An Alternate History of Horror: The Wolf Man vs. Dracula

Chaney and Lugosi's might have met in their most iconic roles 4 years before Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Making movies is an expensive, time consuming business that requires a lot of people to all get on the same page and stay there. This means that there are a whole lot more ideas developed – good or bad – and screenplays written than ever actually make it to theaters or home video. In this series, I’m going to take a look at a few horror movies that never quite made it in front of the cameras, or that ended up reaching us in radically different forms than what was originally intended.

 

The Wolf Man vs. Dracula (1944-ish)

Written by: Bernard L. Schubert

Starring: Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi (and it’s a pretty safe bet that Lionel Atwill would have been in there, as well)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

The silver age of Universal horror movies (1939-1944) provided pretty few genuine classics relative to the studio’s earlier golden age (1931-1936). While Val Lewton was producing significant, artistic horror over at RKO in the 1940s, Universal was going the more populist rout, selling the audience familiar monsters instead of unique stories. With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), they hit on a real money-making formula: bringing together multiple monsters in the same flick. This quickly led to the “monster rally” pictures, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), which both relied on squeezing as many monsters as possible into the narrative, whether it all tied together into a satisfying whole or not. These, in turn, led to the classic horror comedy monster rally, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

But there was another course history might have taken. In the wake of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and with their remake of Phantom of the Opera (also 1943) having established that horror could work in color, the next monster mash-up proposed was at one time to be a color production, The Wolf Man vs. Dracula. Lon Chaney Jr. would have returned to the role of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, while Bela Lugosi – after a 13 year break – would have been back in the role of Dracula (a triumphant return he did not make until Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein). A screenplay was commissioned from writer Bernard L. Schubert, who had co-scripted the earlier Lugosi vampire movie Mark of the Vampire (1935) for MGM.

The story has Talbot and Dracula at odds over a woman, Yvonne, whom the former is trying to protect and the latter seeks to enslave. The major success of the script is in the idea of Dracula blackmailing Talbot and eventually taking on his own lupine form in order to commit murders that will be pinned upon his enemy. It’s a marvelous bit of cunning on the Count’s part, and it’s a unique way to put Talbot even more on the defensive than usual.

Unfortunately, the cost of shooting in color meant that the screenplay was written to minimize all other expenses. These movies rely a lot on impressive, atmospheric settings, and one of the major sacrifices here was to the number and expanse of the sets required. It also offers a fairly limited cast, meaning it wouldn’t have provided much work for Universal’s ensemble of distinctive character actors.

But, in a production that was all about the gimmick of showing off the monsters, the most unfortunate cost-cutting measure is the minimal screen time allotted for Talbot in his werewolf form. The bulk of the story takes place between consecutive full moons, so we only get real Wolf Man action at the beginning and ending. Especially disappointing is that the climactic battle between Talbot and Dracula happens before Talbot’s end-of-movie transformation, so audiences would have been robbed of the title’s real promise: The Wolf Man and Dracula actually duking it out. Instead, an entirely human Talbot destroys Dracula (who is in bat form at the time, so it wouldn’t have even been a fight between Chaney and Lugosi, but between Chaney and a mechanical bat). With the story basically resolved, the script then goes on for a further 15 pages (about 1/8 of its total length), so that Talbot can transform, menace the woman he’s been protecting, and suffer an anti-climactic end as he is shot with a silver bullet.

Archivist Philip J. Riley has published Schubert’s screenplay, and it’s worth a read, not just as a historical curiosity, but for a handful of really effective scenes (some character-driven, some the stuff of classic horror) which touch on the potential of the conflict between Talbot and Dracula. Had Universal decided to shoot this picture in black and white, the script could well have been re-written with the additional budget used to provide more Wolf Man content – particularly a more satisfying final battle – and probably would have yielded a more satisfying product than the jumbled (if still charming) mess that is House of Frankenstein.

The Curse of Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein

Even if they’d gone ahead with the color version, there’s enough good in the script that the right director definitely could have made a successful picture out of it. The double-whammy of full color horror this would have formed with the then-recent Phantom of the Opera might (and I’m engaging in pure conjecture here) have ushered in the era of polychromatic monsters more than a decade before Hammer proved this approach could yield big scares and big bucks by staining the screen red in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958).

Now, if I may veer even further into the realm of wild speculation… Prior to production on House of Frankenstein, which was promoted on the monstrous line-up of the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mad Scientist, and the Hunchback, Universal had announced plans for a very different monster rally; The Devil’s Brood would have featured the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and the Mad Ghoul (titular star of one of the less remembered, but also one of the best, of the silver age

flicks), among others (unnamed). It’s hard to imagine how this rather odd assembly would have been tied together, but the results might have been interesting. With the Wolf Man and Dracula both tied up in their own movie, perhaps the studio would have gone ahead with The Devil’s Brood as well.

Of course, this alternate history might have robbed us of the atmospheric and surprisingly well-plotted House of Dracula, and maybe even the delightful Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, so let’s not wish too hard, okay, folks?

Clearly, classic monsters in full color never looked as good as when they were also Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... for some reason

Clearly, classic monsters in full color never looked as good as when they were also Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… for some reason

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3 Comments on this post.

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  • Jennifer
    1 November 2014 at 12:44 am - Reply

    I love your first sentence: “Making movies is an expensive, time consuming business that REQUIRES A LOT OF PEOPLE TO ALL GET ON THE SAME PAGE AND STAY THERE.” Every film student should tattoo that on their foreheads.

  • An Alternate History of Horror: Day of the Dead
    17 November 2014 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    […] Previously in this series: The Wolf Man vs. Dracula […]

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    24 November 2014 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    […] The Wolf Man vs. Dracula […]

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