Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) *½
You are looking at the beginning of the end for Universal in its role as America’s top horror studio. Throughout the 1930’s, it was usually clear that the studio’s horror films were intended to be taken seriously, and that its directors were, by and large, aiming to create movies of some lasting merit. Nevermind that I think there were far more failures than successes in this period— at least the filmmakers were trying! The second coming of Universal horror got off to an auspicious start in 1939, too, with the release of Son of Frankenstein. But already by 1940, the studio had begun to re-conceptualize horror as a genre best suited to B-pictures, and began devoting increasingly little time, money, and effort to fright films. By ‘42, even the Frankenstein series— arguably the flagship of the Universal horror line— had made the transition, with The Ghost of Frankenstein. Even so, the early 40’s spawned some of the most enjoyable monster flicks the studio ever made: The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, The Mummy’s Tomb. When disaster really struck was when the moneymen lost faith in the ability of movies like those to hold an audience’s interest, somehow coming to the conclusion that what was needed was an increase in the monster-to-movie ratio. Thus, in 1943, the “monster rally” was born with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the trashiest, silliest, most ill-conceived and ineptly executed non-comedic Universal monster flick yet made.
The lack of thought that went into this movie is evident from the very first scene, in which a pair of grave-robbers break into the Talbot family mausoleum in the Llandwelly township’s isolated cemetery (see if you can figure out how many movies this exact boneyard set was used in...), and discover that screenwriter Curt Siodmak has forgotten that (certain elements of Greek folklore aside) vampires and werewolves aren’t quite the same thing. The robbers have come in response to rumors they have heard to the effect that Larry Talbot, the legendary Wolf Man of Llandwelly, was buried with a sizable sum of money and some very valuable jewelry. Why it’s taken these bozos four whole years to work up the nerve to break into the crypt, I have no idea. Nor do I have any idea why neither one seems especially concerned to discover upon opening the casket within that Talbot’s body is both completely undecayed and surrounded by its own volume in dried wolfsbane. What I do know is that these men ought to have checked to make sure the moon wasn’t full on the night they chose to exhume the body of a werewolf. Sure, rising from the dead isn’t usually considered part of a lycanthrope’s suite of supernatural powers, but you can never be too careful about things like that. These guys weren’t careful at all, and now they must pay the price for their lack of foresight.
A while later, the revived Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., reprising his role from The Wolf Man) turns up in a city far away from Llandwelly. He is picked up by the police when a passing constable notices him sleeping on the street and sees the nasty wound on Talbot’s forehead (a souvenir of having his head bashed in with a cane at the end of the last movie) when he tries to roust the unconscious transient. Talbot wakes up in a hospital, and is immediately beset with questions by his doctor, Frank Mannering (Patrick Knowles, of From the Earth to the Moon and Terror in the Wax Museum), and a detective named Inspector Owen (She-Wolf of London’s Dennis Holey). Talbot can tell the men nothing beyond his name and that of his hometown. He has no idea how he came to be where he is, or why. The doctor seems satisfied with this for the moment, but Owen most assuredly is not. I suppose the inspector figures Talbot for a victim or witness to some crime on the basis of his bloody headwound, but from the way he acts, you’d think he suspects Talbot of being the perpetrator of his own beating! It would appear that all this goes on the day after Talbot’s resurrection, because the moon is full once again that night, and Larry turns into his wolf-form, sneaks out of the hospital, and goes on a killing spree.
The next morning, he remembers everything. Meanwhile, Inspector Owen has determined that the Larry Talbot of Llandwelly township has been dead for four years, and between this new piece of intelligence and Larry’s sudden insistence that he must be destroyed before the rising moon transforms him into a wolf once more, Owen and Mannering conclude, inevitably, that this man who calls himself Larry Talbot is mad. Mannering, who is apparently a psychiatrist as well as a surgeon, commits him to the hospital for treatment, but to no avail. The werewolf breaks out again that night, and this time, he does not return come morning.
Instead, Larry goes hunting all over Europe for Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya, also reprising her The Wolf Man role), the Gypsy woman who first told him of his curse’s true nature. She’s left England, as it happens, and migrated all the way across Europe to Hungary or Romania or some such place. When Larry finds her at last, he begs her to help him end his accursed life so that he may at last find peace, the way Maleva’s werewolf son Bela had four years before. (This is the part of the movie where I say to myself, “you could just get killed again with something silver, and make sure you don’t get buried with anything worth taking this time...”) Maleva can do nothing herself, she says, but she does know of one man who might be able to do the job— Dr. Frankenstein of Visaria. (I won’t tell the filmmakers the Frankensteins lived in Frankenstein if you won’t...)
Which brings us to the first major point of discontinuity between Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the earlier Frankenstein films. You may recall that Ludwig Frankenstein lived, not in his family’s ancestral castle, but rather in a slightly less ominous mansion in a nearby town. We know Ludwig is the Frankenstein to whom Maleva refers, because when she and Talbot start asking around town for the doctor, he is described as having died with his monster when his castle burned to the ground— which is how The Ghost of Frankenstein ended. But the ruined castle to which the villagers grudgingly direct Talbot and the Gypsy is clearly the one from Son of Frankenstein, looking exactly the way it did after the townspeople dynamited it to bits in The Ghost of Frankenstein’s first act. Anyway, Larry goes to the castle in the hope of finding any notes left by Frankenstein which might shed some light on the “secrets of life and death” which, as everybody knows, were the very centerpiece of the mad scientist’s work. What Talbot finds instead is Frankenstein’s monster (now played by Bela Lugosi, though Chaney had originally been slated to play both monsters). What the creature is doing frozen into a huge block of ice when it supposedly died in a fire is anybody’s guess— for that matter, what an ice-cave is doing in the basement of Castle Frankenstein when the foliage above clearly implies that the movie is set no later than the end of September is anybody’s guess too!
Talbot is very excited by his discovery; he figures the monster must know a thing or two about where its creator kept his secret papers, and could thus help him find the information he seeks. So Larry chops the monster out of the ice, and gets it to show him all of Frankenstein’s hidey-holes. No dice. In fact, it isn’t until Talbot hooks up with Elsa Frankenstein (Invisible Agent’s Ilona Massey), Ludwig’s daughter, that he gets his hands on any records of the monster’s creation. By this time, though, Dr. Mannering has tracked Larry to Visaria, and Mannering instantly begins badgering Larry to come back to England with him. But Mannering changes his tune when he meets Frankenstein’s monster, the introduction coming when the thing wanders into downtown Visaria to disrupt the village’s annual wine festival. Makes sense, I suppose— if immortal patchwork zombies can exist, why not werewolves too? At the urging of just about every character in the movie, Mannering sets about scouring Frankenstein’s notes for any information that would suggest a way to destroy the monster and end Larry’s unfortunate life once and for all.
But of course that’s not quite what ends up happening. Mannering learns Frankenstein’s secrets, alright, but instead of putting them to the intended use, he starts glory-mongering and decides he’s going to try to cure the monster of the ailments stemming from its body’s rejection of Ygor’s transplanted brain. Mannering’s big idea is to drain off Larry Talbot’s life-essence and transfer it to the creature. How is he going to do this? And for that matter, why does he think such a thing would heal the monster? Who knows? But he does it anyway, despite the strenuous objections of Elsa, who wants to see the monster destroyed more than anyone. The result is a completely inexplicable duel between the restored monster and Wolf-Larry, who somehow failed to die even though his lifeforce was piped into the creature. The day is finally saved by Vazec (Rex Evans, from The Invisible Man Returns and The Picture of Dorian Gray), proprietor of Visaria’s tavern and a monster-hater of remarkable stridency, even by the standards of a Universal horror movie. Going against the direct orders of the mayor (Lionel Atwill, who had by this point appeared as three different characters in three consecutive Frankenstein films), Vazec blows up the dam above Castle Frankenstein, washing away the battling monsters in a special effect worthy of a Gamera movie.
So let’s assess the damage then, shall we? Problem number one is unquestionably the script. The usually reliable Curt Siodmak really dropped the ball this time, producing a story which goes to great and excessive lengths to conceal the reasons behind any of its happenings, probably because there simply were no reasons for most of them. Why should Larry Talbot return from the dead because the light of the moon touches his corpse? Why should Inspector Owens be so intensely suspicious of him from the word go? Why can’t Talbot simply be killed again by the same means that brought him down last time around? What’s with the fucking ice-cave, or with all that bullshit about moving life-essences around? Why should Mannering suddenly become a Frankenstein wannabe when he’s never exhibited any tendencies in that direction at any time before the climactic scene? If both Talbot and the Frankenstein monster are actually immortal, what the hell good is drowning them going to do? The early part of the movie, while it’s behaving like a straight sequel to The Wolf Man, is actually pretty decent anyway, but the moment Larry crosses the English Channel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man completely falls apart.
Then, we have Lugosi’s monster to contend with. It’s interesting to note that Lugosi was one of the actors considered for the part of the monster in the original Frankenstein, but that he turned it down because it was “a part for a tall extra.” By some accounts, Lugosi’s failure to accept the role was the first step on the long downhill road to Plan 9 from Outer Space. If so, 1943 was a little late for damage control— The Ape Man was made that year, after all! However, in one respect, the choice of Lugosi for the part of the monster here was a potentially inspired piece of casting. Remember, the last Frankenstein movie saw Ygor’s brain transplanted into the monster’s body. Lugosi, who played Ygor, was thus in some sense the natural choice for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’s monster. On the other hand, Lugosi’s performance is embarrassingly bad— worse even than the one John Bloom put in for Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein! It has been argued by some that the actor himself is not really to blame for this; apparently, the original cut of the film gave Lugosi a lot more screen time, and even a good deal of dialogue making explicit reference to the sickness and blindness that had afflicted the monster ever since the botched transplant, but that all of this material was cut out because test audiences found the monster speaking with Lugosi’s accent to be riotously funny. I can imagine how this extra footage would have helped, but it still wouldn’t have addressed the more fundamental problem that Lugosi was too small, too prissy, and too fond of ridiculous facial mugging to effectively portray the Frankenstein monster. All in all, Lugosi ends up being the final nail in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’s coffin.