House of Dracula followed in the footsteps of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944), Universal Studios’ earlier “monster mash” movies. It would be a few years before the genre descended into outright self parody, but House of Dracula is still campy and fun compared with the more serious scares of Universal classics like Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941).
The macabre goofiness begins with the opening credits, which drip down like blood dumped on the roof of an A-frame house, coalescing over a shot of a creepy old manse, high atop the cliffs on the shores of what looks suspiciously like the Pacific Ocean. Like most Universal horror movies, House of Dracula seems to takes place in “Europe,” but the details are vague, and everyone speaks English, even though the characters have names like Holtz (Lionel Atwill), Siegfried (Ludwig Stössel), and Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens).
The last time we saw John Carradine as a tall, white-haired, and mustachioed Count Dracula, he was burned up in the sun halfway through the running time of House of Frankenstein. How he came back to life is never explained. How he manages to walk into Dr. Edlemann’s castle without being invited in is also a mystery. But walk in he does, through an unlatched back door, and presents himself to Dr. Edlemann as “Baron Latos.” Dr. Edlemann is a scientific genius with a hunchbacked assistant named Nina (Jane Adams) and a basement full of crazy doodads and contraptions. He is also an expert on the affliction of vampirism. Dracula wants to be cured, and Dr. Edlemann agrees to help him.
The plot thickens when, one evening shortly after sundown but before the rise of the full moon, Dracula is receiving a blood transfusion from Dr. Edlemann in his basement laboratory. A nervous man named Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) appears in Dr. Edlemann’s waiting room. Like Dracula, he is looking for a cure. Dr. Edlemann’s pretty nurse, Miliza Morrelle (Martha O’Driscoll), tells Talbot he’ll have to be patient, but he refuses to wait. “There isn’t time!” he shouts, and runs out of the castle, directly to the nearest police station, where he convinces them to lock him up. He transforms into the dreaded Wolf Man while behind bars, which convinces Dr. Edlemann to take him on as a patient.
Luckily for Talbot, the doctor is also an expert on lycanthropy, and he has a pseudoscientific explanation for Talbot’s condition. Pressure upon certain parts of the brain, coupled with Talbot’s firmly held belief that the full moon can cause a change in his body, brings on self-hypnosis, and the glands that govern his metabolism get out of control. Surgery to enlarge the cranial cavity would be a long and dangerous process. Dr. Edlemann has a more sensible solution. He, Nina, and Miliza are growing a hybrid tropical plant that produces a mold that can soften substances composed of calcium salts, like bone, which will allow Dr. Edlemann to enlarge Talbot’s cranium without surgery. (It will also allow him to dissolve Nina’s hump, which he promises her he will do once Talbot is cured.)
Miliza refers to Talbot as a “young man,” and Dr. Edlemann calls him “my boy,” which are both strange appellations for a tired-looking 39-year-old alcoholic with slicked-back hair and a mustache. His behavior is also strange, but that’s standard operating practice for the Wolf Man’s human alter ego in a Universal horror movie.
After a setback, the impatient Talbot unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide by jumping from the cliffs. The doctor follows him down to one of the seaside caves, where he tells him the conditions are perfect for growing his mold spores, and not to despair. While in the caves, the plot thickens once again when Talbot and Dr. Edlemann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), buried in mud along with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann, who revitalized him back in House of Frankenstein. The villagers chased them into a pit of quicksand, and the mud flow brought them to the caves below Dr. Edlemann’s castle.
The altruistic Dr. Edlemann belts the monster down on an operating table, and wires him for revival, but his reasons for doing this are less clear than his reasons for helping Dracula and the Wolf Man. He says that to not do so would be murder, since the monster is man’s responsibility. (Presumably, if he could speak, the monster would say, “Please bring me back to life so I can destroy you, your laboratory, your home, and everything you’ve worked for.”) Nina and Talbot eventually manage to dissuade Dr. Edlemann from bringing the monster back to life. However, the monster is still hooked up and ready to be reactivated, like a loaded gun carelessly left lying on the floor of a mental institution.
Things start to go south at the halfway mark of House of Dracula, as they tend to when monsters mash. Dr. Edlemann doubles up on the transfusions he’s giving to Dracula, which leads to a fateful accident. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Count casts his hypnotic spell over Miliza, with whom he has a past.
I thought that House of Dracula was a more satisfying picture than House of Frankenstein. The way each monster is introduced is clumsy, but other than that the plot flows smoothly from beginning to end. It’s a spooky good time that doesn’t strain to fit all of its ghoulish pieces into its 67-minute running time.