Hughes), she chopped off her own hair. The undaunted Otto obtained a wig and Simmons finished out her contract. Still, the wig gives Simmons a decidedly perverse look:

She’s No Angel: Jean Simmons as the disturbed femme fatale (complete with wig) in Preminger’s Angel Face.

But let’s hop back one square to the Mummy in the Bayou. That Egyptian connection gave us the biggest clue as to the wig’s origins:

It’s More Than the Wig: Incomparable Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra.

The Queen of the Nile herself! Claudette Colbert in deMille’s 1934 Cleopatra wears what seems to be the grandmother of all the other wigs we’ve mentioned. And the circle is completed when we realized that Cleo could even be said to have a connection with Dracula and vampires. You might say that she herself was the original vampire—in what is the Kipling, rather than the Universal studio, sense of the word.

The Woman Who Did Not Care: Colbert almost wearing her Cleopatra costume.

And if, at this late date, you’re still looking for costume ideas for your Halloween party, you could do worse than Claudette as Cleo. You wouldn’t need much—indeed, from the amount of Colbert seen exposed above, you would need just the barest minimum—a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair (or, in this case, a substantial wig), and you’re all set!

Happy Halloween.

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