Universal has been re-releasing their Universal Monster Legacy Collections on Blu-ray.
And now it's Dracula's turn.
How do his movies stack up? I watched them all so I could rank all of the Dracula movies in this collection from worst to best.
Before we begin, I think it's important to note that some of these collections contain many of the same films. In this case the Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein collections all contain House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I'm not going to alter my order to fit this information, but you still ought to know about the overlap before you purchase any of these collections.
Okay. Enter, and leave some of the happiness you bring ...
Son of Dracula (1943)
Lon Chaney Jr. is not a good Dracula. I don't know a kinder way of saying this, but he just doesn't have the intensity to be the unholy prince of the night. Chaney looks sad all the time, which works great for the Wolf Man, Larry Talbot, but doesn't make a lot of sense when you're super into sucking women's blood and making them your slaves.
I feel ... bad? Lon Chaney Jr. is 100% the reason this movie is at the bottom of the list. Otherwise, it's got a pretty decent plot. There's a cool scene where bullets pass through Dracula and kill an innocent woman instead which is pretty gut-wrenching. In fact, the ending is really bleak.
And on the fun side, this is the first movie to feature the bat-to-man effect and it looks really neat. Even the title sequence where Dracula pushes aside cobwebs to reveal "Son of Dracula" is dynamic and exciting.
Unfortunately, things get confusing. Is this Dracula? Is it the son of Dracula? The dialogue suggests Dracula? The marketing materials suggest his son? A Dracula movie that can't get Dracula right is a bad Dracula movie. Sorry, Lon Chaney Jr. Maybe shave the mustache next time.
House of Dracula (1945)
You know who is a better Dracula than Lon Chaney Jr? John Carradine. You know who John Carradine still isn't close to being? Bela Lugosi. You know what hampers his performance? Mustache. What is it with non-Lugosi Draculas and facial hair?
Also, weirdly Dracula seems to want to be cured in this movie for some reason? And, I guess that's fine, except for the part where he has never seemed to want to not be a vampire before. And also, he just decides against it halfway through and then turns his doctor into a "Mad Doctor." Oh, and, by the way, Dracula turns the doctor by way of a blood transfusion instead of biting him, which is the most #nohomo thing I've ever seen in a vampire movie.
But Lon Cheney Jr. gets a solid Wolf Man performance out of this which includes the alternate happy ending version of his story in case you find Talbot too depressing.
I also like that there's a lady hunchback in House of Dracula, because that's a really weird attempt at equality.
Most of this movie is very entertaining. There's this goofy, medical contrivance where a certain flower's spores can make bone malleable, which seems... very dangerous? It's funny enough that thew cure for Talbot's werewolf affliction is "futz with his skull some" but that making his cranium into a flexible dough seems more safe than surgery is peak '40s pseudoscience.
And, important to point out, Frankenstein's Monster gets a very brief appearance as well. He thrashes around a bunch, but I'm a sucker for that guy, so it made me happy.
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Dracula's Daughter is a pretty firm example of a movie that most people like for the movie it could have been and not the movie it actually is. That's not to say Dracula's Daughter is a bad movie. On the contrary, it's light years better than Son of Dracula and feels fresh compared with most other entries in the series. It's just that some people say this is among the best vampire movies ever produced and ... it is not that.
Maybe it's the modern eye that hurts the film for me, but there are all these stories about how homoerotic Dracula's Daughter was going to be and how Countess Zaleska, the titular daughter, enjoyed torturing men (and that they enjoyed being tortured by her). While there is one sort of queer-baiting (did queer-baiting exist in 1936?), the rest of the film is relatively tame.
Gloria Holden is great as Zaleska, especially considering she didn't want the role. And of course Edward Van Sloan is dynamite as Von (not Van) Helsing.
I dig that the Countess wants to be cured of her vampirism, but I'm bummed that she just kind of drops that desire in the end.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
This is some classic Abbott and Costello and might even be my absolute favorite of theirs. It also helps that, in addition to all these Universal Monsters appearing, that Bela Lugosi actually came back to play Dracula again.
This movie really is the perfect expression of how I imagined movie-goers reacting when they saw the Universal Monster movies the first time. Lou Costello's manic protestations and physical comedy are at their absolute best and Bud Abbott plays it all straight as an arrow.
If you want to watch beautiful women fawn over Lou Costello because they want to manipulate him for nefarious and monstrous purposes (and you really, really should want that) then this movie is for you.
And again, Bela Lugosi is back, as is Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man. And getting to see both these guys take their most classic characters to a funny place is just a joy.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
If there is one reason why House of Frankenstein ranks so far above House of Dracula, it is this: Boris Karloff. If Bela Lugosi has the best single performance in any Universal monster movie (and I would say he does), then Boris Karloff is the most effective at playing any character Universal asks him to. And as Dr. Gustav Niemann, a sort of new Victor Frankenstein, Karloff once again kills it. Literally. Lot of death in this one.
And the story for House of Frankenstein is like the bummer version of House of Dracula, which I personally like. No one gets their way. Happiness is punished, most people die.
The plot of this movie is basically that Neimann wants to rekindle Frankenstein's work and tricks a bunch of people into helping him, including the Wolf Man, who is played for a real sucker, aka the best story for the Wolf Man.
Neimann goes to jail because he tried to put a human brain in a dog's body. The only way this movie could have been better was if they had actually showed that.
Dracula: The Spanish-Language Version (1931)
Some people think the Spanish version is the best version of Dracula. It's great and it is easily the second best Universal Dracula movie, but let's not get out of hand.
What's cool about this version is that it was filmed at the same time as the Legosi Dracula, on the same set, using the same marks. The only difference was that Spanish Dracula filmed at night while Dracula filmed during the day.
In most ways, these movies are the same, but I think it's interesting how the different actors play the same roles and also that the director made a much longer film. The script isn't really different, it's just how the performances play out.
Carlos Villarias looks a lot like Bela Lugosi, but his portrayal is very different. With respect, it's not as good, but it is full of flare and he's still the second best Universal Dracula by a lot. He just makes some goofy faces that I thought played counter to the tone of the film as a whole.
But Pablo Alvarez Rubio's Renfield is absolutely wild. Everyone's performance is great.
But I have to disagree with the more recent perception that this film is better shot. I like that this film takes its time more, but I think there's better visual clarity of intention in the Lugosi version.
The craziest part is that this film is only mentioned as an extra on the Legacy Collection when it absolutely stands head and shoulders over most other Dracula films. Definitely do not skip it.
I know some people want to throw this stone classic under the bus. Yes, it is very short. Yes, it ends very abruptly. But if you are trying to argue that Bela Lugosi's Dracula is not the best Universal Monster movie (and maybe still the best Dracula movie, period), you are kidding yourself.
Dwight Frye playing Renfield's transformation from normal dude to crazed bug-eater is nothing short of harrowing. Sometimes I forget just how creepy he is in this movie, but he is the literal stuff of nightmares when he comes off that boat full of dead sailors.
Edward Van Sloan is maybe the best Van Helsing I've seen. He plays everything with this perfectly balance of subtlety and intensity that never wavers throughout the whole movie. He really is a perfect nemesis to Dracula.
And then there's Bela's Dracula, easily the most charismatic and the most mesmerizing take on the character of all time. There's a reason Lugosi was so permanently linked to Dracula, even to his career detriment. No one had ever portrayed a vampire the way he did, and perhaps no one will again. The eyes, the smile, the tempered rage ... Lugosi stands head-and-shoulders above almost any actor I've ever seen.
Part of me wishes I could go back in time and say, hey guys, how about a denouement for your otherwise perfect film? But that feels like tempting fate. I love the original Dracula, rushed ending and all.