(1944) Directed by: Erle C. Kenton; Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr.; Story by Curt Siodmak; Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Elena Verdugo, Glenn Strange and J. Carrol Naish; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“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. 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 of the moon, which will change you into a werewolf.” – Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff)
After more than a decade of establishing several distinct monster properties, the well was beginning to run dry for Universal. What was left to do, but mix things up? What initially started as a joke morphed into Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which utilized two bankable monsters. The inevitable follow-up, House of Dracula, raised the stakes (pardon the bad pun…or not), throwing Dracula into the mix as well.* As a cost-saving measure, the filmmakers re-purposed sets from Tower of London (1939) and Green Hell (1940) (source: Monsters: A Celebration of the Classics from Universal Studios). Boris Karloff wasn’t playing the monster at this point in his career. In an interesting spin, however, which retains a link to the earlier Frankenstein films, Karloff plays Dr. Gustav Niemann, a mad scientist who learned about Dr. Frankenstein’s methods and has a few ideas of his own. This time around, Karloff passed the baton to Glenn Strange to play Frankenstein’s errant creation.** Lon Chaney Jr. resumed the role of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. In place of Bela Lugosi,*** John Carradine filled Dracula’s shoes.
* Fun Fact #1: The studio scrapped plans to include the Mummy too.
** Fun Fact #2: This film boasts at least two major milestones: Karloff’s final appearance in a Frankenstein film, albeit as a different character, and Glenn Strange’s debut as Frankenstein’s monster.
*** Fun Fact #3: According to film historian James Neibaur, Universal wanted Lugosi to resume the role of Dracula, but the actor was busy performing in a play (The Monster Movies of Universal Studios, by James L. Neibaur).
The film opens with Dr. Niemann in prison, discussing the experiment that caused him to be locked away in the first place. In one serendipitous incident, a powerful storm conveniently demolishes the old jail, enabling his escape, with trusty sidekick Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) in tow. Niemann assumes the identity of Professor Lampini (George Zucco), and appropriates his traveling sideshow. As we soon discover, “Professor Lampini’s Chamber of Horrors” is no ordinary attraction, with Dracula’s skeleton a featured attraction. Dracula is revived, as these things are prone to happen, and the count becomes bound to Niemann. At this point, nearly halfway through, the film’s plot takes an odd turn. It seems as if two separate movies were combined, as Dracula has no impact on the story that follows, with Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man.
Some have argued that Carradine did a better job as Dracula, compared to Lugosi. I may be biased by Lugosi’s portrayal, but to me Carradine seems miscast as Dracula (at least the version of Dracula established by Lugosi), with his gaunt frame and mustache (admittedly a nod to Bram Stoker’s original description). Although Carradine is a perfectly capable actor, as Dracula he lacks the same gravitas or seductive presence, and it only makes me wish that Universal had held out for Lugosi. In all fairness, the character isn’t given much to do in the movie, as he’s only present for the first half.
It’s no surprise that Chaney settles into the Lawrence (Larry) Talbot role like an old shoe. As the perpetually tortured Talbot, doomed to transform into a werewolf, Chaney almost appears to have channeled some of his own angst, as life imitated art. Like the character Talbot, Chaney was fated to play the same roles over and over (although oddly enough, the Wolf Man never got a stand-alone sequel to the original film). While regarding the Frankenstein monster, he laments, “He wanted life and strength. I wanted only death.”
The best part of the film belongs to J. Carrol Naish as Daniel, Niemann’s hunchbacked assistant (implying he’s a monster in the film’s trailer is a low blow). He’s been forced by Niemann to do terrible things, but he still evokes sympathy because he’s never been given much of a chance in life, plagued by an inferiority complex because of his appearance. He’s a tragic figure, smitten by Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), a pretty young gypsy woman he saved from her abusive manager. His love remains unrequited, however, as she only has eyes for Talbot, who can never reciprocate her affections. As one can suspect, their love triangle is inevitably fated for disaster.
Neimann, as masterfully portrayed by Karloff, is the biggest monster of them all. He’s the embodiment of treachery and deceit, manipulating individuals to fulfill his agenda, and casting them aside when they’ve served his purpose. He tricks Daniel into doing his dirty work, enticing him with the prospect of putting his brain into a new body (one that Ilonka will find more attractive). Neimann uses Dracula to dispatch his old accusers, and strings Talbot along with the empty promise of lifting his curse.
House of Frankenstein keeps a lot of plates spinning, introducing several key characters in the first half, and summarily dropping them. We don’t get to see the monsters interact much. The Dracula thread goes nowhere, and there’s no climactic battle between Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. The monster spends most of his screen time immobile, and if you’ll excuse the cliché, Glenn Strange captures the notes of Karloff’s Frankenstein, but not the music (he was allegedly coached by Karloff himself). Yet, with so many Universal monsters under one roof, it’s hard to complain, with so much packed into an impossibly brief running time. Arguably, the greatest assembly of Universal’s original stable of monsters was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), but if you’re looking for the classic monsters minus the antics, it’s hard to go wrong with House of Frankenstein. It might be the rhinestone in Universal horror’s crown, but it’s difficult to refrain from feeling giddy by the presence of so many classic monsters under one roof. It satisfies the kid in me that just wants to see monsters, and lots of ‘em.