Thursday, July 24, 2014

Movies I hate to love : House of Dracula (1945)

It’s no secret that House of Dracula is a silly film which recycles tired, very tired, material. And yet – there’s something irresistible about its campy mix of goofiness and ponderousness. It’s difficult to put a finger on it but for me it’s the combination of good production values, in some cases quite good, combined with a terrible, ultra-contrived story and resultant muddled script. It’s a jangly combination to say the least. Yet despite, or perhaps because of this unwieldy witches brew, HoD has over the years garnered a considerable cult following.

Despite the title it’s really more a Wolfman story than a Dracula story. I recall that the original title was The Wolfman’s Cure. With HoD the Wolfman saga now comes full circle from the original scientific slant of the proto-Wolfman Werewolf of London a decade prior. But the performance of the torpid Lon Chaney, Jr., does the Larry Talbot character no favors. In his entrance he looks more like a mafioso garbed in black suit and white tie and sporting dyed black hair and mustache.

The other nominal leads inhabit their roles competently if in rather somnambulist fashion. An exception in the proceedings is John Carradine’s svelte, oily voiced Count, probably the best Dracula of the post-Bela Lugosi and pre-Chrostopher Lee era (then again there weren’t many others in them years). But for me the best acting is done by Lionel Atwill in one more turn as Universal's resident police chief, and the fetching Jane Addams as the most beautiful – and most sympathetic – hunchback in cinema history. 

But the real strength of HoD is its noirish look and creepy set design [1]. Nary a shadow, staircase or off-kilter angle is missed and it all has a wonderfully murky, echt Germanic feel to it. Most of the scenes take place at night and there’s plenty of fodder for sinister camerawork, especially in the good/bad doctor’s mansion cum castle. Especially effective is the scene of the requisite mob of villagers chasing Dr Edelmann through the streets with plenty of chiaroscuro-esque angst that would do Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari proud. 

Alas, the special effects are not one of the production triumphs, in particular the hokey electronics light and buzzing show that was so effective in films like Bride of Frankenstein. Here they are decidedly minor league. But I do have to give a nod to the nifty dream/hallucination sequence in which among other phantasmagoric images we see a cured, statuesque Nina walking proudly and wearing what appears to be a frilly wedding gown.

The Frankenstein monster appears for only a few minutes and manages to stagger a bit and smash some lab equipment before perishing in the final de rigueur fire and collapsing building.

I'll play if you'll sing.
Deservingly, the most famous scene and probably the best in the entire film, is where Martha O’Driscoll plays the Moonlight Sonata while the hovering, infatuated Count more or less hypnotizes her into playing something far darker and more sinister [2]. Of course she doesn’t recognize the music and has never played it before. But a crucifix serendipitously intervenes and the Count slithers away. Whether this Dracula genuinely had the hots for her or she was merely the victim of convenience – or both – is left a little unclear, as are many of the details of the inter-relationships of the characters in HoD.

[1] Film noir’s debt to the 1930s Universal horror fim has yet to receive the scholarly treatment it merits.

[2] The sequence recalls a similar scene in Dracula's Daughter (1936), only that time the vampire played the piano.

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