As December creeps in from around the corner, another Noirvember comes to a close! October brings vampires, and November brings femme fatales. However, since we are devoted to the ghoulish here, it seems appropriate to find a film where noir and horror meet. The two genres often overlap in terms of style, but it was rare to see a monster movie that fit authentically within the noir mold. Heck, you may even say that this particular picture predicted many elements that defined 1940s crime cinema. Directed by Robert Siodmak, the future king of film noir, it's 1943's absolutely batty Son of Dracula.
Despite its status as the second sequel to Universal's seminal Dracula, people don't really talk about Son of Dracula. If it's ever brought up in conversation, it's usually just to comment on how miscast Lon Chaney Jr. was as Dracula. Most dismiss it as another in a long line of amusing but disposable monster sequels. What people tend to miss is that Son of Dracula is an imaginative crime film filled with clever ideas, striking style, and truly special effects. Along with The Wolf Man and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the film is the best of Universal's 1940s horror efforts. (With that said, I am also partial to 1943's Phantom of the Opera.)
The only child of a famous monster in Son of Dracula is Lon Chaney Jr. himself. As far as I can tell, his character is the genuine Dracula. Here, the Count goes under the name "Alucard," which every modern horror fan knows is "Dracula" backward. However, remember that this was released in 1943 and "Alucard" wasn't a cliche yet. To its contemporary audience, the idea of Dracula disguising himself as Alucard must have seemed... utterly ridiculous.
Okay, so the script is a little wacky. Dracula comes out of his coffin (which was in a lake) to marry a proto-Goth named Katherine "Kay" Caldwell. And by "marry," I don't mean some unholy ceremony involving the consumption of blood. I mean, he goes to the justice of the peace and gets hitched. Kay's long-term boyfriend, Frank, attempts to shoot Dracula, but the bullets pass through the Count and "kill" Kay. Eventually, Kay reveals that she is undead and simply used Dracula to achieve immortality. The cold-blooded Kay tells Frank of her plan to turn him into a vampire and destroy Dracula, convincing him to join her sinister pursuit.
And that's where the noir elements come into play. Kay (played exquisitely by Louise Allbritton) is the classic noir femme fatale before many of them existed. Like the subsequent Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, the femme fatale plots with her lover to murder her husband. Instead of assets or wealth, the woman schemes for vampiric longevity. The way Kay plans and manipulates the men around her is highly reminiscent of the devious dames that populated the crime fiction of that decade. She's Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears with a mastery of the occult. Kay is the only femme fatale ruthless enough to cheat the Lord of Vampires himself!
Like most Universal monster movies, Son of Dracula's shadowy photography owes a lot to German Expressionism. But while the other films took place in Old World European settings, Son takes place on a New Orleans plantation, moving the action to the United States. The change of continent and relatively modern location feels closer to Noir's urban jungle than the fairytale Gothic of the earlier films.
Director Robert Siodmak was the brother of Curt Siodmak, the writer behind many horror classics (including The Wolf Man). The two were rivals, and his brother reportedly forced Curt to leave the project. For Robert, this was a precursor to the long line of film noirs he would go on to direct. His slick direction certainly helps Son stand out among the rest of the 1940s horror pictures by Universal. Siodmak's work here is absolutely inspired, especially in a stunning sequence in which Dracula emerges from a lake and hovers over the water. Robert would go on to direct other stylish thrillers, including The Killers, Phantom Lady (with the great Ella Raines), and Criss Cross (with possibly the bleakest ending of any film noir).
There aren't a whole lot of vampire noirs, but Son of Dracula is certainly the best. Even its nutty plot is ultimately a boon for this fantastical crime thriller. This is beautifully directed pulp cinema. While Chaney Junior is certainly miscast, it's tough not to dig him in any horror role. What he lacks in elegance, he makes up for in brutish physicality. Louise Allbritton is the ultimate femme fatale for those who like black cats and graveyards. In my opinion, this is the most underappreciated of the Universal Monster movies. If "Dracula" owns October, November should belong to the "Son."
Click below to watch Son of Dracula, streaming for free on Tubi!