31 Nights of Dractober: House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944)

House_of_Frankenstein_1944

Director: Erle C. Kenton

Dracula: John Carradine

“The world I see is far away. Yet very near. A strange and beautiful world … in which one may be dead … and yet alive.”

— Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne), unconsciously giving us the epigraph for the entire Universal horror series

John Carradine’s first appearance as Dracula (of at least five) is unprepossessing to say the least. Accidentally reanimated when mad scientist Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) threatens an officious policeman with the stake in his skeletal chest, he re-skeletonizes in the sunlight just 27 minutes into the film. He never gets screen time with Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) or the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.), so the picture isn’t a true monster rally so much as a picaresque freak show. The bulk of the film centers on Niemann’s quest for revenge on the men who jailed him for Frankenstein-inspired experiments, and it’s just fun to see Karloff actually get to ham it up in a proper mustache-twirling speaking role for a change. There’s a great bit at the end where Strange’s Monster cradles the dying Karloff in his arms — who knew that meta was a thing in 1944?

But none of that is, strictu sensu, Dractober-relevant. Carradine has to take Dracula a lot of places in his 10 minutes or so of screen time: he knuckles under to Niemann’s threats to sabotage his coffin, suavely insinuates himself (as “Baron Latos”) into Burgomaster Hussman’s (Sig Ruman) household, seduces Hussman’s grand-daughter-in-law Rita (lovely and spirited Anne Gwynne, playing up as an all-American girl in Backlot Gothic-land) with dreams and mesmeric visions, drains Hussman in silhouette as a bat (expertly shot by Kenton), flees with Rita in a coach, crashes and crawls to his coffin (discarded by Niemann to distract Dracula’s pursuers from himself), and expires piteously scrabbling at the lid. That’s more action than Dracula gets in some full-length features, and Carradine is mostly up to the job. He’s best as the seducer, of course; his menace is either animated (in bat-shadow form) or understated. His Dracula is ruled by his passions: fear, lust, hunger, and fear again. That could have been interesting in a more full-fledged Dracula, especially with the Shakespearean Carradine in the title role.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. In expanded and silhouetted form (drinking deep from your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order dapper-mustached hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

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