There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, the phrase, “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here,” can be applied very loosely…
House of Frankenstein (1944)
(Dist.: Universal Pictures; Dir.: Eric C. Kenton)
The World War II-era Universal Monsters were a time of not only revisiting old favorites and introductions to new ones (with a few successes and one notable irritant, She-Wolf of London), but of bringing their horrors together.
Universal took its first steps in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. as the immortal (literally) Larry Talbot trying to find a cure for his condition, during which he runs into Frankenstein’s monster, played by, of all folks, Bela Lugosi (who was Universal’s original choice to play the monster back in 1931 which shows you how Fate can never really be denied).
The film was enough of a success that Universal decided to go all-in the next time around.
Our story begins in Neustadt Prison, in the part of Europe that’s not really any part that’s named on a map but where men wear Tyrolean hats, so maybe we can guess kinda-sorta where. There, we find Professor Gustav Niemann (Boris Karlov), who has an interest in carrying on the work of Doctor Frankenstein, having studied what he could of his process through his brother Fritz’s time as the infamous Doctor’s assistant.
In fact, it was his efforts at emulation, digging up bodies and experimenting on corpses, that got him locked up there alongside the hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish).
After a fortuitous lightning strike damages the prison enough for them to escape, the pair encounters a traveling showman who claims to have the skeleton of Dracula on board.
As Niemann plots his revenge against the people who locked him up for his pursuit of science, he discovers that yes, Dracula can be reanimated, and thus the Count walks among us…
The Count does Niemann’s bidding before getting dispensed with way too quickly, after which time our duo find a Roma camp where they chance upon a dance being done by Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), and faster than you can get your party to join you in a chorus of “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” Daniel is smitten by her.
Soon after the three get together, they arrive at the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, where they find preserved in ice the Wolf Man (Chaney, who established above that he’s immortal now) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange, who, when he wasn’t spending time trying to fill Karlov’s big shoes, was otherwise playing in Westerns).
Anxious to both further his knowledge and carry out his revenge, Niemann defrosts both of them, hoping to use them as he does Daniel.
There’s an unfortunate side effect to this, as Daniel finds himself in a love triangle between himself, Ilonka, and Talbot. She’s especially frustrated, as she’s smitten with Talbot, who’s too suicidal thanks to his lycanthropy to return her attention.
Indeed, of all the tragic figures heading headlong to their fated dooms, it’s Daniel who ultimately serves as a catalyst driving everyone, including himself, to a horrible end. The fact that of all the heavies thrown around the picture (excluding Dracula), it’s the hunchback that pushes the rest into making bad mistakes that cost them everything, giving the film a power dynamic that’s not what you’d expect as things start to spin out of control in this tragedy.
Speaking of the unexpected, the film offers familiar actors in roles you don’t normally associate them with doing impressive feats. Karlov getting to play the mad scientist opposite another man in his most famous role is a treat to watch, getting to play the other side of one of filmdom’s more famous relationships, between the monster and its creator.
His cold demeanor and exertion of control over others through his wits gives us dimensions to someone willing to build such a beast that Colin Clive didn’t get a chance to explore back in 1931.
Also a surprise is Carradine’s Dracula, which, on one hand, is a major departure from Lugosi’s portrayal, yet is much closer physically to the character as written by Bram Stoker. What little time we get with his Count, we come to appreciate, wishing that we had more of a chance to see this iteration of one of the most dreaded vampires known to man.
The rest of the cast is solid, with Strange’s monster living up to Karlov’s work (on screen with the man himself beside him), and Chaney’s Larry Talbot giving us more of the pathos that we remember him by.
Everyone else does well, especially considering the hodgepodge story that Curt Sidomak turned in that sometimes feels more like a check-list being ticked off than an actual plot; if anything, the cast’s game approach to the film keeps things moving forward that might otherwise have gone nowhere.
Most viewers would probably come away, feeling they got their money’s worth, but with a few nits to pick. Just think, they might ponder, what if they had worked with a better story, one that didn’t feel haphazard? And maybe gave us more Carradine Dracula on top that; imagine what that would have been like?
NEXT TIME: We keep up with our busy holiday party schedule! Next stop, it’s on to Vlad’s place…
…yeah, I know Larry’s showing up too; suck it up, it’s the holidays.