Saturday, March 30, 1974 (Midnight): Son of Dracula (1943) / The Brighton Strangler (1945)

Synopsis: At the Caldwell plantation in Louisiana, a huge celebration has been prepared for the arrival of a Hungarian nobleman named Count Alucard. He has been invited by Kay, one of Colonel Caldwell’s two daughters.

Kay, we are told, has been interested in the occult for some time. Now she is acting strangely and her fiance, Frank, can’t fathom why. When the mysterious Count arrives, weird things start to happen. Col. Caldwell dies under mysterious circumstances. The will he drafted shortly before his death leaves all of the money to sister Claire, and only the plantation to Kay — but strangely, Kay seems perfectly satisfied with this arrangement.

That night, Kay and Alucard roust the justice of the peace out of bed and insist on being married immediately.

Frank, believing that Kay has fallen into the orbit of a con man, confronts Alucard with a revolver, but when he fires the bullets pass through the Count, killing Kay, who was standing behind him. Confused and distraught, Frank goes to see Dr. Brewster, who tells him he will look into the matter. But when Brewster visits Black Oaks he finds Kay very much alive, albeit a little spooky.

By the time he returns home he finds that Frank has turned himself in to the sheriff. Brewster insists that the whole thing is a mistake; he saw Kay late the previous evening, after Frank came to him with the story of the murder. But when the Sheriff searches the estate he finds Kay’s body and, sure enough, it’s thoroughly dead.

Now under suspicion as an accessory to murder, Brewster consults with Professor Lazlo, an expert on the occult. With Lazlo’s help Brewster begins to realize that Count Alucard is in fact Count Dracula, who has left his depleted homelands of Transylvania for fresh hunting grounds in America. Meanwhile, in his jail cell, Frank is visited by Kay, who tells him she doesn’t love Alucard, but has only been using him. Now that she is one of the undead, she can turn Frank into a vampire as well, and the two of them can destroy Alucard and begin their own immortal reign of terror….

Comments: Here’s a tip for you kids. If you’re ever an evil, undead Transylvanian nobleman who inexplicably decides to take up residence in a crumbling plantation on the Louisiana bayou, and you’re looking for an alias to use in order to throw nosy would-be vampire hunters off your trail, DON’T simply spell your name backwards. It’s not that clever an idea, and even worse, it won’t work.

In fact, from the opening scene in Son of Dracula, people are constantly saying things like, “Hmm, that’s funny….Alucard….when you read it backwards it says….nah, it couldn’t be!”

But the real reason people aren’t going to suspect this guy of being Dracula is that he’s being played by Lon Chaney, Jr.

Far be it from me to criticize the erstwhile Creighton Chaney as an actor — he was, after all, perfectly serviceable in The Wolf Man and its various sequels. And he was convincing as the easygoing Dan the Electrical Man in Man Made Monster, and as the brutal (and temporarily immortal) thug in otherwise forgettable The Indestructible Man. But placing Chaney in this role cruelly exposes his professional limitations.

Oh, they give him one of those pencil-thin David Niven mustaches, and a cape, and all sorts of courtly dialogue. But he still has about as much polish and sophistication as a gorilla wearing a leisure suit.

To make matters worse, the cast is swimming upstream against a sub-par script. The plot becomes so convoluted that I had a hard time even figuring out who was supposed to be the main character. It becomes clear early on that it isn’t Alucard; so isn’t it Kay? Wouldn’t a more appropriate title be Bride of the Son of Dracula?

Wait, it looks like the plot is beginning to center around Frank. Maybe we should go with Fiance of the Bride of the Son of Dracula.


But suddenly Dr. Brewster is taking center stage. That would make it Doctor to the Fiance of the Bride of the Son of Dracula. Except Lazlo checks in as the wise and all-knowing Van Helsing character in the third act, so maybe we end up with Friend of the Doctor To the Fiance of the Bride of the Son of Dracula.

Well, you get the idea. Alucard first gets double-crossed by his wife and then destroyed by a punk with a grudge against him. In many ways he’s the weakest character in the story, not much like a vampire at all. He’s really more like a second-rate mob boss who can turn into a bat and disappear into a puff of smoke.

The Brighton Strangler

Synopsis: Celebrated actor Reginald Parker (John Loder) has just completed a successful run on the London stage with the hit play The Brighton Strangler.  The theater manager ruefully notes that he could easily run the show for another year, and he’s sorry that Parker has decided to hang up the role.  So arresting is Parker’s performance that there’s no thought of bringing in another actor to play author-turned-murderer Edward Grey.  For audiences Parker is the Strangler.


It is December 23rd, and after wishing the cast and crew a happy Christmas, Parker prepares to leave the theater and rejoin his fiancee, who is also the author of the play.  But German bombers are making a nighttime raid on London.  Numerous bombs hit the neighborhood and the theater is destroyed.  Parker staggers away from the ruined building.  He’s gotten a nasty knock on the head and he is in a daze.  Has he forgotten who he is?  Not exactly; he remembers that he’s Edward Grey, and he heads to Victoria Station and buys a ticket to Brighton.

At the station he meets beautiful young April Manby (June Duprez), a WAAF heading home for Christmas.  Seeing that Parker — or rather, Grey — is injured, she helps daub a bit of blood off his forehead.  On the trip to Brighton she confides in him that she has secretly married her sweetheart, an American soldier named Bob Carson (Michael St. Angel).  Upon arriving, April is met by her parents, respected physician Dr. Manby (Gilbert Emery) and his wife (Lydia Bilbrook). They invite Grey to come over and celebrate Christmas Eve at their house the following evening.


The next night, Grey leaves his hotel room and walks to the Manby house.  Along the way he encounters the mayor of Brighton, Herman Brand (Ian Wolfe).  Grey accuses the kindly mayor of being the barrister who had betrayed him — a charge which puzzles Brand but which we know is taken from the play The Brighton Strangler.  Reaching into his pocket, Grey produces a silk cord, which he’d kept in his pocket after the show closed. He uses the silk cord to strangle Brand, and then proceeds to the Christmas party as though nothing has happened.


Late that evening, Chief Inspector Allison (Miles Mander) arrives at the Manby house.  Everyone is shocked to hear of the murder of the mayor. The following day, the police interview all new arrivals in town, including Grey.  Like the character in the play, Grey is outwardly pleasant and charming.  He says that he is staying in town to write a book, and that he is a friend of the Manby family.  Soon he is crossed off the list of suspects.


April is surprised to learn that Bob is able to join her in Brighton for a few days.  But because of the mayor’s funeral, she isn’t able to meet him at the station, and she asks Grey to meet him for her.  Grey meets Bob, and takes him over to the hotel.  But as Bob checks into his room, Grey goes to his own room and falls asleep.    He dreams that he is confronting Inspector Allison, who is now another of his persecutors from the play. 

As Bob goes over to his new friends’s room to knock, he overhears Grey talking angrily in his sleep — vowing revenge, and threatening to kill an unseen someone…. 

Comments: This enjoyable wartime programmer clocks in at only 67 minutes, and uses its time quite efficiently, but even so we are still able to see the seams and the plot holes. The most obvious one is rooted in the premise. Even people who have only lived for a short time on this planet know that a knock on the head doesn’t turn innocent people into murderers, but the conceit here is that Reginald Parker hasn’t entirely been himself lately — for the last year he has also been living the life of Edward Grey on the stage — and Grey just happens to be a serial killer.

One can only imagine the hijinks that would have ensued if Parker had instead been playing Mortimer Brewster or Algernon Moncrief at the time of his accident; that would, in fact, have made a pretty good Ealing Studios comedy.

The device of having someone hit in the head and losing their memory is a common one in film and television. It is something that actually can happen (it’s called organic retrograde amnesia), but it is rare, and unless there is permanent brain damage the victim regains the lost memories within hours.* Parker, of course, goes on to believe he is someone else entirely, an even rarer condition known as a dissociative fugue, a condition triggered by a psychological breakdown – it can’t be caused by a blow to the head.

Nevertheless the idea of not just losing your memory but assuming an entirely new identity was probably too tempting for the screenwriters to resist. I’m sure there were a number of movies and TV shows that used this device, but I can only think of one off the top of my head — a TV movie from 1976 called Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, in which a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed motorcycle cop (played by a pre-Dallas Larry Hagman) gets hit on the head and wakes up believing he is Holmes. Oddly enough he is magically endowed with Holmes’ legendary ability to solve crimes (as well as his ability to play the violin).  It was clearly the pilot for a TV series that never got picked up, so we didn’t find out if someone else wound up getting hit on the head and came to believe he was Professor Moriarty.

.

Of course, Return of the World’s Greatest Detective was meant as a little confection, nothing that you should linger over and analyze. Similarly, The Brighton Strangler was designed to be nothing more than an evening’s diversion for war-weary moviegoers. And on that level it works very well indeed. So let’s not be too hard on it, okay?
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*Interestingly, in movies and TV shows people are routinely knocked unconscious with a single punch to the head, and once out they stay that way for 20 minutes or so. In real life, it’s actually fairly difficult to knock someone unconscious, and if they remain out for more than a minute or so they’ve probably suffered a serious brain injury.

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