Drácula (1931, George Melford)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Castle Dracula in Transylvania; aboard a ship on the open seas; London. Renfield mentions that he was called to the bar in 1928, so we’re in the 1930s.

Faithful to the novel? The story of the production of this Universal Pictures film is both famous and fascinating. It’s a Spanish-language movie produced at the same time and on the same sets as the more famous English-language version starring Bela Lugosi, with this movie’s crew working at night while the main unit slept. Doubling up like this was an occasional practise in the days before post-dubbing dialogue was possible and it allowed the studio to release the same title in different territories. Using the same script and sets, therefore, the Spanish film Drácula has the same storyline as the English version; both were adaptations of the Dracula stage play so the plot only loosely follows Stoker’s book. See my earlier blog here for more details.

Best performance: Eva Seward (played by Lupita Tovar, an actress who lived to be 106 years old, dying only in 2016) is a noticeably more spirited and charismatic character than her counterpart in the Lugosi movie.

Best bit: During production, the Spanish version’s crew kept a keen eye on what the other team were doing and often saw ways of improving the action. One example comes when Van Helsing realises the mysterious foreigner newly arrived in London is a vampire. In both films, the doctor spots that Dracula has no reflection, but look at how the two shots work compositionally. In Tod Browning’s English-language version (left), the debt owed to the stage play is obvious: we’re looking at flatly arranged actors, the mirror is small in the shot and actor Edward Van Sloane has to turn away from the camera to look at it. However, when the same beat was filmed for the Spanish film (right), we can see the shock on the face of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and at the same time the mirror is large and significant in the frame.

Review: If you know the Bela Lugosi movie, it’s an uncanny experience to see different actors performing the same actions on familiar sets. And in some ways the comparison does the more famous film no favours. This lesser-seen Dracula is visually more competent and ‘modern’; the action flows a bit more smoothly and the creepy scenes get under your skin (often by using silence to generate tension). But while director George Melford was popular with his cast, the fact he himself didn’t speak Spanish can’t have helped with the performances, which to this non-Spanish-speaking reviewer sometimes seem stilted and uncertain. One exception is Carlos Villasias, who is effective as Conde Drácula. Uniquely among the cast he was allowed to watch footage of the other film because producers wished him to imitate Bela Lugosi. In the end, he maybe gives the better performance.

Eight London newspapers that apparently print their front-page stories in Spanish out of 10

Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Contemporary America.

Faithful to the novel? This is the third movie in Universal Pictures’ Dracula series, following the Bela Lugosi original and its 1936 sequel. So we’re a way past the plot of Bram Stoker’s book (which actually exists in this story). The enigmatic foreigner Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) has been wooing an American heiress called Kay (Louise Allbritton) and arrives at her New Orleans plantation just before her father dies. Suspicion obviously falls on the mysterious visitor, with Kay’s sister (Evelyn Ankers) and local doctor Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) especially keen to work out what happened. (Brewster had already clocked the oddity that Alucard’s name spelt backwards reads Dracula. The film presents conflicting evidence on whether the character is meant to be the Dracula from the original film resurrected or – as the title suggests – his descendant.) Before they can crack the case, however, Alucard marries Kay and takes over as master of the plantation. Then, in a rage, her ex-boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) attempts to shoot Alucard but accidentally hits Kay – and seemingly kills her. When she later turns up, we realise that she’s been turned into a vampire…

Best performance: When Universal first put a Dracula movie into production, horror icon Lon Chaney was their first choice to play the vampire. However, he died of cancer in August 1930 and Bela Lugosi was cast in his place. Now, Chaney’s son – who was then well known as The Wolf Man in another Universal series – takes over the role. Sadly it’s a pretty neutral performance, lacking either menace or romance. He wears a cape but doesn’t attempt an eastern European accent. Much better is Frank Craven as Dr Brewster. He’s the story’s Van Helsing equivalent, the man who takes up the challenge of investigating and defeating the vampire threat. As he doesn’t have Van Helsing’s prior knowledge of the undead, he calls in a Transylvanian called Professor Lazlo (J Edward Bromberg) to provide the plot exposition.

Best bit: There are several instances of Dracula or Kay morphing into or from the form of a bat or a cloud of smoke. The special effects are very impressive.

Review: The functional direction and under-rehearsed performances are a shame, as the story has the potential for Gothic grandeur. A mysterious outsider enthralling a vulnerable young woman and taking over her family’s rambling estate could be straight out of a Victorian melodrama. But rather than tension or drama, most of the movie’s atmosphere comes from Hans J Salter’s stirring incidental music. In the film’s favour, a nice twist comes when we learn that, rather than a meek, naïve victim, Kay has been manipulating Alucard. She pretended to fall under his spell so he would turn her and grant her immortality, then her plan was to dispose of the Count and live forever with her true love, Frank.

Six earthbound spirits whose bodies comes to life at night and scour the countryside, satisfying a ravenous appetite for the blood of the living out of 10

Dracula (1979, John Badham)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The entire film takes place in and around Whitby – so we never see Castle Dracula nor go to London. It’s slightly later than the 1890s of the novel, evidenced by the presence of cars. Some sources claim it’s 1913.

Faithful to the novel? The script is based on the 1920s stage adaptation of Dracula and differs from the book in several key ways.
* As mentioned above, the action is limited to Whitby.
* The story begins with the wreck of the Demeter and the eponymous character’s arrival in Britain.
* Unlike in the novel, Count Dracula (Frank Langella) makes friends with the good guys before starting to seduce the women.
* The hero characters’ relationships have been jumbled around. Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is now the daughter of Dr Jack Seward (a fruity Donald Pleasence), rather than someone he wants to marry. Her other suitors from the book, Arthur and Quincey, have been dropped. And her role in the story has also been swapped with that of her friend Mina (Jan Francis), who now becomes Dracula’s first victim. In another break from the book, Mina is the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), who appears on the scene after she dies.
* Because of the Lucy/Mina switch, solicitor Jonathan Harker (an over-keen Trevor Eve) is now the boyfriend of Lucy. He also never goes to Transylvania, though is still dealing with the Count’s affairs.
* Local man Renfield (Tony Haygarth) is not an inmate at Seward’s sanatorium, as in the novel, but he still falls under Dracula’s thrall.
* The building the vampire has bought, meanwhile, is in Whitby not London – and is a Gothic castle rather than a townhouse.

Best performance: Frank Langella had been playing Dracula in a Broadway revival of the stage play since October 1977. Whether trading cool repartee over dinner or climbing down the side of a building, the Count exudes charm and authority. He wears a cape but uses a neutral accent and, at the insistence of Langella, never flashes any fangs.

Best bit: Well, it’s certainly not the bit where Mina can’t breathe after her sexual encounter with Dracula. What does medical expert Dr Seward do? He slaps her round the face and shouts the word ‘Breathe’ a few times. Not too surprisingly, she then dies. More positively, the sight of the undead Mina is a creepy bit of make-up.

Review: There’s some great staging in this film. The sets are very impressive, while the wreck of the Demeter on a beach is achieved via a full-size ship on a real location. There’s also a good attempt to beef up the gothic-romance side of the story, especially in the subplot of Lucy’s fascination with Dracula. (Their ‘sex scene’ is dramatised by trippy, music-video-like visuals put together by James Bond title-sequence designer Maurice Binder.) John Williams’s score is terrific too. But the whole enterprise has a very earnest tone. The cast – some good, some poor – are fighting against a lacklustre script and the cinematography is very cold with lots of drab, lifeless greys. (Although, perhaps I’m being unfair on that last point because the movie on DVD looks very different from its 1979 print. Director John Badham had wanted to shoot the film in black and white – partly as a homage to the 1931 Dracula – but was overruled by his bosses at Universal Pictures. So when it was released on Laserdisc in 1991, he took the opportunity to de-saturate the image, bringing it closer in line with his original vision. That’s the default version now, which is a shame.)

Six children of the night (what sad music they make) out of 10

House of Dracula (1945, Erle C Kenton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s vague. There are lots of Germanic names, but most of the characters have American accents. There are telephones but no cars.

Faithful to the novel? This is a sequel to 1944’s House of Frankenstein and another of Universal Pictures’ character-crossover events. Despite being destroyed in the previous film, Count Dracula (John Carradine) is back. He wants a cure for his undeadedness, so visits Dr Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), who is remarkably unfazed by a famous vampire walking in at 5am and asking to see the cellar. Dr Edelmann has a couple of nurses working for him. One of them, Nina (Jane Adams), has a deformed back and he intends to help her with an operation. Then – how’s this for a coincidence? – a guy called Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) shows up asking the doctor to cure his werewolfedness. (This was Chaney’s fourth time playing Universal’s Wolf Man.) Depressed that the treatment might not work, Talbot then tries to top himself. He jumps off a nearby cliff but ends up in a cave, where he and Edelmann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the corpse of Dr Niemann from the previous film. Meanwhile, Dracula tries to seduce a nurse called Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) – so to protect her, Edelmann kills the Count with 25 minutes of the film still to go. However, Dracula had earlier infected Edelmann with some vamp blood during a transfusion. So the doctor now has a bonkers dream, which involves clips from previous movies, then goes mental and kills a couple of people (including poor Nina). Talbot reluctantly has to shoot him dead.

Best performance: This was John Carradine’s second appearance as Dracula, after House of Frankenstein. He’s suave and cultured. He later played the Count in three non-Universal films: Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Las vampiras (1969) and Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979). His son David was Bill in Kill Bill.

Best bit: Nina is an interesting character. Given her deformity, she was actually classified as one of the movie’s monsters in some of the publicity (see the poster above). Yet Jane Adams plays her with an inner sadness, and the moment when she realises Dracula isn’t casting a shadow is well staged.

Review: There are a few nice elements on show here, such as some fantastic sets and some good special effects. The bat-to-Drac transformation is neatly done in shadow, for example, while Talbot turning into a werewolf is achieved via some very nifty dissolves with Chaney’s make-up getting increasingly hirsuite. But the B-movie dialogue and cod acting drag everything down.

Five hunchbacks out of 10

Boo! (1932, Albert DeMond)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: N/A

Faithful to the novel? This is a 10-minute comedy short produced by Universal Studios, who in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were behind some very successful monster movies. Boo! is an affectionate parody of the genre, using sarcastic narration over repurposed clips from The Cat Creeps (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and, slightly oddly, the German film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). Why writer/director Albert DeMond didn’t – or couldn’t – use excerpts from the studio’s recent Dracula (1931) is unknown. Other than the title sequence (see pic above), the only new footage in Boo! is of actor Morton Lowry. We first see him reading a copy of the novel Dracula that strangely has its title printed on the wrong side of the cover. A narrator (DeMond) then explains the premise of the film: to explore how nightmares can be entertaining. The man falls asleep and dreams a surreal episode made up of clips from old movies… Firstly, Dracula (actually Count Orlok from Nosferatu) wakes up in his coffin and spooks someone. Next, Frankenstein’s monster wakes up on the operating table, kills a doctor, and then bumps into Dracula and is scared. This historic on-screen meeting – the first ever in cinema – is achieved by cutting together clips from different films. We then meet actress Helen Twelvetrees in footage from The Cat Creeps – “Maybe the nightmare is going to become a pleasant dream!” trills the narrator. The monster approaches her (again, via some cross-cutting) and then Dracula’s hand reaches in and attacks Helen’s male friend. Being a scene from The Cat Creeps, the hand actually belongs to the bad guy from that film. Scared, Helen later goes to bed, where again the monster watches on as Dracula attacks her and another male friend. Then, inspired by Dracula’s actions, the monster heads off to spook actress Mae Clarke (in footage from Frankenstein). We then end on the man from the start of the short, who’s woken up while hanging from a chandelier.

Best performance: N/A

Best bit: The clips used from The Cat Creeps are the only surviving footage from that film. It seems to have been an unsettling horror with a villain not unlike Lon Chaney in the similarly missing London After Midnight. It was a remake of a silent film called The Cat and the Canary (1927).

Review: What a bizarre little thing this is. The clips are mostly silent, with narration commenting on the action and sometimes providing silly voices and groans, while some footage has been reversed or repeated for comedic effect. The continuity isn’t especially convincing or important. The narrator sometimes assumes different characters are the same person, for example, and there’s even a joke about it: “So the caretaker comes downstairs with a hatchet. I don’t know how he got upstairs [because in the previous clip he was in a cellar], but anything can happen in a nightmare.” Some gags work, some don’t. But at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Six woman automobile drivers out of 10

Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This film picks up directly from the end of Dracula (1931), so we start in Whitby. The bulk of the story is then set in London, with a diversion to the Scottish countryside and a climax set in Transylvania. From people’s outfits and the presence of both airline travel and automobiles, it seems to be the 1930s, which is more modern than the first film.

Faithful to the novel? This direct sequel to Dracula is nominally an adaptation of the Bram Stoker short story Dracula’s Guest, though the similarities are vanishingly few. (Published posthumously, Dracula’s Guest was actually a chapter cut from the original book before its release.) As the story starts, we see the corpse of Count Dracula (played by a wax model of Bela Lugosi), and Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has been arrested for murder. Yes, that’s right: *Von* Helsing. They’ve changed his name for some reason. He admits to killing Dracula but is determined to tell the truth about vampirism at his trial, so hires an old psychologist friend to defend him in court. Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is soon on the case with the help of his American assistant, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). Meanwhile, a strange, mysterious, dark-haired woman (Gloria Holden) hypnotises the police guarding Dracula’s remains. You see, she’s the count’s daughter and thinks that by burning his corpse she will finally be free of the vampire curse. It doesn’t work, though, so she must continue to feed in London while posing as a Hungarian artist called Countess Marya Zaleska. With the help of manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she drains the blood of both men and women. She then meets Garth at a soirée (hosted by a lady played by infamous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and sees her chance for redemption. Without spilling that she’s a vamp, she asks Garth to help her through her psychological issues. Later, however, Garth attends to one of Marya’s victims and recognises the signs of vampirism, so asks Von Helsing for his opinion. When Marya then recoils at the sight of a hypnosis machine (because it uses a mirror), Garth’s suspicions are sealed and he knows she’s the vampire they’re looking for. So Marya kidnaps Janet and flees home to Transylvania. Garth, Von Helsing and the very laissez-faire boss of Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), give chase. Marya is at Castle Dracula and says she’ll release Janet if Garth agrees to stay, but then Sandor kills his mistress because he’s grown jealous of her wandering loyalties…

Best performance: Marguerite Churchill is fun, flirty, cute and sarcastic as Janet, who’s kinda in love with Garth and he’s kinda in love with her but they act like they’re not.

Best bit: As has been noted by many people – and indeed, as was hinted at in some of the film’s release publicity – there’s a definite lesbian vibe about Marya. She wants to rid herself of her vampire impulses, and has heard that alcoholics are sometimes told to sit with a bottle and simply use freewill to stop taking a drink. So she gets Sandor to procure a beautiful – I mean, really quite remarkably beautiful – young woman to act as an artist’s model. The subtext of the scene where Marya asks Lili (Nan Grey) to undress, all the while trying to resist biting her, is not so sub.

Review: Helpfully, an early scene has a quick verbal recap of the first film and an explanation of what vampires are. Well, it had been five years since the Bela Lugosi classic. And you know what? Whisper it quietly, but this sequel is the better movie. Free of the shackles of the original’s stageplay plot, Dracula’s Daughter is able to tell a fun and very watchable story. It has more life and energy to it than the first film, still has plenty of spooky fog-bound scenes and Universal Monsters lighting, but also adds some likeable humour (bumbling coppers, a running gag about a bowtie). It’s quick too – just 68 minutes. And in Marya, it has cinema’s first great female vampire. Holden reportedly didn’t think much of the project and only did it because she was under contract. If anything this seems to have helped, because her frustration drove a detached and dangerous performance. There’s a great sense of Marya being a victim too. She’s trapped by her vampiric curse and longs to be ‘normal’. You can’t help but feel for her during the scene where she happily plays a piano and recites flowery poetry – only for the more cynical Sandor to chip in with comments about darkness and death.

Eight vacillating women out of 10

House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C Kenton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Somewhere vaguely European, maybe around the turn of the nineteenth century. This is an entry in Universal Pictures’ series of horror movies all set in the same continuity, so we’re not too far away from what had been established.

Faithful to the novel? No. Dr Gustave Niemann (Boris Karloff) and sidekick Daniel (J Carrol Naish) escape from prison and seek revenge on Bürgermeister Hussman, the guy who imprisoned Niemann. Along the way they murder a travelling showman and take his place – the show includes an exhibit of the bones of Count Dracula. So Niemann resurrects Dracula (John Carradine), who does his bidding. The vampire seduces a woman called Rita (Anne Gwynne) and murders Hussman (Sig Ruman). Niemann then exposes the count to sunlight, killing him. The story continues without any Dracula-related-ness. The doctor ends up in Castle Frankenstein and finds both Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) frozen in ice.

Best performance: Elena Verdugo’s not too bad as Ilonka, a gypsy girl who gets dragged along with the story and forms a love triangle with Daniel and Talbot the Wolf Man.

Best bit: The opening in the prison.

Review: Well, it’s not very good, sadly. It starts off spookily enough, with dramatically lit scenes and plenty of foreboding. But you soon realise the plot is just an excuse for dragging classic monsters into the same story. It gets sillier – and more boring – the longer it goes on.

Three stinky, slimy dungeons out of 10

Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The same locations as the book, though the only scene set in Whitby is the shipwreck. Noisy traffic in London tells us it’s the 20th century.

Faithful to the novel? After a fashion. The screenplay is based on a stage adaptation of Dracula that had been successful in both the UK and America. The story is therefore a slim-line take on the book’s plot. A major change is that it’s Renfield, rather than Johnathan Harker, who visits Transylvania. He falls under the vampire’s thrall after a brief encounter with Dracula’s Brides, then helps the Count travel to England on a ship called the Vesta. Once in the UK, the troubled Renfield is looked after by Dr Seward, who runs the sanatorium next to the house Dracula has bought. Meanwhile, Dracula specifically seeks out his new neighbour and learns that he has a daughter called Mina; she has friends called John Harker and Lucy Weston. (Rejigging the core characters’ relationships will happen a lot in future films too.) Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood have been dropped from the story – as has the climax where the good guys chase Dracula back to his castle.

Best performance: Dwight Frye as Renfield goes from dapper and slightly camp to wide-eyed and batshit crazy. Elsewhere, Bela Lugosi is building a cliché in front of your eyes. From this point on, people will think of Count Dracula in evening dress with a cape, holding a candle and speaking in a stilted accent. (In the novel, the character is said to have perfect English.) Lugosi had actually already played Dracula – in the Broadway production of the play. He’d taken over from future Upstairs Downstairs actor Raymond Huntley, who’d been in the West End cast. Appropriately enough, Lugosi was Hungarian: in 1897, when the original novel had been published, Transylvania was in Austro-Hungary. The film’s cast also has another apt connection: Dr Seward is played by Herbert Bunston, who had actually worked with Bram Stoker at London’s Lyceum Theatre at the turn of the century.

Best bit: In one of the scenes that highlights this is based on a theatre play, Dracula is visiting Seward in his sitting room. Van Helsing spots that the count doesn’t appear in a mirror so confronts him – and Dracula smashes the mirror. (Vampire attacks, by the way, come after fades to black. This might be a pre-Code film, but they still weren’t going to get too violent in 1931.)

Alternative versions: A silent version with intertitles was also prepared for cinemas that had yet to convert their equipment to sound. Sadly it seems that cut is now lost. But what does survive is the Spanish-language Dracula that was made concurrently with this movie. Rather than a badly dubbed copy, this was an entirely separate endeavour filmed by a different cast and crew but using the same script and sets. They filmed overnight while the main unit was sleeping. By some accounts it’s the much better movie of the two.

Review: This movie is only 70 minutes and it doesn’t hang about. It’s a brisk telling of the essential Dracula story. So brisk, in fact, that drama gets left by the wayside. As soon as Renfield arrives in Transylvania, the Count tells him they’re leaving for England. Lucy is killed after just one encounter with Dracula. Van Helsing rumbles him on their first meeting. It’s hardly nuanced stuff. Thankfully, for the first half at least, the film is very creepy. We meet Dracula via a terrifying shot of him in crypt, while his castle has vast, shadowy interiors like a cathedral. But there’s no getting away from the feeling that this is a lacklustre movie. Director Tod Browning made his name in silent film and it shows: dialogue scenes are lethargic and stilted. There’s also an unwelcome debt to the stage play. Characters actually stand at the French windows and describe what’s happening off-screen! Director of photography Karl Freund also shot Metropolis (1927) – one of the most visually ambitious movies of the silent era – but you can sense him wrestling with Browning’s static style. When the camera moves it impresses. But too many scenes play out with no tension, and sadly the story feels flat. Is this a classic despite its director? That would be apt, I suppose: the novel is a classic despite being a poorly written potboiler.

Eight crumbling castles of a bygone age out of 10

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, Charles Barton)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Initially in London, then Florida in 1948.

Faithful to the novel? This film was the first in a series where comedy duo Abbott and Costello (playing different characters each time) met classic villains from Universal Pictures’ run of horror movies. Dracula, for example, is played by Béla Lugosi – the only time he ever reprised his role from the 1931 adaptation of the book. The Count’s ‘corpse’ and that of Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) are being transported to an American museum. When railroad delivery clerks Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) drop the crates off, however, the two horror icons wake up and the Count wants swap the monster’s brain with that of Wilbur’s. Dracula can morph into a bat, an effect achieved by some nice animation. Later, the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr) arrives to stop the Count’s evil plan, while the Invisible Man makes a cameo at the end (voiced by an uncredited Vincent Price).

Best performance: Lou Costello – the shorter, fatter, dumber one – is very silly and very funny.

Best bit: Wilbur keeps seeing Dracula in and out of his coffin, but it only happens when Chick is out of the room. A section of the sequence involves a candle sliding about on Dracula’s coffin lid as the Count lifts it up – the joke had also been in used in A&C’s earlier film Hold The Ghost.

Review: Funny, likeable stuff, but also played for frights at times. Despite the film’s title, Dr Frankenstein doesn’t appear.

Seven insurance investigators out of 10