IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

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house of frankenstein poster

After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Universal decided that two monsters in one movie wasn’t enough, and so they added a third, Count Dracula, for their next monster movie romp, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series after a two film hiatus. Of course, Karloff previously had played the Frankenstein Monster.  Here, he plays the evil Dr. Niemann.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Dr. Niemann, a protegé of Dr. Frankenstein. When the movie opens, Niemann is in prison, but he soon escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish.) When they happen upon the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine) Niemann resurrects the vampire by pulling the stake from his heart. He then promises Dracula protection if in return the Count will kill the official responsible for putting Niemann in prison.

Later, as Niemann and Daniel search for Dr. Frankenstein’s records, they discover the frozen bodies of Larry Talbot/aka the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and at this point the film becomes a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Like every good mad scientist, Niemann revives these monsters as well.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN flies by at a brisk 71 minutes. It really is too short to make much of an impact. Had this one been fleshed out a bit more, it would have been more effective.  It’s really not that strong a movie, as it plays like a shallow sequel, with the monsters resurrected only to be quickly done in once again. That being said, it does retain the Universal monster magic, and so while I recognize that this really isn’t that high quality a film, it’s a guilty pleasure that I enjoy each time I watch it.

It also does have some special moments, as well as a strong cast. It’s just that the whole thing seems terribly rushed.

It also doesn’t help that the Dracula storyline begins and ends before the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster show up. Even the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) doesn’t really take full advantage of its three monsters. One has to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), the comedic finale to the series, before one can enjoy a full and satisfying meeting of the monsters.

Finishing off Dracula so early was not a strength of Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s screenplay. Nor is the dialogue, some of which is laughable, and this one is not a comedy.

Director Erle C. Kenton fares better with the Dracula sequence. In spite of killing off Dracula so quickly, the chase scene just before the vampire’s demise is arguably the best chase scene in the entire Universal monster series.  It’s pretty impressive, as it features Dracula driving a horse-driven coach, pursued by police on horseback, and in front of them both, Niemann racing his carnival coaches, while Daniel runs atop the cars to get to the rear coach to toss Dracula’s coffin.  It’s a wildly exciting sequence.

Writer Lowe fares better with the Wolf Man story. In fact, other than the original THE WOLF MAN (1941) this brief appearance by Larry Talbot is one of the series’ best, because it involves his relationship with a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who falls in love with Larry and vows to end his pain by shooting him with a silver bullet.  Their classic confrontation is the most emotional of the series for Talbot other than his fateful encounter with his father Sir John (Claude Rains) at the end of the original WOLF MAN. It’s really neat stuff, but sadly, there’s just so little of it.  Chaney’s scenes here are all too brief.

But saddest of all is the treatment of the Frankenstein Monster, here played for the first time by Glenn Strange.  By this point, the Monster is treated only as a “patient” who lies still on a table until the final reel when he gets up only to be quickly done in by the frightened torch wielding villagers. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s original performances.

Alas, the Monster wouldn’t fare any better in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Again, it would take the comedic encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in order for the Monster to return to top form. In fact, in that film, the Monster even talks again! There’s a reason ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. It’s hilarious, and for its three monsters, it’s their best screen time in years.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also blessed with a very strong cast.

Boris Karloff, while not as memorable as he was as the Frankenstein Monster, is very good as Dr. Neimann. His performance is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s darker take as Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films to follow a decade later.

Lon Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park yet again as both Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man. For years, Chaney has lived in the shadow of the two other Universal stars, Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but as the years have gone by, his performances have grown in stature.  For some, he’s the best actor to have appeared in the Universal monster movies.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also one of the few times that Chaney and Karloff appeared in a movie together.

I’ve never been a fan of John Carradine’s take on Dracula, in both this movie and HOUSE OF DRACULA the following year.  He certainly makes for a distinguished Count, but he lacks the necessary evil and sensuality needed for the role. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play Dracula again, which would have been his first time since the 1931 original, but he was unable to appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN due to a schedule conflict. Fans would have to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) before they could see Lugosi play Dracula again, and that would be the second and last time he played Dracula in the movies.

The supporting cast in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is exceptional.

J. Carrol Naish, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent as Daniel, the hunchback. His storyline where he is jealous of Talbot because he also loves Ilonka is one of the better parts of the film. As is Elena Verdugo’s performance as Ilonka. Verdugo makes Ilonka sexy and sympathetic.

The film also features George Zucco in a small role as Professor Bruno Lampini, and Lionel Atwill as yet another police inspector. Sig Ruman is memorable as Burgomaster Hussman. My favorite moment with Ruman is when he wakes up and says to Dracula, “As I was saying—-. I don’t know what I was saying. I fell asleep!”

The lovely Anne Gwynn plays Rita Hussman. Gwynn is the grandmother of actor Chris Pine.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN almost featured yet another Universal monster, as there were plans to include Kharis the Mummy in the film, but these plans were scrapped due to budget constraints.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is certainly not regarded as one of Universal’s monster classics, as it has sequel written all over it and pales in quality compared to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931), and THE WOLF MAN. Even FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is a far better film.

All that being said, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains a guilty pleasure that I never grow tired of watching. This holiday season, when you’re out and about visiting friends and relatives, make a point to stop by the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I hear they have a monstrously good time.

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