Saturday, April 23, 2011

Franchises: Universal's Frankenstein Series. House of Frankenstein (1944)

Despite its faults, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a big hit, so Universal naturally decided to up the ante and put more monsters together in one film. In this film, not only do Frankenstein's monster and the wolf man return, but Dracula is along for the ride (albeit briefly) along with a new mad scientist and his hunchback assistant. Sounds like a classic monster fan's dream, right? Well, speaking as one myself, I can tell you that when I first saw this film in my early teens, I was quite disappointed. The biggest disappointment? There's no fight between any of the monsters! Dracula, the wolf man, and Frankenstein's monster never interact with each in this entire film and the mad scientist and hunchback can hardly be counted as classic monsters themselves. Now I will admit that this film does have its good points but it's ultimately a low point in Universal's horror run.

Dr. Gustav Niemann, a cruel and vengeful scientist who was imprisoned for conducting experiments similar to those of Frankenstein, escapes when a storm causes his part of the prison to be destroyed. Along with his hunchback assistant Daniel, Niemann travels across the countryside to get revenge on those who imprisoned him. Along the way, he encounters Count Dracula and later comes across Frankenstein's monster and Larry Talbot, the wolf man. Niemann promises to give Daniel a new body as well as rid Talbot of his werewolfism but in reality, he really intends to resurrect the monster and continue his own experiments.

The very structure of this movie's narrative is unusual. It's episodic, feeling like Niemann's travel log as he journeys across Europe. When he and Daniel first escape the prison, they come across a traveling showman named Lampini, whom they murder and impersonate. They travel to a small town where Hussman, one of Niemann's enemies, is now the burgomaster and Niemann revives Count Dracula to kill Hussman. However, when Dracula tries to take Hussman's granddaughter-in-law along with them, Niemann betrays him by shoving his coffin out of the coach and Dracula is destroyed by the morning light before he can get inside of it. Niemann and Daniel then move on to the small village of Frankenstein, where they find the frozen bodies of the monster and the wolf man in the frozen caves beneath the old estate. After reviving both and picking up a young gypsy girl along the way, the group moves on to Vasaria, where Niemann's old laboratory is. From there, Niemann proceeds to try to revive the monster, Talbot once again becomes the wolf man and goes on a killing spree, and Daniel becomes jealous when Ilonka, the gypsy girl he loves, becomes close to Talbot. Yeah, this plot is a cluster-crap.

Not only is the plot very cluttered but it's full of continuity errors when dealing with previous films. When Niemann and Daniel enter the small village of Frankenstein, they're told that it's been peaceful ever since the dam broke and the Frankenstein monster and the wolf man were swept away. Ludwig Frankenstein's home was in Vasaria in the last couple of Frankenstein films, but Niemann says that they must travel from this place to Vasaria. Not only that, but the village where Henry Frankenstein's home was called Frankenstein. So, where is this place? When it comes to Count Dracula, who exactly is he? One would assume that he's either meant to be the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula played by a different actor or Lon Chaney Jr.'s character of Count Alucard in Son of Dracula. But Lampini, the showman who has Dracula's skeleton, says he found the skeleton in his castle in the Carpathian mountains. Lugosi's Dracula was destroyed in London and Chaney's Alucard in America. Did some decide to send one of those bodies home just out of proxy? Or is this Dracula a different member of the family altogether? Niemann also says that while he didn't know Frankenstein personally, his brother was his assistant and told him the good doctor's secrets before he died. Does that mean that Fritz was his brother? And if so, when did Fritz have time before he was killed to travel to Vasaria and tell Niemann all about it? This film is evidence that by this point, the heads at Universal were more interested in money than keeping continuity straight.

In my opinion, the best thing about this movie is Boris Karloff's portrayal of the evil Dr. Niemann. (Isn't it weird how he went from playing the monster to playing a mad doctor himself?) Niemann is a heartless bastard. He cruelly manipulates people and promises to help them but in reality, only cares about what they can do for him. He promises to build Daniel a new body but turns on him; he promises to serve Dracula is he'll kill Hussman for him but he leaves the vampire to die at the last minute; he promises to help Talbot overcome his werewolfism but once he gives him Frankenstein's records, does nothing of the sort. He's just a horrible character. And yet, even though he's playing someone who is despicable, Karloff has some way of keeping you from completely hating him. It may be just how charming he is when he isn't being evil. One of my favorite scenes is when Niemann has captured Ullman and Strauss, two men who testified against him, and tells them what he plans to do with them. When Ullman begs Niemann not to kill him, Niemann says, "Kill my trusted old assistant? Why, no. I'm going to repay you for betraying me. I'm going to give that brain of yours a new home: in the skull of the Frankenstein monster." He then turns to Strauss: "As for you, Strauss, I'm going to give you the brain of the wolf man so that all your waking hours will be spent in untold agony awaiting the full moon, which will change you into a werewolf." Really well played by Karloff. Unfortunately for Niemann, his constant betrayals eventually turn on him when Daniel tries to kill him and then, he and the monster sink to their doom in quicksand.

The most sympathetic character in the film, perhaps even more so than Larry Talbot, is Daniel, Niemann's hunchbacked assistant, played J. Carrol Naish. He obeys Niemann implicitly, even kills for him, simply because his master has promised to build him a perfect body. You get the impression that Daniel's not a bad person actually: he just got mixed up with the worst type of man imaginable. You actually feel bad for him when Niemann betrays him and snarls at him, "You think I'd wreck the work of a lifetime just because you're in love with a gypsy girl?" And unfortunately, right after that, he tries to turn his beloved Ilonka away from Talbot by warning her that he's a werewolf. But, not only does Ilonka disbelieve him, she tells him that she hates him, that he's mean and ugly. It's really heartbreaking when you remember their initial encounter, where she treated him with kindness. Sadly, when Ilonka is killed, Daniel finally turns on Niemann and tries to kill him but the Frankenstein monster throws him out the window to his death.

Lon Chaney Jr., of course, plays Larry Talbot but by this point, there's nothing new that Chaney can do with the character. All he does is mope around and act sorrowful, waiting hopelessly for when he turns into the wolf man. He's still sympathetic but it's a bit stale. Not only that but as the wolf man himself, Chaney is wasted. He only changes twice and both times are so brief that the monster might as well not be in the movie. He doesn't even get to howl or even snarl! Though, the first time that Talbot transforms is well done. He walks out into the woods and the camera follows his footprints in the dirt, which slowly morph into wolf footprints as he changes and then we see him in full blown werewolf form as he walks away. The music that plays in this scene is also well done and adds to it.

Elena Verdugo plays Ilonka, a gypsy girl whom Daniel saves from an abusive gypsy man. She's actually a very sweet, playful girl. She treats Daniel with kindness when they first meet but when she meets Larry, she becomes smitten with him. Also being a gypsy, she knows the sign of the werewolf and the legend associated with it. She initially refuses to believe Daniel when he tells her that Larry is a werewolf but eventually accepts it when Larry reveals the truth to her himself. She promises to try to help him overcome his curse and loves him enough to make a silver bullet to release him. The scene where she stands outside Larry's window and watches him as he looks at himself in the mirror, waiting to transform, is well filmed and again the music, which is tragic and sorrowful, adds to her eventual inability to shoot him. She finally does shoot the wolf man but he also kills her and in her dying moments, she crawls over to die beside him. It's poignant but I think it would have been more so if the entire movie had been about their relationship, instead of the last quarter of it.

John Carradine plays Count Dracula here and he would play the role quite a few others times, although this movie and House of Dracula would be the only ones worthy of any merit. As I said in my review of that latter film, Carradine is actually quite good. He's as seductive as Lugosi was and even a bit more romantic. The scene where Dracula seduces Rita Hussman in particular is well done. Carradine could also be intimidating when needed. In the scene where he walks in on Hussman, the stare that he gives is quite terrifying. His death scene is also memorable. Unfortunately, Carradine is only in the film for this brief period and even though he would have a chance to perfect the role in House of Dracula, he remains as one of the more underrated actors to ever play Dracula.

Glenn Strange plays the role of Frankenstein's monster but we've now entered the point in the series where I question why he's even present. He stays comatose for the entire length of the movie until the end, where he is quickly chased into the marshes with Niemann and they both drown in quicksand. What was the point of having him in the movie if they weren't going to use him? Strange was supposedly coached by Karloff about how to play the monster but he apparently didn't listen because his robotic movements feel more like Chaney and Lugosi's performances in the previous films. And of course, nothing of what the monster once was as a character remains at this point. As you know, Strange would play the monster even more briefly in House of Dracula but would get to play him the most in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I haven't seen that film in years but I do remember Strange being acceptable there.

The rest of the cast is adequate. Lionel Atwill has a small role in the Dracula section as Inspector Arnz, a friend of Hussman but he doesn't do much. Anne Gwynne and Peter Coe as Rita and Karl Hussman, are nice enough, and Sig Ruman as the old Burgomaster Hussman is quite amusing when he gets drunk later. Another underrated actor, George Zucco, best known for appearing in several of the Mummy films at the time, has a thankless role at the beginning as Lampini, the showman whom Niemann and Daniel murder. One actor of note is Philip Van Zandt, whose role is microscopic but his appearance is interesting because he appeared in a fair share of Three Stooges shorts.

As I said at the beginning, the movie's biggest problem is that it promises a monster mash but doesn't deliver. The trailer says, MONSTER FIGHTING MONSTER! NOW ALL TOGETHER IN HORRIFIC FILM! That first part is a total lie. Dracula is destroyed before the Frankenstein monster and the wolf man even come into the film and those two never interact. Even though this film was a low budget cash-in, they could have at least delivered what they promised. Not only that but the sets are not as well designed as in previous movies and some sound effects from previous movies are used. When Daniel is thrown out of the window by Frankenstein's monster, his scream is actually Karloff's scream as the monster from Son of Frankenstein. According to some sources, the monster's face in some scenes is actually a mask of Lon Chaney Jr.'s monster. I do, however, like that for the first time, there's no character related to the Frankenstein family because their need to clear the family name had run its course by this point. Ultimately, though, what's disappointing about House of Frankenstein is how much of a cash-in it really is and how the studio viewed their franchises at this time.

Director Erle C. Kenton did what he could with the jumbled script for House of Frankenstein and while he did manage to pull some great stuff out of it, the film is ultimately a letdown for fans. It doesn't deliver on the promised monster battle, the actors are mostly good but there are so many characters introduced throughout that it's hard to find some to care about, and the ending is abrupt and disappointing. I would recommend it for fans of Universal horror but you'd better set your expectations low.

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