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In the early 1940s, Universal tried to boost the box office of its fading horror movie franchise of the preceding decade by putting various combinations of its famous monsters into single movies, rather like a gothic version of the Marvel mash-up The Avengers (2012). The first of these all-star ventures, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), pitted the Frankenstein Monster (played by Bela Lugosi, a role he lost to Boris Karloff in the original) against the Wolf Man/Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr., a role he originated in 1941 and played 5 times in his career). Despite an unspectacular showing for that picture, it was followed not long after by House of Frankenstein (1944), an attempt to up the ante by adding Dracula (John Carradine) to the mix. Karloff was on hand and in familiar territory with this one, but not as the monster. That role was played by Glenn Strange, while Karloff took the lead as a mad doctor trying to outdo the original Dr. Frankenstein. Carradine proved to be such an effective vampire he was asked back the following year for this new twist on the multi-monster tale entitled House of Dracula (1945).
In an attempt to correct the earlier picture's faults, which included a melange of pointless plotlines, scripter Edward T. Lowe, Jr. aimed for more coherence and even pathos in this story about a kindly doctor who tries to cure both Dracula and the Wolf Man (Chaney again) with disastrous results, climaxing in another brawl between Talbot and the monster.
Hulking former Western actor Glenn Strange once again stepped in as the Monster, although the film contains footage of other players in the role: Chaney himself and his double Eddie Parker in a fire scene borrowed from The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Karloff can also be seen briefly as the Monster in a dream sequence using footage from Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Strange wished someone else could have stepped in for him during the lengthy shooting of the sequence in which the Monster is found trapped in quicksand. The actor recalled that, after sitting for three hours each morning while his makeup was applied, he spent the rest of the day buried in cold liquid mud. He would have to remain there even when the rest of the cast and crew broke for lunch, and by the time they returned, it was so cold he could barely feel his legs. Chaney suggested alcohol to keep him warm and frequently passed him a bottle of whiskey. Strange said he was so drunk at the end of each day he could barely dress himself after getting out of the Monster costume and makeup. (Chaney's bottle is another story; a heavy drinker who was often difficult to work with, he was released from his Universal contract after completing House of Dracula.)
For a movie called House of Dracula, the Count is dispatched a little too quickly, and in fact, the house in question is not even his own, however much he makes himself at home in the basement. Carradine's conception of the character was a far cry from Lugosi's original, and actually stands up better in the eyes of many critics and fans. Dignified and soft-spoken, his Dracula was meant to be closer to author Bram Stoker's concept, an approach the actor insisted on when they asked him to play the part. He later told Fangoria magazine he wanted to play the character the way Stoker described him in his book, "as an elderly, distinguished gentleman with a big drooping mustache." Universal nixed the facial hair idea, forcing Carradine to sport a very clipped, British-looking one. "It wasn't really in character," he said. In addition to this movie and the earlier House of Frankenstein, he would appear as the famous vampire in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)--a title sure to spark something in those who think Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was the first case of pitting bloodsuckers against historical figures--and the R-rated Nocturna (1979), in which he reportedly wore the costume he sports in House of Dracula.
There are actually two vampires in this film, the other being scientist Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a well-meaning doctor who undergoes a drastic Jekyll-Hyde transformation after his failed attempts to cure Dracula of his vampirism.
Another familiar face from horror movies is Lionel Atwill. He made a number of notable non-horror films, among them Captain Blood (1935), Three Comrades (1938), Von Sternberg's The Devil Is a Woman (1935), and the Lubitsch comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942). But Atwill is probably most associated with his roles in Doctor X (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Man Made Monster (1941), and many others. During production, Atwill was already ill with the cancer that would kill him less than five months after this picture's release.
House of Dracula was the penultimate Universal all-star monster feature. The entire concept would be treated with comedy when Dracula, the Monster, and Talbot/The Wolf Man all returned to menace the famous comic duo in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Strange and Chaney came back for their roles, and Universal got Lugosi on board once again as the Count.
True classic horror buffs will have a good time watching House of Dracula and picking out references, homages, and downright steals from a number of other pictures, including Dracula's Daughter (1936), Werewolf of London (1935), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both the 1931 and 1941 versions). Even musical motifs will be recognizable as pastiches of earlier horror themes.
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Producers: Joseph Gershenson, Paul Malvern
Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe, Jr., story by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker (uncredited)
Cinematography: George Robinson
Editing: Russell Schoengarth
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina
Makeup: Jack P. Pierce
Original Music: William Lava (uncredited)
Cast: Lon Chaney, Jr. (Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man), John Carradine (Dracula), Martha O'Driscoll (Miliza Morelle), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Holtz), Onslow Stevens (Dr. Franz Edelmann).
by Rob Nixon