Today, I watched Son of Dracula
for the first time in a while and now I want to talk to people about it.
You guys, this movie is so weird
. And I don't mean that in terms of its subject matter - it's a fairly run-of-the-mill vampire story, to be honest - but the whole movie feels like the film makers thought they were making one film while the whole time they were, in fact, making a different one.
I spent most of today thinking about the film and trying to put my finger on what, exactly, felt so odd about it. And I think I finally figured it out. See, horror movies from this era are, as the author of the book I'm currently reading points out, like fairy tales or commedia dell'arte. You know who the characters are and what kinds of things they're likely to do before the story starts and the characters don't deviate from that - a wolf is always a wolf, a witch is always a witch, Jack is always Jack. It's the same with 30's and 40's horror film. Except in Son of Dracula
, because there's no role that properly fits Kay Caldwell.
For convenience sake, I'm going to give you a brief plot synopsis of the film (because no one watches this movie). ( It's under here. )
Universal made two Dracula movies before this one. They both feature essentially the same cast of characters: the vampire, the young lovers, the wise old man, a few other intrepid vampire hunters, the vampire's minion, some comic relief, and assorted victims. Sometimes they get a little shuffled or a couple get combined - Dr Garth in Dracula's Daughter
replaces both Dr Seward and Jonathan Harker - but the basic outline is there. (This is also the basic outline of The Mummy
, btw.) But the outline doesn't work with Son of Dracula
, because of Kay. Kay Caldwell doesn't properly fit any of these predetermined roles. She could be the young lover, but she marries someone else and her lover kills her rather than rescuing her. She could be the monster, but we never see her do anything monstrous and she's never presented as frightening. Honestly, the role she fits best - and even this isn't perfect - is the vampire's minion. But no one makes the vampire's minion the center of the film.
And that's why the movie feels so weird
. The wrong character is in the spotlight and it warps everything else out of true. You can see where all the other players are supposed to go - you can almost tell what the movie would have been without that distortion. Frank and Claire
are the young lovers, which provides a reason for Claire's existence in the film. Kay is Renfield, in which case Dracula has been a corrupting influence, or she's Sandor, in which case Dracula has a willing assistant. Either way, because he has control over her, Dracula appears more powerful, more of the monster we're used to instead of the soft-spoken passive milquetoast vampire the film gives us. Since Kay is either less rational or more evil, Dr Brewster seems more
rational and less
evil in his action towards her*. Kay and Dracula are more clearly antagonists, threatening Frank and Claire, and so we get the return of the status quo when the two of them are destroyed. Those characters fit into the framework we're familiar with.
But that's not what we get. Instead, we get Kay stepping forward, taking all the important actions, making all the important decisions. The movie still seems to think that Frank is the protagonist - his is the first name in the credits, he gets the last heroic shot - but it's clearly wrong. Kay is the character whose choices drive the film and one never really feels that the film makers meant
for that to happen. It's really fascinating and is one of the major reasons that I love this movie far more than it deserves**.
I'd really love to learn more about the making of this film, because watching it feels like reading one of those stories where the author tells you that a character started making decisions on their own that the author hadn't planned. I want to know if Kay Caldwell was planned or if she just decided to happen, like she decides everything in the movie.*Nope, never getting over the fact that Dr Brewster tries to get Kay committed for having a goth phase and wanting to marry Hungarian nobility instead of Frank.
**The other reason is Kay herself, who is splendid. Ladies get to be victims or monsters in Universal horror films and Kay chose monster. She chose. I love her for that.