Saturday, November 11, 1978: Son of Dracula (1943) / The Mad Ghoul (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 Dynamo 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 Mad Ghoul

Synopsis: Professor of chemistry Alfred Morris (George Zucco) delivers a lecture about the ancient Mayans to a room full of university students. He describes how the Mayans employed a strange gas to make their enemies into zombie-like slaves. Morris further demonstrates that what archeologists had believed was ritual sacrifice was in fact a practical means of temporarily bringing the zombies back to normal.

After the lecture, Morris asks medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) to assist him in a new line of research. Ted is surprised and elated by this honor.

Morris shows Ted the experiment he’s working on: a monkey is exposed to the gas Dr. Morris had referenced in his lecture. As a result, Morris says, the monkey is somnambulant and prone to external suggestion. But when the heart from another monkey is removed and its “heart matter” used on the test subject, the result is a peppy monkey that is as good as new.

Ted congratulates Dr. Morris on this discovery, and tells him that he can’t wait to tell his girlfriend Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) , a singer whose career is taking off. In fact, Ted and Isabel are planning to have dinner that very evening because Isabel is leaving the next day on a multi-city tour.

Morris suggests he bring Isabel over to his house for dinner — that way, he says, they can all celebrate.

While Ted and Isabel are over that evening, Morris sends Ted out on an errand that takes him out of the room for a few minutes. While he is gone Morris tells Isabel that he knows she is unhappy; that she has outgrown Ted and is looking for a more sophisticated man — a more experienced man — “who knows the book of Life and can teach you to read it”. Isabel admits that all this is true, but she is afraid of hurting Ted by breaking off the engagement. Morris tells her that he believes Ted will break off the engagement himself.

The next day, Morris arranges for Ted to be exposed to the Mayan gas. Ted becomes a blank-eyed zombie who must obey Dr. Morris’ commands. The two go to a nearby cemetery, where they dig up the grave of a man buried earlier in the day. Morris forces Ted to remove the heart from the cadaver.

Ted wakes up in a bedroom in Morris’ house. He is back to normal, remembering nothing of what has happened to him. But he’s shocked to discover that two days have passed, and Isabel has already left on her tour.

He follows Isabel to her next city. Morris, feigning concern for Ted’s health, goes with him, and urges him to break off the engagement for health reasons. Ted does so. But when he reverts to his zombie state, another grave must be robbed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Morris is stunned to learn that Isabel is in love with her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), and that the two are planning to marry.

When Ted reverts to his zombie state, Morris gives him a handgun and new instructions: to first kill Eric, and then kill himself….

Comments: The Mad Ghoul is a dimly-remembered Universal entry from 1943 that never sought to be more than a modest programmer. But it’s actually quite a clever little film, with an unexpected sting in its tail.

At the center of the narrative is something rare for a movie from the 1940s: a plausibly presented romance. In most Universal pictures from this era, we are made to endure the company of young lovers who are perfectly in tune with one another, lovers who are eternally, blissfully, mercilessly devoted to each other’s happiness. By contrast The Mad Ghoul depicts a relationship that has survived long past its expiration date. Isabel has outgrown Ted, and the professional and social world she is preparing to enter will have no place for him.

But for all her newly-minted sophistication Isabel is still a coward. She is incapable of breaking it off with Ted even after she has become engaged to another man. Later, she asks Dr. Morris to deliver the news that she can’t see him anymore. Her rationale is that Dr. Morris, as a worldly and educated man, would know just the right words to say (honey, he’s a chemist).

Ted, on the other hand, is so madly in love with Isabel it’s easy to see why she’s grown tired of him. He is like a puppy, so eager and so needy that he not only fails to recognize her needs, but seems entirely blinded to her as a person.

In spite of this, it is Dr. Morris, the catalyst for all the film’s mayhem and destruction, who is the biggest fool for love. Played with great zest by George Zucco, Morris is driven not by megalomania or a thirst for destruction, but by his impossible love for Isabel and by his vanity.

It never occurs to Dr. Morris for one moment that Isabel might have no interest in him. He never stops to consider that there might be events beyond his control. Rarely are we presented with a Hollywood villain who is so lacking in self-awareness.

In his mind he is the world-renowned man of letters with an inside track to the Nobel Prize, a worldly and devilishly handsome sophisticate whom any woman would be grateful to be near. But he never sees himself for what he really is: a lonely, self-deluding egotist. He never asks himself what a beautiful and successful singer would want with an aging, pompous chemistry professor. And so he becomes an amoral reflection of Ted himself, blinded by lust, hobbled by his immense self-regard, and ultimately undone by his inability to predict what his victims might do to him, given the opportunity.

Young male actors were in short supply in Hollywood during World War II, and David Bruce was probably the best Universal could get at the time (he’d been excused from military service for medical reasons). He isn’t bad as Ted, but he comes across as something of a lightweight, never fully inhabiting the role. I think critics tend to overlook this because Ted himself is a weak character — strung along and mistreated by the selfish Isabel, and cruelly used by Dr. Morris. But the whole trajectory of Ted’s story leads to him standing up for himself against Dr. Morris, and we just don’t see that in Bruce’s performance — instead, it just happens.

Evelyn Ankers provides her usual bloodless performance, neither good nor bad; and once again I’m puzzled as to why she was apparently seen as the go-to female lead of the Universal horror films of the early 1940s. We get to see Turhan Bey play the dashing and sensible Eric Iverson; and in a sweet bit of comic-relief casting, Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in 1933’s King Kong) shows up as a snoopy reporter who gets a bit more than he bargained for.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.