Saturday, April 1, 1978: Son of Dracula (1943) / Captive Wild Woman (1943)

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.

Captive Wild Woman

Synopsis: Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returns from a two-year trip to Africa, where he has been gathering wild animals for the Whipple Circus. He is particularly proud of a gorilla he’s captured named Cheela, whom he has taught a number of tricks on the long sea voyage home.

His girlfriend Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers) is glad to see him, but she reveals some developments that she hasn’t shared via letter since Fred went on his journey. Beth’s sister Dorothy (Martha Vickers) has been deeply troubled, and her doctors have concluded that her problems are glandular in nature. She took Dorothy to see Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), an expert on glandular problems, and Dorothy is now hospitalized at his sanitorium. She also shares that Dr. Walters has shown a keen interest in Beth, and has taken her to dinner several times.

Perhaps looking to size up the competition, Mason goes with Beth and meets Dr. Walters, inviting him on a behind-the-scenes look at the circus. Walters is deeply impressed with Cheela and asks off-handedly if Whipple would ever sell a beast like that. He’s told that the circus would never sell at any price.

Feeling that Cheela is necessary for the experiment he wants to try, Walters secretly meets with a fired worker from the circus (Paul Fix), offering him money to help him steal Cheela. Once he has the gorilla in his possession, he murders his nurse, Miss Strand (Fay Helm) and uses her cerebrum on the gorilla to augment its intelligence, then injects it with Dorothy’s glandular secretions.

This presumably violates all the standard laws of God and man; nevertheless the procedure is successful. Cheela is transformed from a hairy gorilla to a beautiful woman (Acquanetta). Walters gives her the name Paula Dupree and takes her to the circus, where she seems to have a hypnotic effect on the animals. As long as she is close by, the animals are easy for Mason to control.

It soon becomes clear that Paula has fallen in love with Mason. But what simian savagery will be released when she discovers that he loves Beth?

Comments: This Ben Pivar production is interesting for a number of reasons, mainly because of the clever way it uses extensive footage from a completely different movie. All of the circus animals we see are from a 1933 film called The Big Cage, featuring famed animal trainer Clyde Beatty. Most of the scenes in Captive Wild Woman are built around this archival footage.

In fact, a good third of this film’s 60-minute running time is from The Big Cage, so Captive Wild Woman must have been a bargain for the studio. They didn’t spend a lot of money on the cast, anyway. Milburn Stone, a lackluster contract player at Universal who was usually cast as the lawyer or the family friend, was evidently chosen to play Mason because his wavy black hair resembles that of Clyde Beatty.

With matching costumes it was fairly simple for Edward Dmytryk to show Beatty in long shots and reverse angles, and Stone in closeups. Through clever editing, most people in the audience probably were never aware of the recycling job. It’s a bit of stretch to imagine Evelyn Ankers waiting around for Milburn Stone for two years, but it works for the purposes of this movie.

Stone doesn’t get top billing in this picture, though: that honor goes to horse-faced ham John Carradine. In spite of this being his first starring role, Carradine’s performance was already tiresome. Will this guy ever stop ranting about glandular secretions? And scientists of the 1940s, please stop trying to turn gorillas into human beings, especially since you don’t seem to have any point in doing it.

Even allowing for the slipshod science, it’s not clear how or why Cheela the gorilla (played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan and his trusty gorilla suit) would turn suddenly into Acquanetta. Fortunately, the Venezuelan Volcano doesn’t speak, automatically making this her best screen performance. The whole movie is quite silly, even by the gland-happy standards of 1940s horror cinema.

I do want to address one element of the film that really bothered me, and that I would hope many others would find disturbing today as well. The scenes of animals being mistreated probably didn’t bother very many people, once upon a time. But the world has changed a lot since this movie was released in 1943 (and indeed, since we saw it on Horror Incorporated in the 1970s).

By today’s standards the circus scenes are simply appalling: we see magnificent animals that don’t belong in captivity caged up and tormented for the amusement of spectators. Clyde Beatty cracks a whip and fires blank cartridges at animals that are obviously frightened and stressed, and at one point a tiger and a lion are made to fight one another on camera (the fight was real; the animals were forced into a cage together and the resulting fight was filmed, with one of the animals dying as a result of the staged altercation).

People can wax nostalgic about the past if they wish; there were certainly good things in the world that are now gone forever. But we tend to forget the thoughtless and cruel things that have gone by the wayside, and we should all be grateful that circuses and inhumane zoo exhibits have largely vanished.

And with that, my friends, I shall step off my soap box, doff my hat in farewell, and disappear into the night.

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