Synopsis: Patients from all over the world seek out the brilliant Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a physician with a keen mind and a big heart. He has a practice that he runs out of his castle in Vasaria, and those who have lost hope in conventional medicine can turn to him in their hour of need.
Late one night Edelmann is dozing in an easy chair when a man in top hat and tails shows up in his living room and wakes him. The stranger introduces himself as Baron Latos, but it’s obvious right away that he’s really Count Dracula (John Carradine). He wants Dr. Edelmann to help find a cure for his vampirism.
By “cure”, Dracula presumably isn’t looking for the sunlight-and-wooden-stake cure. We’re talking a medical cure, something that will make him mortal again.
Since Dracula’s already dead, I would rate his chances for a full recovery as vanishingly slim, but Edelmann is made of sterner stuff and agrees to give it a try.
Meanwhile, an agitated man is trying to get in to see Dr. Edelmann. It’s our old friend Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr). and after badgering the receptionist for a while, he rushes out of the clinic, jabbering about the full Moon that will soon rise.
In his laboratory, Edelmann is examining the Count’s blood cells under a microscope, when he gets a phone call from Vasaria’s chief of police (Lionel Atwill). A distraught man has demanded to be incarcerated. He’s clearly a nutter, so would Edelmann come down and have a look at him?
Edelmann does so, and comes face to face with Lawrence Talbot, who claims he turns into a werewolf when the Moon is full.
At just about that moment, the full Moon comes into view and Talbot changes into a wolf man — before his very eyes. He tells the Chief to keep the beast imprisoned until morning — then he will examine Talbot.
When Dracula comes back Edelmann tells him that vampirism is caused by a blood parasite, and that a series of blood transfusions might do the trick. It turns out that Talbot’s problem also has a scientific basis. Talbot turns into a werewolf, we are told, because he believes he will. This belief, combined with certain irregularities in Talbot’s skull that put pressure on key points in the brain, trigger his lycanthropic proclivities.
The condition can be cured, Edelmann says, but it will take time. This is too much for the excitable Talbot, who races out of the castle and throws himself off a nearby cliff into the ocean.
Edelmann, believing Talbot may have been swept into a cave in the cliffside, lowers himself with a rope down the cliff face. He finds that Talbot — now a wolf man — has indeed found his way into a cave. Moreover, there’s someone else there — Frankenstein’s monster, in suspended animation….
Comments: I impatiently brushed off House of Dracula when it aired previously, grumbling that these silly monster rallies weren’t worth my time. However, I have since realized my time isn’t worth that much. This movie does have some interesting ideas anyway, so let’s take a moment to unpack them.
Dr. Edelmann’s ability to add vampirism and lycanthropy to the standard medical textbooks might seem improbable. But remember that the good doctor is an educated man of the mid-20th century. Back then science promised to illuminate all the dark recesses of human fears and superstitions. By midcentury, in fact, there was a growing suspicion that there were no problems that science couldn’t solve.
So it was only a matter of time before vampires and werewolves would be reassessed as medical conditions on a par with smallpox and polio, every bit as easy to understand and almost as easy to conquer. This idea was bubbling up across the horror and science-fiction genres. While House of Dracula is an early attempt to provide a science-fiction explanation for vampire lore, it wasn’t the first (for example, it was predated by A. E. Van Vogt’s short story “Asylum”, published in 1942) nor was it particularly influential; Richard Matheson was clearly coming from another direction when he wrote his seminal 1954 novel I Am Legend. That novel was enormously influential; in fact, people have been cribbing from Matheson ever since.
In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last normal human on Earth after a plague turns everyone else into vampires. He is a smart and rational man, and during the course of the novel he trains himself to be a biologist in order to isolate the plague that causes vampirism. This is an important facet of the novel, one missing from its (three) screen adaptations. Neville has an admirably realistic view of science: it isn’t technological sorcery that can only be practiced by the members of its designated priesthood. Rather, it is a method of problem-solving that is based on clearly defined rules — rules that the under-educated Neville teaches himself over the course of the story.
This is pretty important, I think, and it’s where the wheels come off House of Dracula. For all the hand-waving toward reason and truth, Dr. Edelmann is a member of the designated priesthood, and for all the appeals to science and rationality, Edelmann is just a sorcerer with an alternate pedigree. For all the patter about blood parasites, at the end of the day Dracula’s blood is dirty and corrupt, and when Edelmann gets a dose of it he becomes dirty and corrupt as well.
And the werewolf “cure” by surgery could just as easily have been supernatural in origin; in fact the rare plant that is a necessary ingredient to the medical procedure might as well have magical properties, since there is no alternate way to derive the chemical which it provides.
Ironically Frankenstein’s monster, which is the only one that can claim a science-fiction origin, is in a coma for nearly the entire picture. It wakes up in time to stumble around for a few minutes and then get burned to death. Again.
The death of noble Dr. Edelmann comes across as genuinely tragic, especially when you consider that Henry Frankenstein did much worse and got off much easier. Jane Adams turns in a very sympathetic performance as Nina, Dr. Edelmann’s hunchbacked assistant, though there is something palpably nasty about the undignified way she’s disposed of at the end.
Clearly Martha O’Driscoll’s Milliza is seen as the “good” girl in this picture, and she is allowed to walk off into the sunset (or moonrise, if you prefer) holding hands with the man of her dreams — even if he turns out to be Lon Chaney, Jr.