House of Frankenstein (1944) *
By the mid-1940ís, the name of the game as far as Universal horror was concerned was scrambling to find ways to keep the studioís stable of increasingly senile monster franchises profitable. 1943ís Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, though both boring and stupid, at least performed its primary function of pouring money into Universalís coffers, and the studio was quick to learn the lesson that its success at the box office seemed to be teaching. If teaming up two monsters could bring in more cash than could be had from the traditional single-monster approach, surely it followed that three, four, or even five monsters in one movie would be a license to print money! With that in mind, Universal unleashed House of Frankenstein, which featured a mad doctor, a sadistic hunchback, the Frankenstein monster, Larry Talbot the Wolf Man, and Count Dracula in what the producers hoped would be the ultimate monster hoe-down. But in the mad rush to squeeze in the maximum possible number of monsters, the folks in charge of the project forgot to include one thingó anything even remotely resembling a coherent, unified story.
What we actually have here is almost an anthology movie, a pair of mini-movies with more or less self-contained stories and only the most minimal overlap. In the dungeon of a stout fortress somewhere in Eastern Europe languish a pair of very dangerous prisoners: a mad scientist named Dr. Gustav Niemand (ďDr. NobodyĒ?!?!) and his hunchback sidekick Daniel (J. Carol Naish, from The Beast with Five Fingers, who would later turn up in a movie that could teach this one a thing or two about the proper way to pile on the exploitable elementsó Al Adamsonís Dracula vs. Frankenstein). Dr. Niemand (Boris Karloff, returning at last to the Frankenstein fold) fancies himself a follower of Dr. Frankenstein (his brother once worked as Frankensteinís assistant), and it was this that landed him in jail fifteen years ago. He seems to have been trying to find a way to build Daniel a new body. One stormy night, Niemandís luck takes a turn for the better, as an errant bolt of lightning strikes the tower just above his cell, doing tremendous damage to the walls and freeing thereby the doctor and his hunchback. The pair waste no time in taking advantage of the situation, and run off into the countryside while the prison authorities are too busy to chase them.
Not far away, Niemand and Daniel meet up with a traveling sideshow run by a man named Lampini (George Zucco, from The Mummyís Hand and The Mad Monster). Lampiniís wagon is stuck in the mud, and when the immensely strong Daniel helps him free the mired wheel, Lampini is so grateful that he invites his rescuers to join him on his journey. Itís quite an exhibit Lampiniís got here. In addition to all the usual house of horrors crap, Lampini has what he says is the actual skeleton of the vampire Count Dracula, which Lampini claims to have retrieved himself from the countís castle in Transylvania. (Those of you whoíve seen Dracula and Draculaís Daughter may find this claim amusingó those two movies clearly depict the countís destruction as taking place in England, followed by the burning of the staked body by vampire countess Maria Zaleska.) In casual conversation with Lampini, Niemand asks the showman if heís ever taken his act to the village of Visaria. As a matter of fact, he has. Well then, figures Niemand, Lampini might perhaps have heard something about a few old friends of his, who at least used to live there. Lampini has the information Niemand seeks; two of Niemandís friends were still in town when last he came to Visaria, while the third has gone on to become Burgomaster of Regalberg. When Niemand asks if Lampini has any intention of going to Regalberg himself, Lampini says noó not a big enough town to justify a stop on his itinerary. Wrong answer there, buddy. Niemand really wants to go to Regalberg, and if that means he has to order Daniel to strangle Lampini and his driver, so be it. The doctor and his hunchback can then dump the bodies, assume their victimsí identities, and ride into Regalberg incognito.
As you might have guessed, Burgomaster Hussman (Sig Ruman) isnít really one of Niemandís friends. In fact, heís one of the men whose testimony was instrumental in getting the doctor sent to prison. So when Hussman comes to see ďLampiniísĒ show in the company of his daughter Rita (Anne Gwynne, from Black Friday and Teenage Monster), son-in-law Karl (Peter Coe of The Mummyís Curse), and close friend Inspector Arnz (the inescapable Lionel Atwill, who played cops in damn near every one of the Universal Frankenstein filmsó the names keep changing, but the uniform is always the same), Niemand simply canít contain himself. Seizing the nearest sharp object at handó the stake jammed between the ribs of ďDraculaísĒ skeletonó he starts off after the burgomaster with violence on his mind. But a funny thing happens when Niemand pulls that stake out of the skeletonís ribcage. To Niemandís astonishment, the skeleton begins growing new flesh, until finally the scientist finds himself in the presence of the fabled Count Dracula (John Carradine, in his first of several sallies in the part). Niemandís first impulse is to shove that stake right back where it came from, but a momentís thought convinces him that the vampireís resurrection is actually a golden opportunity for him. Niemand strikes a deal with Dracula, offering his services protecting the countís coffin during the hours of daylight in exchange for his help in doing away with Niemandís enemies.
Dracula starts fulfilling his end of the bargain that very night, intercepting the Hussmans on their way home from the sideshow. He offers them a ride in his carriage, either to his hotel, or to their own homeó wherever theyíd feel most comfortable partying with a Transylvanian nobleman. Hussman has the count over to his place, and the wine flows freely into the wee hours of the morning. After Hussman passes out and Karl goes down to the cellar to look for even more wine, Dracula puts the moves on Rita. He gives her his signet ring (which sheíd been admiring all night despite the fact that looking straight at it had been making her hallucinate), a gesture which puts the girlís will under the vampireís complete domination. Dracula takes his leave of the Hussman place when Karl returns from the cellar, and after a decorous delay allowing Karl and Rita to retire to their beds, circles back to the house to drain the blood of the still-unconscious burgomaster. When Karl starts to worry about Ritaís strange behavior (brought on by her ring-induced bond to the vampire) and goes to the telephone to summon a doctor for her, he notices his dead father-in-law, and uses the phone to call the police instead. Meanwhile, Dracula takes advantage of Karlís distraction to abduct Rita, riding off with her in his carriage. Inspector Arnz arrives just in time to take off after the count with a squad of gendarmes, and the chase leads the police to Niemandís campsite. Fearing the worst, the mad doctor flees in Lampiniís wagon, eventually ordering Daniel to dump Draculaís coffin out the back to disrupt the chase. The gambit has its desired effect. Dracula is forced to pull over to rescue his coffin, losing control of his carriage and rolling it down the roadside embankment. Heís still struggling to get the coffin to safety when he is caught by both Arnzís police and the rising sun. Exit the King of the Vampires, stage left.
And now for our second feature, in which Niemand and Daniel go to the village of Frankenstein in search of their heroís notebooks. Theyíre still passing for itinerant showmen when they reach town, and they end up falling in with a Gypsy girl named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo, from The Frozen Ghost and Day of the Nightmare), whom Daniel falls for when he sees her dancing in the middle of her caravanís encampment. The three travelers then make their way to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, where Niemand and Daniel find both the Frankenstein monster (B-Western regular Glenn Strange in the first of his three performances in the role) and the werewolf Larry Talbot (still Lon Chaney Jr.) frozen in an ice cave beneath the foundation. From here on, House of Frankenstein is all but indistinguishable from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as Niemand promises to cure Talbot of his lycanthropy while trying to revive the monster. Niemandís strategy here is to ride over to his old lab in nearby Visaria, kidnap the other two men who ratted him out at the trial, and get practically every character left in the movie together for a big game of musical brains. One of Niemandís enemies will get his brain popped into the monsterís body. The other is to have his brain removed and replaced with Larry Talbotís, while Talbotís body will be used to house the monsterís brainó Iím not sure where Niemand plans to put the brain of his other victim. Daniel proves to be the monkey wrench thrown into this plan, in that he wants his brain transferred to Talbotís body. That way, or so he imagines, heíll have a fighting chance at winning the heart of Ilonka, who is infatuated with the werewolf. By letting Ilonka in on Talbotís secret in a none-too-successful attempt to divert her affections, Daniel is ultimately responsible for the wolf manís death by silver bullet at the Gypsy girlís hands. Meanwhile, the usual torch-bearing mob has assembled down in Visaria in response to the revelation that a werewolf has set up shop in the surrounding forest. When the mob finds no werewolf, its leaders take it on a little detour to Niemandís laboratory in the village, just in time to take part in the final clash developing between Niemand, Daniel, and the monster, who has finally come to life. Thank God we only have one more of these things to go...
The release of House of Frankenstein seems to mark the point at which Universalís people completely stopped giving a shit about their monster movies. The elements here are thrown together so haphazardly that I donít even know where to begin dissecting the illogic of it all. I suppose Niemandís brain-swapping scheme is as good a place to start as any. His idea, as he explains it, is to punish one of the witnesses against him by transplanting his brain into the Frankenstein monsterís bodyó so far, so good. But the other witness is to pay for his loose tongue by having the wolf manís brain put into his body, supposedly to transfer Talbotís lycanthropy to him. You see whatís wrong with this picture, right? If Talbotís brain is in the witnessís body, and the curse of the werewolf resides, as the script implies, in the wolf manís brain, all this accomplishes is giving Larry a new body to turn into a wolf! The witnessís sufferings will be confined to those attendant on the surgery itself! You canít even say that the witness will be turned into a werewolf by virtue of his installation in Larryís body, because Larryís body is where Niemand plans to put the monsterís brain!
Turning our attention to issues of continuity, we are confronted by muddle-headedness on such an epic scale that mere carelessness seems insufficient to account for it all. Iíve already mentioned the problems attendant upon Lampiniís discovery of Draculaís remains. In the Frankenstein/Wolf Man phase of the film, we see again the familiar location issues (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man implied that Frankenstein village had been re-named Visariaó now weíre told that the two names refer to different, neighboring hamlets), another name-change for the original Dr. Frankenstein (from Henry to Heinrich and now back to Henry again), and chronology woes that will have you downing aspirin like M&Ms if you think about them for too long. Niemand says his brother was a colleague of Frankensteinís, but he neglects to mention which Frankenstein heís talking about. If Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man takes place four years after The Wolf Man, and House of Frankenstein takes place ďseveralĒ years after Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, that would seem to date the action of this movie to sometime around 1950. But Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are clearly set in the mid-19th century at the latest, while Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein look to be set no later than about 1900 and 1910, respectively. Even the latest of these dates makes Niemandís Frankenstein connection hard to swallow, without even considering the fact that none of the Frankensteins was portrayed as having an assistant who lived long enough to pass on any secrets to anybody!
But the last straw is the highly unimaginative way in which the various monsters are combined. We already had Larry Talbot and the Frankenstein monster in a movie together, so seeing it again here is nothing to cheer aboutó especially when you realize that the monster spends the great bulk of the movie strapped, lifeless, to a gurney! And I canít get too exited about killer hunchbacks, either, having seen one in just about every Frankenstein movie yet made. Adding Dracula to the mix could have been big fun, but by segregating him in his own self-contained subplot in the first half of the movie, the filmmakers pissed away any gains they might have made from the vampireís inclusion. Then they compounded their error by casting John Carradine in the part, making for a Count Dracula nearly as unconvincing as any in the long history of the movies. It may be technically far worse a movie than this one, but Adamsonís Dracula vs. Frankenstein is a far more satisfying combination of the same elements used hereó and it has hippies, bikers, midgets, and LSD into the bargain!