Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Larry Talbot vs. Dracula: Part 1

The way he walked was thorny, though no fault of his own.... This past weekend, moviegoers saw Lawrence Talbot begin a new journey along a fairly familiar path. My friend Wendigo is invalid enough that he can't watch a film he craves to see until it hits DVD, so this weekend he and I entertained ourselves by examining the end of Talbot's original journey -- the two ends, actually: the formal end of his storyline and a satirical epilogue.

So we start at the end: Erle C. Kenton's House of Dracula (1945), a film that some take as proof that the Universal Monster genre had gone creatively bankrupt. Its cavalier attitude toward series continuity, its late attempt to almost undo Universal's place in history as the pioneers of true supernatural content in horror films by reducing curses to medical ailments, and its upstaging of all the classic monsters by a mad scientist, make it look like the end of the series (for it's very consciously the end) had come just in time, if not a little too late. But Wendigo, I suspect, isn't the only person who considers it at the very least an improvement on 1944's House of Frankenstein, and speaking for myself, I think that mad doctor deserves some credit as Universal's last great creation of its classic, pre-Creature From the Black Lagoon era.

Continuity is out the window once Baron Latos, the man who claims to be (and as far as Universal is concerned, is) Count Dracula bats his way through an open window to ogle Miliza, a live-in nurse and research assistant in the employ of the eminent Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens). After satisfying his voyeuristic urges, though not his vampiric ones, Latos (John Carradine) strolls into Edelmann's quarters shortly before dawn. Excusing the hour and the intrusion, Latos banters his way into a confession of his Count-dom and declares his readiness to be rid of the curse that compels him to drink blood. We last saw Latos as a pile of bones bleaching in the open air once he fell off the wagon in House of Frankenstein. So what's the rule, now? Did someone just have to drag the skeleton indoors to bring him back? Admittedly, we could ask what Dracula's staked skeleton was doing somewhere in Pre-Occupied Europe at the start of HofF when we saw alleged Dracula Count Alucard skeletonized somewhere in Louisiana at the end of Son of Dracula? Universal was no longer asking questions, probably presuming that audiences no longer regarded its monsters as anything but cartoon characters who could turn up at any time or place as a script demanded, but that doesn't mean we can't ask.

Carradine's glare at Martha O'Driscoll may have something to do with her being billed ahead of him in a film called House of Dracula!

Wendigo likes to speculate that Latos and Alucard are imposters, either vampires actually turned by the original Dracula (you know who) or interlopers exploiting the real one's absence to advance themselves in the realm of the supernatural. He offers this as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, since he concedes that Universal had no interest in vampire continuity as of Son of Dracula. As Latos, Carradine has more to do in HofD than in his perfunctory previous outing, and he gives a better performance: more refined, colder, less southern gentleman-like. As the title says, he's the center of the film, though once again he drops out of the picture well before the end.

When he first saw HofD, Wendigo believed that Latos sincerely desired a cure but succumbed to his unnatural lust for Miliza. It's clear to him now that Latos had an urge for the nurse from a previous encounter, meant to vamp her and made himself Edelman's patient in order to get close to her -- but why doesn't he just bite her when he can freely fly through her window??? Wendigo suggests that Latos was toying with Edelmann and his staff, but he admits it's not a very convincing explanation. You could also argue that he initially sought a cure to win her as a human, since he submits to Edelmann's initial treatments. But he quits the treatments and sets about mesmerizing the nurse and making his usual spiel about the strange twilight world where the people are dead, yet alive, that peculiar emotionless realm where there are, on Latos's word, no material needs, yet he needs to drink the blood of the living. I wonder sometimes whether the mythical realm of Visaria where the House films take place isn't itself the strange twilight world where World War II isn't happening and Larry Talbot seems to be falling backwards through time from his 1941 starting point.

Could Latos have been cured? The film hints that Dr. Edelmann is on to something, and there'd be no reason for Latos to stop the treatments if they weren't going to work. Edelmann's success with Larry makes one wonder whether he could have worked similar wonders with a more compliant Latos, but his failure to complete the treatment leaves open whether the curse of vampirism is something beyond science. Of course, we had been led to believe that Larry's curse was beyond the ken of science, and look what happens to him.

What a coincidence. One day after Latos shows up at Edelmann's office, Larry Talbot turns up begging for help, only to run off impatiently when the doctor doesn't come running. We last saw Talbot dead at the end of House of Frankenstein with a silver bullet through the heart, shot there by a gypsy girl fulfilling the rule that one who truly loves a wolfman and is willing to die for him can kill him. Only he isn't killed. There's a lot of stuff that can kill a wolf man, we've learned over time, but nothing does it permanently. Larry gets himself arrested and locked in the local jail by the ever-authoritative Lionel Atwill, and the result leaves us asking why Talbot never thought of this before. Before the eyes of a hastily-summoned Edelmann, Larry transforms into the Wolf Man, tugs at the iron bars a few times, sinks to the floor in despair and rolls into a catatonic fetal position for the rest of the night. How the mighty are fallen! Admittedly, Wendigo realizes in retrospect that, in order to have a happy ending in 1945 under the Production Code, Talbot could have no blood on his hands. But this spectacle in jail, followed by his failure to kill Dr. Edelmann in a cliffside cave (the old man holds out until sunrise) make it a kind of relief that we never see the Wolf Man again.

Guess who they find in that cave? It's the Frankenstein Monster, who oozed his way here through the quicksand he sank in at the end of House of Frankenstein. Are we supposed to believe that? Yes! For there beside him are the bones of Dr. Niemann, the only explicit reference to the previous movie, and a mint-condition manuscript of Dr. Frankenstein's Secrets of Life and Death. So there is continuity of a sort, and we're all justified in asking every question you want about how Latos and Talbot got out of their predicaments. I suppose they could have handled the Monster the same way as the other monsters. I can see him banging on Edelman's door and announcing himself: "Me...sick...fix?...friend?"

Edelmann and Talbot drag the thing to the former's lab, where Larry warns the good doctor against experimenting with the Monster. His argument from experience, on top of a stern moral argument from Nina, his other nurse, convince Edelmann to leave it alone. Nina longs for Edelmann to cure her hunchback and pines for him as a person, though I wonder at her reasoning. As things stand she's the world's prettiest hunchback. Afterwards, she'd only be another pretty nurse. As it is, she has a prettier face than Miliza, but those insensitive boors Talbot and Latos can't look past the hump, apparently. They only have eyes for Miliza, and one wonders whether there's a missing scene in which Latos's jealousy over Talbot making a move on the blonde nurse provokes him into rejecting his treatments and asserting his dominance. You have to wonder. You have to wonder why poor Nina has to die in such a brutal way later on when she's a more sympathetic character than Miliza. Wendigo's sad conclusion is that Miliza was simply too blonde to die.

The lovely Jane Adams as Nurse Nina, with that distracting hump away from the camera

Anyway, Latos pulls a fast one on Edelmann, rejecting an emergency transfusion and instead infusing the poor doctor with his own accursed blood. He heads for Miliza's room to take her once and for all, but Edelmann recovers quickly, follows Latos into the room, and pulls a cross on him. As Larry enters through another door, Latos cowers and runs for his coffin. This is the only encounter of Chaney and Carradine in the entire film, but Wendigo points out that this could be sufficient to establish Talbot's lasting enmity toward Dracula, since the vampiric bastard was going after his woman! We learn quickly that Latos has planned things poorly. All this time he's existed at Edelmann's suffrance, since the doc could expose Latos's encoffined corpse to the sunlight through a basement window anytime he pleased. After this episode, Edelmann damn well pleases.

Larry never actually sees Baron Latos face to face, so the fact that Count Dracula looks quite different in their next encounter wouldn't have fazed him at all.

Exit Latos, but he's done his evil work. His blood flows through Edelmann's veins, but instead of developing a thirst for blood, the accursed doctor develops a lust to kill. It's ironically Wolf Man-like, but Wendigo says it's Universal's way of finally doing a Jekyll-Hide character. Edelmann doesn't seem to have become a vampire, but he transforms when night falls into a depraved killer. Up to this point, Onslow Stevens has been a benign presence and a straight man for the monsters. Now he takes over the movie and becomes a total badass. With minimal makeup, some mussed-up hair, and lots of his own body language, the transformed Edelmann is a really menacing presence, all the more so for not ranting and raving but playing his malice very cool.

Dr. Edelmann goes through one of those dream-induced transformations, unleashing Onslow Stevens as a grim but gleeful freak who takes over House of Dracula.

Fortunately, while he's still himself Edelmann performs his miracle operation on Talbot, applying some plant extract on Larry's unshaven skull to make it expand, relieving the pressure which we now learn triggered the poor man's lycanthropy. This is a mixed blessing, since that pressure also made Larry immortal, but maybe that was just the power of positive thinking. Whatever was going on in his head, Wendigo says we should bottle it and sell it. If all you have to do is lock yourself in a cell for three nights out of the month, that's not really a high price to pay. It was for Larry, though. He makes clear here that it's unendurable for him to undergo the transformation even if confinement renders him harmless. It's one more grace note in a memorable, archetype-creating multi-film performance by Lon Chaney Jr. Some find his suffering insufferable, but we feel that it expresses a kind of righteous recognition that his condition isn't just bad for him, but profoundly wrong. Wendigo especially appreciates the consistent portrayal of Larry as someone crying for help, or crying out warnings, to whom no one wants to listen. He gets past that early here, since everyone sees him change in jail, but he still has to deal with Atwill's accusation that he committed Edelmann's murders. For once he has to plead innocence, but he gets the same old skepticism.

Look into the light, Larry!

Does Larry's cure betray the concept of the Wolf Man as a tragically accursed creature? Wendigo doesn't think so, simply because Talbot has always been a good guy at heart, despite his unconscious rampages under the full moon. The fact that Universal gave Larry a happy ending is probably the best proof we have of Talbot's popularity with moviegoers. You have to presume that people wanted to see the guy get a break. So why is he a Wolf Man again three years later? Arguably because people wanted him back.

Wendigo can't deny that House of Dracula has plot holes one could fly a jet through and has a questionably rushed finale. After Edelmann's final showdown with Talbot, the Monster lurches through a scene, swatting victims aside almost by accident, before exploding equipment causes a flashback to the finish of Ghost of Frankenstein. This film is in many ways a slapdash product, with an unoriginal score but its saving grace is the studio's desire to get the series over with, to give it an actual end.

This copy of the Realart trailer was uploaded to YouTube by StevieRotten.


dfordoom said...

I have House of Dracula but I've avoided watching it so far. Son of Dracula is (against all the odds) a terrific movie, but mostly I really dislike Universal's 1940s horror flicks. Their contempt for their audience is all too obvious. Even the Monogram programmers with Bela Lugosi from that period are better than Universal's offerings.

And if you compare Universal's movies to the superb stuff Val Lewton was doing at RKO at the same time the Universal stuff seems even worse.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent write-up of a not-so-excellent film. As much as I love Larry Talbot as a character and the Wolf Man as a monster, I tend to just shake my head at the House flicks, even though he's pretty much the hero of them.

I was interested by your consideration of Larry's attitude toward his lycanthropy as something "not just bad for him, but profoundly wrong." He is a good moral being, and the curse that forces him to become evil is obviously unbearable to him. Of course there's also that whole "I've killed an awful lot of people since 1941" thing, which may weigh on his sense of right and wrong more than metaphysical questions.

The happy ending here always bothered me, mainly b/c of those pesky questions we're not supposed to ask--like how swelling of the brain can make you grow a thick pelt that disappears in 8 hours, and also resurrect you from your tomb after who knows how many months. But obviously the operation only offered a temporary cure, so I guess the point is moot. ;)

Sam Juliano said...

Geez if this isn't the mother of all reviews, and I commend your exhaustive examination of a film that I always regarded at the bottom of the barrel of the Universal horrors. Yes, I agree with the Vicat that the "house" flicks in the series are dire, but I applaud your efforts in Wendigo's behalf. Alas your summary judgement is revealed at th eend, but prior to that you provide your readers with some of the best tongue-in-cheek writing I've yet seen on line. Kudos to you.

The 10 best Universal Horrors in my view:

1. The Bride of Frankenstein
2. The Mummy
3. The Black Cat
4. Frankenstein
5. Dracula
6. The Son of Frankenstein
7. The Invisible Man
8. The Wolf Man
9. Phantom of the Opera
10. Creature From the Black Lagoon

Samuel Wilson said...

d: Son is definitely the jewel of Universal's post-Wolf Man output, and the cynicism of the monster rallies is hard to deny. You can see it in the trailer in which they desperately try to sell poor Nina as a monster. Universal's clearly not in Lewton's league, but I don't know if I'd rate them below Monogram.

Vicar: Talbot's guilt and remorse go without saying, though he talks about them a lot. What he seemed to be saying in House of Dracula was that being a werewolf was unbearable even if he could be reliably prevented from killing people, a message lost on those today who see being one (and one of a tribe of 'em) as kinda cool.

Sam: Dig under HofD and you'll find House of Frankenstein, most of the Kharis films, and some other odds and ends. This one at least has Onslow Steven's neat film-stealing turn to commend it, if maybe nothing else.

I'll consult Wendigo later on this subject, but here are my top ten Universal Horrors:
1. Frankenstein
2. Bride of Frankenstein
3. The Wolf Man
4. Son of Frankenstein
5. The Mummy
6. The Invisible Man
7. Dracula (Browning)
8. The Old Dark House
9. The Black Cat (1934)
10. Dracula's Daughter

Samuel Wilson said...

I called Wendigo and he called me a pest but complied with my request. He stresses that these are "favorites," not "best":

1. Frankenstein
2. Bride of Frankenstein
3. Dracula (Browning)
4. Dracula (Spanish)
5. The Invisible Man
6. The Mummy
7. The Wolf Man
8. Creature From the Black Lagoon
9. Werewolf of London
10. Son of Frankenstein