House of Dracula follows House of Frankenstein in the Universal Monsters franchise and like most serials I expected a modicum of continuity. Unfortunately that’s the exact amount of continuity in House of Dracula, a modicum. I don’t know if you dear reader remember the fate of the monsters at House of Frankenstein‘s conclusion so I’ll remind you. They’re all dead, and no I don’t mean undead or neither alive nor dead or a reanimated corpse. Dracula burns up in sunlight, the Wolf Man is shot with a silver bullet by someone who loves him and Frankenstein’s monster sinks to the bottom of a quicksand pit. Seems like if you were going to make another movie with these characters you’d have to establish exciting or plausible survival tales for each monster first. Nope. Not House of Dracula.
Let’s start where all good stories do, at the beginning. A bat the size of a German shepherd takes a mid-flight peep through some poor girl’s castle bedroom window before entering the home through the downstairs study. There he takes human form and finds the master of the house snoozing in a leather chair. The sleepy eyed doctor, awakened by his lap-cat’ violently hissing at the intruder, looks up and sees the visage of Dracula before him. The Doctor delivers the first lines of the film with none of the emotion or vigor you’d expect from someone who’s just been home invaded, “What are you doing here? Who are you?” What follows is a disappointingly mundane conversation where Dracula briefly (Like 30 seconds) pretends to be a Baron who wants to check out this castle’s basement. That’s all it takes for Doctor totally-gonna-get-murdered M.D. to walk the stranger right into the most secluded and soundproof part of his home. In the time it takes for them to walk to the basement from the study, Dracula manages to bring up the topic of vampirism and the Doctor treats it with no more awe or bewilderment as if someone had just commented on the weather. Now in the basement, Dracula reveals that he’s already broken into the castle and comfortably deposited his coffin full of dirt in the dungeon. He needs the Doctor’s help to undo his vampiric curse lest he succumb to the rays of morning sunlight inching closer to the dungeon windows.
The doctor agrees?! What hubris of man! He was seconds away from allowing the sun’s searing rays to vanquish the vampiric count from the face of the earth (until the next movie) but for the belief that with this golden opportunity he could cure the bloodsucker and revert him to a normal man. If only the sun could melt his ego like so much Icarian wax. No mention of how Dracula went from burning to death on the streets in House of Frankenstein to this random castle and no explanation for the other surviving monsters either. Larry Talbot comes running to the castle doors begging to see the doctor in his customary urgent tardiness just hours away from the peak of a full moon. Why does he always wait till the last minute to seek medical help? What keeps you so busy in the month between lunar cycles Larry? 28 days straight peeing on mailboxes and licking your balls? Why aren’t you dead Larry? I saw you felled in a lycanthropic fit by a silver bullet shot by someone who loves you. I saw you transform back to human and die in her arms man, what gives?
Frankenstein’s monster is the only recurring character whose timeline is clear from film to film. He’s discovered clutching the skeletal remains of Boris Karloff in a pile of quicksand at the bottom of a washed out cave. This implies the setting for this movie is exactly where the last movie ended… which makes no sense. Is this the same castle as the last film? Was Larry Talbot just hanging out in the nearby town for years getting by working as a guard dog? How many full moons did he live through before approaching the readily available albeit sleepy local science wizard? I’m starting to think this isn’t even Dracula’s house in the first place!
Superficial continuity complaints aside, House of Dracula marks the moment for me when I realized that Universal maligned people with physical disabilities as equivalent to monsters in this movie. Look at the poster. “Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Wolf Man, Mad Doctor… Hunchback…” Listed right up there with literatures greatest unnatural monsters are people with back ailments. This makes me sad. Look, I understand how we got here. Lon Chaney Sr.’s immortalization as Quasimodo lead to a long tradition of including people with this specific physical condition in horror films. Fritz from Frankenstein added the occupation of lab assistant to the archetype which we see reinforced in films like House of Frankenstein with Daniel, Nina in House of Dracula and Igor in Young Frankenstein. It’s entirely possible that this is an odd sort of historically accurate depiction of the employment opportunities available to disabled people in the time of Mary Shelley. If this thought seems callous or cruel I encourage you to watch Freaks: Sideshow Cinema a documentary about Tod Browning’s Freaks. I wish I remembered the quote exactly, but the main idea I took away from the documentary was that in an economy where everyone needs employment there’s no shame in someone making a living any way they can, for some people the best living they could manage was found in the sideshows. That idea is purely speculative and even if accurate doesn’t excuse the horrific marketing. It’s true that The Hunchback was also advertised on the House of Frankenstein lobby cards and maybe other promotional materials but I guess I blew that off as a fluke when reviewing that movie not seeing it for the cruel marketing strategy it was.
At their core these movies are about normal people being spooked by monsters. To that end you’d expect a certain level of scream queen shrieking every time a monster is encountered. That reaction is noticeably absent in House of Dracula. From the Doctor’s mundane response to Dracula suddenly appearing in his home requesting aid to the Wolf Man transformation scene where Talbot is locked in a jail cell in full view of the doctor, his medical assistant and a police officer. None of whom react to his violent change from man to Wolf Man as the unnatural spectacle it is. Every time there’s cause for emoting the cast seem to deliberately ignore those impulses and stare blankly as if nothing in this life could ever thrill them again. They say acting is reacting but in House of Dracula the acting is retarded (the verb not the adjective). Lon Chaney Jr. is the only actor giving any semblance of an energetic performance and that’s only when he’s transforming because otherwise he’s confined to a wheelchair. This lack of reaction pervades the whole film. Fantastic events happen around characters who respond as if they’ve already gotten bored with the wonders of the monstrous world they inhabit.
Maybe they have, maybe this really is the same town after all. Long past are the days when they’d burn down a windmill to avenge a drowned child. Their village’s been flooded and every other year some sort of awful monster invades and a number of them die. Maybe Larry Talbot only asks for help curing his werewolf curse because most of the time he can tolerate the bloodlust and no one seems to mind much. Think about the awful things you tolerate in life because you either can’t change them or your repeated trauma has forced you to develop a specialized coping mechanism. Suddenly these monsters are a lot less metaphoric huh? Maybe these aran’t such fantastic films after all, maybe they’re more cinéma vérité.