Wednesday, February 1, 2017

House of Frankenstein (1944)

Director: Erle C. Kenton

Through the 1930s Universal had accumulated a vast array of successful monster motion pictures which the studio would rolled over into commercially viable franchises . Sequels abound for the likes of The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy, Dracula and various other Universal monster properties, later evolving into movie mash-ups where more than one monster would be featured to keep the genre exciting, enticing audiences to see something new with their old favorites in the cast. The House of Frankenstein would be the second such picture for Universal, and despite its lack of production quality and relatively poor writing, the thrill of this film is the idea of seeing three of Universal’s most popular creatures in one feature.

House of Frankenstein is a monster horror about a mad scientist whose research on Dr. Frankenstein leads him down a tragic road encountering the infamous Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster. Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) sets on a quest of vengeance to doom the man that had imprisoned him for his mad plans to further research the science behind the notorious Dr. Frankenstein. With the aid of his faithful hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), whom Niemann  promises to one day heal of his ailment, Niemann utilizes the revived Count Dracula to murder his the man that imprisoned him before moving on to remains of Castle Frankenstein in pursuit of the journals kept by the infamous mad scientist.

Within the Castle, Niemann discovers the frozen remains of Larry Talbot, best known as The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), which he thaws for further personal retribution purposes. Meanwhile a love triangle between Talbot, a gypsy woman named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), and Daniel leads to great complications with the newly formed band within the walls of the castle, all the while the local villagers attempt to rush the castle that contains the revived monsters. All things end in misery as Talbot is shot with a silver bullet by Ilonka to free him of his curse, Daniel is killed by the monster after jealousy turns him against Niemann, and Niemann and the monster are chased into a bog of quicksand and to their own demise.

The feature is truly not much more than an inexpensive way to unite three of Universal’s most popular monster properties into one tight motion picture. Coming off the previous year’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein attempts to work itself as sequel, picking up soon after the previous film’s events when the Wolf Man and the monster where believed to be washed away in a flood of the castle.

One can tell this film is an inexpensive attempt to keep milking the monster movie genre as it brings back many elements of the prior Universal properties including two actors from Universal’s successful past. Its result is a mildly entertaining hodge-podge of elements from the monster staple that does not provide anything new or exciting beyond what we may have experienced in the classic features prior. Directed by a member of Universal’s stable of B-film directors, Erle C. Kenton, this film’s sole purpose is to attempt to stir up the familiar feeling of what one have enjoyed form the great classic of Universal’s 1930s monster movies in a 70 minute package.

The film stars two well-known names of the Universal monster movie famed actors in Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. Despite these two actors having their fingerprints all over  the monster movies in Universal’s past their use here shakes how they had been used in the most popular appearances in these types of films.

Karloff had stepped away from playing the legendary monster after the franchise’s first three features, and here takes on the role of the mad scientist Dr. Niemann, essentially side-stepping from creature to creator. Karloff would help coach Glenn Strange in his portrayal as the creature who would carry don the flat-headed and bolt-necked mantle of this timeless creation. At this time Karloff was coming off a very successful run on Broadway’s version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and was finding more dignified appearances on stage and in radio than the monster movies. Because on this change in his career, this film would be marked as the last Boris Karloff appearance in a Universal monster movie.

Despite all the great credits to his name and a wonderful ability to act, Lon Chaney remained relegated to the monster movie titles for most of his professional career.  Here Chaney reprises for a third time the role of Larry Talbot, The Wolf Man, just one of the many monsters he would perform for Universal over the years. His character has the most transcendent story arch that has bridge between movies as the man cursed and desperately attempting to avoid hurting innocents soul with the creature he has no control over.

Bella Lugosi was original intended to reprise the role of Count Dracula, but due to scheduling conflicts the role of the infamous vampire was offered to Jonathan Carradine. Best known for work as villains in westerns, Carridean of late was finding himself in a few horror features. As his casting as Dracula Carridean would find a role that would provide him several subsequent movie features as the villainous vampire. His depiction of the character stays true to the character’s core as a seductive gentleman with the ominous control over woman and need for blood, but the portrayal also proves to be a bit watered down from the classic Dracula most love from the famous Lugosi.

Former Academy Award nominee J. Carrol Naish provides an interesting addition in his role as Daniel, Niemann’s faithful assistant. His character is portrayed as a hunchback, which in a way fills two familiar additions to this ensemble casting of monster in a singular feature. Aside from being the Igor-like sidekick to Bori Karloff’s Dr. Frankenstien-like character, Daniel’s battle with self-esteem and social rebuke makes him a Quasimodo-like character, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a famed feature of Universal’s library as well.. So in a way there is a forth monster in the picture, although Daniel has no hideously facial disfigurement, he does battle with being an outcast for his malformed back.

Of all the characters in the feature, Daniel proves to be the character audiences may feel for the most once the plot carries into the third act. His desperate attempt to just feel normal ultimately drives him mad, as his jealous love for the gypsy girl can never be fulfilled and Niemann’s empty promises to fix him anger him over the edge. Daniel quietly becomes the most tragic story in the film, and Naish’s heavy drama feels unique, but lost on a fluff picture such as this.

The House of Frankenstein did what it set out to accomplish, attract audiences. Fans of these Universal monster movies were excited about the notion of seeing Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster assemble in the same movie, but in the end does not provide much more thrill then that. This cross-over feature does not add anything to the mythos of these legendary creatures, rather it waters down the excitement one may have experiences when they first saw Dracula seduce a girl, The Wolf Man transform, or the creature come to life. However the commercial success would continue on as Universal unrelenting production of similar features would go on for years to come. They may not have Karloff or Lugosi anymore, but Universal had its monsters, and they knew that as long as they crept out of the shadows and onto the movie screen people would continue to pay to see them.

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