Universal’s Dracula, from Bela Lugosi to Lon Chaney Jr. and Beyond

Iowa collectors explore movies, music, and books … physically.

Bryon Dudley/Iowa Informer

During 2019, and into 2020, I decided that I would watch every Godzilla film, in order, and write a blog about it. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can read this six-part monstrosity (pun very much intended) here. After publishing each part, I’d share it on Facebook, and when it was done, I was having enough fun that I asked my Facebook friends what I should do next. There were a lot of great ideas, but one of the more intriguing ones was to watch all of the original Universal Pictures monster movies.

The very first Universal monster movies start as far back as 1913, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the 1925 silent film, Phantom of the Opera, featuring the great Claude Rains. But I decided to start with the granddaddy of them all, Dracula, so I tracked down a used copy of Dracula: The Legacy Collection, an excellent box set that came out in 2004, and contains the five canon Dracula films, with tons of extras and interesting rabbit holes to go down.

The first film, Dracula, came out in 1931, the same year as the first Frankenstein movie (I recently picked up that box, too, so expect that blog entry sometime in the not-so-distant future). In 1931, films not only couldn’t be as gory as they are today, because of more intense censorship and laws regarding this at the time, but they also, on a technical level, weren’t capable of being very gory. Special effects were still relatively new. There’s no real blood, no transformations into bats, and the film, by and large, is a psychological horror film.

Bela Lugosi plays the iconic character, and he landed the role because he’d played the character on Broadway (the film is based on the Broadway production). Lugosi’s portrayal is really odd — as iconic as it has become, he is not the greatest actor in the world. Luckily, he’s not given a lot of lines, and a lot of his performance is reduced to looking menacing while lights are shone in his eyes, which is meant to depict how hypnotic he is. This plays a major part in the film, and is Dracula’s main power. Dracula comes off almost as more of a telepath than a vampire in the film, and the more chilling moments come from Dwight Frye’s depiction of Renfield, Dracula’s insane and loyal slave, as well as Helen Chandler’s portrayal of Mina, who is hypnotized and bitten (off screen, of course), and seen muttering to Dracula while she’s alone.

I was surprised that Dracula dies at the end of this film (I would claim “spoilers” here, but it’s from 1931, so the statute of limitations there has GOT to have expired, right?). This edition also has an optional 5.1 surround soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet that really adds to the atmosphere.

Next up is the Spanish version of Dracula. This film was shot at the same time as the English version, and was created for distribution in Spanish-speaking countries, a common practice at the time (subtitles weren’t as prevalent then). The English Dracula crew would work during the day, and the Spanish crew in the evening, from the same script, using the same costumes and sets. Interestingly, the actor Carlos Villarías was the only one permitted to see the dailies from the morning crew’s work, because he was encouraged to imitate Lugosi’s performance. Pretty much across the board, Villarías’ performance is considered the superior as a result.

In 1936, Universal released the sequel to the first film, Dracula’s Daughter. The only character who makes it back from the original film is Edward Van Sloan’s character, Von Helsing, and he proves to be pretty critical to the plot, as he’s now the only one experienced with vampires in the real world.

In the film, Countess Marya Zaleska is the daughter of Dracula, and she believes that if she destroys her father’s corpse, she will be free of his vampiric curse and able to live a normal, human life again. This doesn’t work, so the Countess seeks out a psychiatrist, believing that he can use science to cure her. This also doesn’t work, but the Countess has sort of fallen for the psychiatrist, and decides to lure him back to Transylvania and turn him into her eternal undead companion. She kidnaps the woman the psychiatrist has been flirting with most of the film, and eventually the psychiatrist saves the woman, killing the Countess with an arrow through the heart.

Of note is the Countess’ painting of a model in the film, a woman named Lili, and some subtle lesbian attraction between the two. This was of concern to the studio, but later they used it in the marketing, and this has become the most culturally impactful element of Dracula’s Daughter. The novelist Anne Rice has talked about how much this film influenced her own homoerotic vampiric fiction.

Fast forward to 1943: Universal releases the next film in the series, Son Of Dracula, featuring the great Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. By this time, there have been some advances in special effects and we see the very first on-screen transformation of Dracula Jr. into a bat, as well as mist.

The plot consists of two sisters, who inherit their father’s wealth, with one of them, Katherine, being the “darker” of the two. Katherine has a longtime boyfriend, Frank, but invites Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards) to their plantation, and begins dating him. Katherine, it turns out, wants to be a vampire and have eternal life. She plays Alucard and eventually becomes a vampire. Frank becomes jealous, and she finally tells him that she’s a vampire and wants to actually share her gift of immortality with him. Frank plots and destroys Alucard, then rejects the idea of becoming a vampire and burns Katherine in her coffin.

This film was probably my least favorite in the box, mostly because of Chaney’s performance — he comes off less as spooky, or even a vampire, than just more of a guy in a cape.

Finally, the last film in the box, House of Dracula. A much shorter turnaround time here, with this film being released in 1945 (it’s actually a sequel to House of Frankenstein, which we’ll get to in the Frankenstein box). This one is easily the most fun of the films, and brings together Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein.

Dracula, played by John Carradine, seeks out a scientist, Dr. Edelmann, to try and cure his vampirism. Dr. Edelmann thinks he can do a blood transfusion treatment and accomplish this. Lawrence Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. (a much more fitting role for him, it seems) also shows up. He reveals that he’s a werewolf, and would like Dr. Edelmann to cure him as well. Edelmann agrees to help him, but he needs time. Talbot is at his wits’ end, and with a full moon coming, he decides he can’t wait and will take his own life rather than go through that horrible transformation again. Talbot throws himself off a cliff, into the ocean, but washes up in a cave. Dr. Edelmann descends to the cave and finds the Wolf Man. The two have a brief confrontation before a cloud drifts over the moon and Talbot reverts to his human form. In the cave, they discover the inert body of Frankenstein’s monster! A bit convenient, but it does move the story along.

Dracula tries to seduce Edelmann’s assistant, who tells the good doctor about it, and he decides to destroy Dracula during the next blood transfusion. But Dracula is on to him, hypnotizes them, and reverses the transfusion. As a result, Dr. Edelmann now has an evil side. Dracula tries to run off with Edelmann’s assistant, but Edelmann enlists Talbot’s help, and they destroy Dracula (it feels like a theme that whatever version of Dracula is at hand gets destroyed in every film).

Edelmann is able to cure Talbot of his lycanthropy, but then the vampire blood turns him evil again, and he revives the Frankenstein monster. This leads to a big battle, with the villagers all forming a mob and descending on Dr. Edelmann’s castle. The cured Talbott shoots Edelmann and traps the Frankenstein monster under burning rubble, and as the castle burns, the film ends rather abruptly.

The connections between these films is loose at best, and it’s not really explained how Dracula returns for House of Dracula. But it was really interesting to watch these movies from a historical perspective and see how much impact they’ve had on cinema, specifically the horror genre. Plus, I found this box used for just ten bucks!

Bryon Dudley
Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.