Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Wolf Man vs Dracula: An Alternate History For Classic Film Monsters

The Wolf Man vs Dracula: An Alternate History For Classic Film Monsters, by Philip J. Riley
No month stated, 2010 BearManor Media

I’ve wanted to read this for a long time. The story on this slim trade paperback is that The Wolf Man vs Dracula is an unproduced script written in 1944 by Universal Studios screenwriter Bernard Schubert, who went on to write the Universal picture The Mummy’s Curse. The script then sat in a box in Schubert’s garage for “forty years” before he and book editor Philip J. Riley got it out. 

The curious thing of course is that Schubert’s name is not printed on the cover of this publication, only Riley’s. Also, Riley has copyrighted the book himself – even though he himself does not contribute anything to it (other than finding the script and talking to the people who worked on it, that is). What I mean to say is, there is no introduction from Riley, or summary of the project, or anything. Indeed this book would have greatly benefitted from a bit more background. As it is, we get a few short introductory pages comprised of the hazy, decades-later memories of two men involved with the aborted project: Schubert (who died in 1988), and special effects man David S Horsley (who died in 1976). 

So in this regard we are presented with the thoughts of men who are no longer around to support the claims. I only note this because apparently Philip J. Riley has come under heavy fire from the Monster Kid community for such stuff: see the Classic Horror Film Board thread on this publication for more on that. The majority of the thread is nothing more than character assassination of Riley, accusing him of everything from plagiarism to theft. To his credit, Riley briefly appears on the thread to defend himself, acknowledging his occasional gaffe (it would appear his greatest “sin” was mixing up the names of a few actresses) and stating that he is merely a fan, publishing material for other fans. 

One of the biggest accusations is that the script for The Wolf Man vs Dracula is shall we say fake, a product of Philip J. Riley’s mind and no one else’s. This is because none of the “major” Universal historians (ie David J. Skal, Gregory Mank, etc) had ever heard of it prior to the publication of this book, and apparently there are no mentions of Schubert’s script in the official Universal records – though some people on that thread I linked to did find a trade announcement from 1944 which confirmed that Bernard Schubert was working on a script of this title. Of course, the answer is that the script sat in Schubert’s garage, and Riley kept the discovery of it to himself. And also, all those accusing Riley of making it up could have saved themselves some trouble and just read the damn book: it is quite evident that this script was written by a Universal screenwriter in the mid 1940s. 

Anyone who has seen the “monster rally” films of the ‘40s, ie Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House Of Frankenstein, and House Of Dracula, will know one thing: the monsters seldom actually appear in the movies, and when they do it’s brief. And the producers never take advantage of having all these monsters together in one picture; indeed, the monsters will usually have their own separate plots and never come together. Only in the final minutes of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man or the finale of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein do the monsters really interract. Compare to a modern-day approach to the concept, a la Return Of The Wolf Man, in which the monsters share a lot more “screen time” with one another. 

But that ‘40s mindset is front and center in The Wolf Man vs Dracula. I mean first of all, and I apologize for any spoilers, but the title itself is misleading. The “Wolf Man” doesn’t fight Dracula at all in this script! Instead, it’s Larry Talbot, ie the man who is cursed with being a werewolf (Lon Chaney Jr), fighting a giant bat in the climax. There is no scene where the actual Wolf Man fights the actual Dracula. And, true to the underwhelming vibe of the monster rally films (at least insofar as actual monster stuff goes), Talbot is human for the majority of the script, only turning into the Wolf Man at the very beginning and the very end. As for Dracula, he turns into a “giant bat” a bunch of times, but spends the majority of the script trying to get his fangs into some random countryside girl, for reasons never properly explained. 

Here's where more of those accusations come in, because in that hazy-recollections prologue, special effects guy David S. Horsley claims that The Wolf Man vs Dracula was to be shot in technicolor, and that color test photos were taken of Lon Chaney Jr. These photos have never been seen, though Riley intimates in the intro that he has seen them – however they are not reproduced in the book. Also, the historians claim there’s no indication Universal had any plans for a technicolor film in this genre at this time. But Horsley’s claim is backed up by the hazy-recollections of screenwriter Schubert, also in the prologue, who states that he was hired for the job precisely due to his work on a technicolor picture, thus he knew how to cater his script to the increased cost involved with color. 

What this means is that The Wolf Man vs Dracula would look pretty cheap, only taking place in a few locations (re-used sets from previous pictures, as thriftily noted by Schubert in his script) and only featuring a few actors. Oh and I forgot – another claim is that none other than Bela Lugosi would once again play Dracula, playing him for the first time on screen since the 1931 film. Horsley in his recollections says he’s unsure if color photos were taken of Lugosi, but one thing insinuated is that Lugosi was too old at the time for the physical action of a monster fight, thus the necessity of replacing him with a giant bat in the action scenes. This is where Horsley came in, trying to work up a giant mechanical bat to look realistic in technicolor. 

So there’s your buzzkill early in the review: the cover (created by Philip Riley and taken from period illustrations – and in fact I seem to recall a thread once upon a time that he was even accused of ripping this illustration off!) is a total lie. The “Wolf Man” does not fight Dracula. I mean technically he does, but it’s Larry Talbot in his non-wolf form. And he’s fighting a giant bat, not Bela Lugosi in a cape. Interestingly, the actual Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man did indeed fight the actual Bela Lugosi Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, one of the saving graces of what I consider an altogether annoying movie. Also that film established Larry Talbot as a vampire hunter…and curiously the seeds of that idea are planted in this unproduced script. Oh and that’s another thing…throughout the book it is “The Wolfman vs Dracula.” Every Monster Kid worth his salt knows the Universal character is referred to as “The Wolf Man,” ie two words. 

Another thing to handle straightaway is that the intro features a more serious goof, and again it’s “voiced” through the recollections of Schubert, who died many years before this book was even published. Schubert – or Riley speaking for him – states that The Wolf Man vs Dracula “would have been a natural sequel to Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.” Within the first few pages of the script we realize how innacurate this is: The Wolf Man vs Dracula is actually a “natural sequel” to 1944’s House Of Frankenstein. According to that Classic Horror forum I linked to above, Philip Riley apparently acknowledged his mistake in this regard on some social media forum. But goofs like this are no doubt why he is disparaged by the Monster Kid community. 

Anyone with even a passing interest in the Universal monster rally films will recall that Larry Talbot “died” in the finale of House Of Frankenstein after being shot by a silver bullet, fired by a gypsy girl who loved him. This is how Talbot is discovered in the opening of The Wolf Man vs Dracula, lying beside the skeleton of a girl in gypsy clothes. So in other words the script picks up right after the climax of that film…several years later, but still. It sure isn’t a sequel to Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which ended with Talbot as the Wolf Man being swept away in a flood beneath Frankenstein’s castle while fighting the Monster. 

So here is the plot of The Wolf Man vs Dracula in a nutshell: Larry Talbot is revived, briefly turns into the Wolf Man in the hospital and kills a guy, then escapes into the countryside. When next we encounter Talbot he is back in human form, still in Transylvania, and has, apropos of nothing, hunted down a local man named Anatole. This is because Anatole, we learn, is the town hangman, and somehow Talbot thinks the hangman will be able to kill him. For good. Meanwhile, none other than Count Dracula has designs on Anatole’s “dowdy” young daughter, Yvonne, if not for that pesky crucifix she wears. Talbot marries Yvonne to force her dad to kill him(!?), and Dracula claims he can “help” Talbot die…if only Talbot will get rid of Yvonne’s pesky crucifix! The action climaxes with Talbot fighting Dracula (in giant bat form) and saving Yvonne from the vampire’s clutches. After this Talbot turns into the Wolf Man and runs roughshod over the local gendarmes in Dracula’s castle, finally being gunned down by Anatole. 

In the opening, Schubert implies that his script went unfilmed because Universal had met their picture quota for that year or somesuch. I think another reason might be that his script is subpar. Sure, this is likely his first draft, but as it stands, Schubert’s The Wolf Man vs Dracula is pretty lame (and pretty tame), and it makes even the most maligned monster rally film, House Of Dracula, seem like Citizen Kane in comparison. Maybe an inventive director could have brought some life to the proceedings, or maybe just the novelty of seeing Chaney and Lugosi in color would have sufficed. But the story itself just sucks. (If that’s too lame of a monster rally pun for you, you could instead say it lacks any bite.) 

And I’m judging the script by the merits of its filmed contemporaries, not from a modern-day perspective. I mean the monster rally films weren’t exactly grounded in logic. Look at Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which detours into nonsense in the middle half: Larry Talbot starts the picture wanting to die, but halfway through he’s suddenly maddened to revive Frankenstein’s Monster. Even considering that, The Wolf Man vs Dracula suffers from illogical plotting. Like most notably, Larry Talbot barges into Anatole the hangman’s home, announces that he is a “murderer” and wants to die…and Anatole is like, “You can stay here for the night! Oh, and this is my daughter, Yvonne!” It’s just ridiculous. 

Even more ridiculous is Dracula’s fixation on Yvonne, which makes no sense. Actually, Dracula’s presence itself makes no sense. He’s not introduced in any grand fashion; literally we are just informed he happens to be sitting in Anatole’s home when Anatole himself is introduced in the script. Dracula’s just dropped in to chat with the town hangman. That’s literally the guy’s big introduction. And also the dialog, later in the script, intimates that there’s some confusion at play…that this Dracula is only a “relative” of the Dracula who caused all that trouble in London some years ago, ie the events of the 1931 film. Of course it’s the same vampire, though none of the locals realize he’s a vampire. 

And why Dracula is obsessed with Yvonne is a mystery. The impression I got was that she must be the only attractive young woman in the area. But the script makes it clear that Yvonne is not attractive…at least in how she presents herself. Only Dracula can see how hotstuff she really is…something we viewers get to see when Talbot marries Yvonne and she suddenly transforms into a mega babe. But then in the actually produced monster rally films, Dracula (as played by John Carradine) was also a bit of a lothario, so I guess the whole Yvonne storyline makes sense in that regard. What I’m trying to say is it’s so unexplored and unexplained…and so humdrum. We’re talking about Count Dracula here. Literally all he does in The Wolf Man vs Dracula is try to get some young Transylvanian girl to remove her crucifix so he can bite her neck. 

Another thing is that Dracula doesn’t even have any good dialog. In fact, the dialog throughout is without note, though Schubert does successfully capture the whining of Larry Talbot. I could see Lon Chaney Jr. delivering all of Talbot’s lines, so Schubert succeeds in capturing his voice; in Schubert’s comments in the intro, he notes that the Wolf Man was screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s “baby,” but again Schubert got this particular writing gig due to his experience writing to technicolor. There are very few speaking roles in the script; it really is almost a situation horror-drama concerning the core characters of Larry Talbot, Count Dracula, Anatole, and Yvonne. A character who briefly appears is “The Commissioner,” and it seems evident that the role was written with Lionel Atwill in mind; by this point in his career a beleaguered Atwill mostly just had supporting roles in Universal horror pictures. The Commissioner only appears in two or three scenes, but his dialog has a very Atwillian bent. 

Monster action is almost nonexistent. Early in the film Talbot turns into the Wolf Man; given that he’s in the hospital when this happens, the scene comes off like a retread of a sequence in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. After this Talbot doesn’t transform again until the finale, when he again becomes the Wolf Man after fighting Dracula(!!). Schubert does present a little more “Wolf Man carnage” than was seen in the other films of the day; the Wolf Man tears into several gendarmes in the finale before being brought down, yet again, by a silver bullet. Schubert not only recycles sets in his script but scenes as well. Throughout The Wolf Man vs Dracula Talbot pushes Anatole to make a silver bullet to kill him with…which again is more illogical stupidty because Talbot goes to Anatole because Anatole is a hangman! Why the hell would he suddenly expect him to craft a silver bullet? But anyway Talbot as the Wolf Man meets the exact same end as in House Of Frankenstein, gunned down by a silver bullet. 

Other monster action: Dracula transforms into a giant bat a few times, flying back to his castle. There’s also a part where he turns himself into a wolf and attacks some townspeople, trying to frame Talbot. Now a curious thing here is that Dracula, like everyone else in the script, tells Larry Talbot he’s crazy to think he’s a werewolf, because werewolves don’t exist. I thought this would go somewhere, like Dracula of course knowing there are werewolves and looking to turn the Wolf Man into his vassal. Like for example in the contemporary Bela Lugosi flick Return Of The Vampire. But Schubert does nothing with the setup. About the most we get is a part where Talbot ventures into Dracula’s castle and discovers some monster lore in Dracula’s library; in an uninentionally humorous scene, Talbot spends all night reading the books, suddenly becoming an expert on vampires! In fact it is Talbot who keeps insisting to Anatole and Yvonne that Count Dracula is a vampire. This means that Talbot spends the majority of the script trying to convince people that monsters exist: that he himself is a werewolf and Dracula is a vampire. 

But it’s the biggest miss that the Wolf Man and Dracula never actually meet, at least in their monster forms. Talbot heads into Dracula’s castle in the final scene, battling the giant bat and staking it – another special effects shot which would see Dracula dissolve into dust. But it is an ignoble end for Dracula for sure. Even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein realized the value of having the actual monsters fight one another. My assumption is Schubert was writing under the notion that Lugosi would be physically unable to handle an action scene, but this too is odd because Lugosi, as the Frankenstein Monster, battled Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, released just the year before. Who knows. The long and short of it is that it’s underwhelming, not to mention a letdown given the title of the script. 

So in conclusion, it is not to the loss of the Universal horror franchise that The Wolf Man vs Dracula never came to be. The titular characters come off poorly and the story hinges on one illogical development after another. I wonder though if the script made the rounds in the Universal screenwriter department. Curiously, Larry Talbot is suddenly alive and well in 1945’s House Of Dracula, which turned out to be the actual film that followed House Of Frankenstein. As mentioned, that earlier film ended with Talbot “dead” from a silver bullet. He’s alive again with no explanation in House Of Dracula. Almost makes one wonder if someone goofed and thought Talbot had been reborn as in Schubert’s script. But that doesn’t pan out, for as mentioned Talbot meets the same end in The Wolf Man vs Dracula as he did in House Of Frankenstein.


Steve Carroll said...

Wow, this is pretty fascinating. And the backstory is intriguing. Too bad the end result drops the ball on a direct confrontation between the two monsters.

Gene Phillips said...

This may be a very minor chapter in the history of the Universal monsters but thanks for such a well reasoned analysis.