Thursday, 19 May 2011

House of Frankenstein (1944)

In 1938 Universal released their original Dracula and Frankenstein in a double-bill film programme. The box-office takings were so good that the studio started to make new horror pictures beginning with the Son of Frankenstein in 1939. By the early 1940's with horror films on the wane again, Universal had the great idea of combining their monster franchises in the hope of boosting profits. The resultant Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) was a great success. Business logic therefore suggested that if even more monsters were stirred into the mix then takings would be even greater. Thus House of Frankenstein was born.

The plot of House of Frankenstein packs a lot into its 71 minutes running time. Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) is a crackpot scientist who escapes from prison with his hunchback friend Daniel (J. Carol Nash). Niemann has promised Daniel that he'll create a new body for him. Before Niemann does this he revives Dracula (John Carradine) and orders him to kill B├╝rgermeister Hussmann (Sig Ruman) who had caused the doctor's imprisonment. He then hides Dracula's coffin so that the vampire is destroyed by sunlight.

Arriving at Castle Frankenstein, Niemann finds the frozen bodies of both the Monster (Glenn Strange) and Larry Talbot, also known as The Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.). After thawing Talbot, Niemann promises to cure him but he really only wants revenge on his enemies. After more killings and a love story between Talbot and a gypsy girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) everything is resolved by having the Monster come back to life, killing the hunchback and being chased by the usual mob of angry villages into some quicksand where he dies along with Niemann. Oh, the Wolfman is killed by his gypsy girlfriend too.

Directed by Earl C. Kenton, the plot moves at a terrific pace with plenty of incident and adventure and is never boring. Performances are all strong. I love the idea of Karloff, having played the monster in the first three Universal films, now ranting about how magnificent the creature is. Carradine makes a great Dracula, all world-weary and urbane even when he's in his outlandish cape and top hat costume. Chaney is good too but I find Talbot so full of self-pity that he becomes annoying and a little unsympathetic. Lionel Atwill is also fun, playing another in his long line of police inspectors.

The disappointment with the film is that the scene the audience is waiting for never arrives. The movie poster entices with its promise of five monsters all together but there is no interaction between any of the three main creatures. Dracula lasts all of around twelve minutes whilst the Wolfman and The Monster never meet at all. All the creature does is stagger around a bit at the end, kill someone and die again. The connecting thread through it all is Daniel's affection for the IIonka and his jealously about her relationship with Talbot and that's not developed enough to completely engage our sympathy.

What makes the film fascinating is that it has such a nihilistic ending. For a good portion of the film's running time we are watching bad people doing evil things. When we do eventually get to the love story the two people the audience might actually care about end up destroying each other. There's no happy ending, all the main characters are dead and there's no walk off into the sunset for anyone.

However this being a horror film franchise, there's always a sequel...

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