House of Frankenstein doesn’t sound like a movie that would have vampires in it, but John Carradine turns in a lovely performance as Count Dracula (one that he would reprise in House of Dracula)– the sixth film in the Frankenstein series.
The count is a relatively unimportant character in the plot of this movie, although his scenes are very powerful thanks to Carradine’s acting and director Erle C. Kenton’s handling of the action. There’s also a couple of hints that this Dracula wants a bit more than blood from his female victim, if you get my drift, but let’s leave that to the imagination.
The movie opens with Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) and Daniel the hunchback in an insane asylum, from which they escape and subsequently hijack Professor Lampini’s House of Horrors travelling show. One of his exhibits was the skeleton of Count Dracula and the stake through its heart, keeping him dead. Niemann removes the stake, returning the Count to life. In a nice montage, we see his veins, flesh and so on regenerate before the audience gets a nice glimpse of John Carradine as vampire. Niemann, stake levelled at Dracula’s heart, offers a bargain– kill the burgomeister who sent him to the asylum, and he (Niemann) will look after Dracula’s coffin for the rest of his life. The Count accepts.
He drains the old burgomeister of blood, and, as a bonus for himself, hypnotizes the old man’s daughter-in-law, and takes her with him. This, and the death of the old man, do not sit well with her husband, and who calls the police. Soon he, and a handful of officers are chasing the stolen carriage containing vampire and victim, some of them are riding horses– and there’s another wagon. Dracula is desperately trying to reach Niemann, who is trying his damndest to get out of town. All the while, the sky is getting lighter and lighter. Finally, the mad scientist gives up and simply throws the coffin out of the back of his wagon. Dracula leaps out of the driver’s seat of his carriage and sprints to the box.
Too late. The sun is up, and as the rays hit him, he turns into a skeleton, his arm falling over the lid.
Some people grump that Dracula was only active for about twelve movie hours, and maybe only fifteen minutes of actual running time, and therefore unnecessary to the plot. This is incorrect. It drives home the fact that Niemann will betray all he encounters: Daniel, Lampini, Dracula, Lawrence Talbot…. And the scenes with Dracula are great. Carradine is suitably intense, but one also gets a sense that he’s having fun with the part. And the carriage chase is superb. Everyone is chasing someone else, and the sudden ending is very rattling. But not unsatisfying. It really shows how far Universal had come since the stagebound Browning Dracula. But, even better, House of Frankenstein is not yet over. This most excellent scene does not outshine the rest of the movie.