Universal's belated follow-up to DRACULA (1931) and DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936) is the richly atmospheric horror tale SON OF DRACULA (1943), one of the studio's finest supernatural films of the 40s.
At first, Lon Chaney, Jr. may seem a bit beefy for the role of Dracula's son (some believe the title to be a misnomer and that this is actually Dracula, Sr. himself) but he gives the Count an aggressive physicality that predates Christopher Lee's similar portrayal in the later Hammer films.
Chaney's Count, however, augments Lee's aloofness with a manic emotionalism. Having settled in the American South due to a shortage of "fresh blood" in his own little corner of Transylvania, Dracula falls in with the native tendency toward steamy melodrama (in fiction, at least) and surrenders to passions of both the flesh and the spirit when choosing tempestuous, raven-haired Southern belle Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) as his bride.
This, in fact, has been her plan all along, with the aid of an old gypsy woman who lives in a wagon beside a nearby swamp. It's during one of the old hag's crystal ball readings that she delivers one of my favorite (and most unabashedly morbid) lines from any Universal horror movie in foretelling Kay's future: "I see you...marrying a corpse! Living in a grave!"
With the doomed Count falling prey to the devious machinations of the conniving Kay, this atmospheric black and white film has a distinct noirish quality. We see that the lovestruck Drac is definitely unprepared for someone like her, even giving in to such a romantic film trope as rousting the town's justice of the peace for a hasty wedding that will make the Count master of Kay's inherited estate.
Thanks to John P. Fulton's special effects, this is the first film to actually show a man turning into a bat and vice versa. We also get to see Dracula seep under a doorway as a wisp of smoke and then rematerialize before the astonished eyes of Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven) and Prof. Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a Van Helsing-like vampire expert summoned by Brewster to help combat the evil that has come to their humble burg.
The first chilling close-up of Chaney, in which he looks over his shoulder and glares directly at us, is giddy-cool. I also like it when he shows up at the front door of the Caldwell estate that night but is refused entrance by a mournful butler since the master of the house has just died under mysterious circumstances. "ANNOUNCE ME!" Dracula barks menacingly at the poor guy.
Evelyn Ankers (THE WOLF MAN, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN) is as appealing as ever playing Kay's unsuspecting little sister, who reluctantly helps Dr. Brewster sort out the mystery behind Kay and the Count.
Paige gets to emote his head off for most of the film as tragic-hero Frank gets dumped by his fiance' for a vampire, is thrown in jail for murdering her, and then finds out she's a member of the undead who wants him to join her.
Allbritton plays her role for all it's worth, with Kay taking a mad delight in each phase of her descent into evil (unlike the earlier DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, in which Gloria Holden's vampire Countess Zaleska yearns to be a normal person.)
She's stiff competition for Chaney, but SON OF DRACULA is nonetheless Lon's movie and he makes the most of this rare chance to play a monster who's suave, nattily dressed, and doesn't have six hours of makeup obscuring his face.