(3/10) In a nutshell: The first of Universal’s monster mashes, made in 1943, sees the studio finally dropping the ball in their monster franchise. What could have been a decent, fun B horror flick is ruined by Univseral first casting Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster and then doing its best to erase him from the film.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. 1943, USA. Directed by Roy William Neill. Written by Curt Siodmak. Sort of suggested by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye. Produced by George Waggner for Universal. Tomatometer: 25 %. IMDb score: 6.5
By 1943 Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had lost all roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein apart from the name. Scriptwise there isn’t even much proof that it is part of the same francise as the original 1931 Frankenstein (review). There isn’t even a Dr. Frankenstein in the film (on screen anyway). The original Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive, passed away in 1937 and one must say that it is to the studio’s credit that they didn’t try to replace him with another actor (apart from a brief hallucination sequence in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), but instead had not one, but two, sons of Frankenstein take up the mantle, Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke. One might suppose that Universal thought that a third son might be pushing it. We do, though, get a granddaughter of Frankenstein in the shape of Ilona Massey, but she is no doctor (she’s a woman, d’uh).
What we do have is a Larry Talbot, better known as The Wolf Man from the 1941 film, in the shape of Lon Chaney Jr, despite the fact that his brother killed him with a silver-capped cane in the first movie. In fact, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is more sequel to The Wolf Man than to the Frankenstein saga. This may have something to do with the fact that the Frankenstein monster in Bela Lugosi’s form is the worst thing ever put into a Universal horror film.
The film has a very promising beginning, where director Roy William Neill proves that he certainly has an eye for visuals, especially when teamed up with Son of Frankenstein (1939, review) photographer George Robinson, who stood out The Ghost of Frankenstein. In what is perhaps the best graveyard scene in the whole franchise, we see two graverobbers entering the crypt of Larry Talbot, hoping to steal some jewellery from old Lawrence. Down winding staircases and withered trees they go, draped in fog under a full moon. You can almost hear the wolves howling. Horrified, they find that four years after the death of Talbot, he is still in perfect shape, and seeing his body covered with wolfbane, one of them recites the age-old poem:
Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.
In fact, this old piece of folklore was written by screenwriter/author Curt Siodmak when he basically invented the modern werewolf myth in the first film. In that film the last line was actually: ”when the autumn moon is bright”, and there were no allusions to Talbot turning into a werewolf specifically during a full moon. This flaw is now rectified by none other than screenwriter Siodmak himself in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. And nothing more needs to be said: the good old werewolf comes to life and offs the two graverobbers.
Talbot next wakes up in a hospital, and soon figures out that he has been killed and unkilled and still turns into a werewolf that kills people at night. When he tries to tell this to his doctor, Mannering (Patric Knowles), the doctor assumes that he is a loony and has him restrained and calls for Inspector Owen, played by Dennis Hoey, best known as inspector Lestrade from a string of Sherlock Holmes films starring Dr. Wolf von Franken … pardon, Basil Rathbone. Hoey was most certainly brought on by director Neill, who also directed a string of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone. Between the hulking and slobbing and ”why does no-one believe me?” Talbot turns into a werewolf and chews through his strait-jacket (unfortunately off-screen). When the full moon has passed he travels (again off screen) through Europe to find his old confidante, the gypsy soothsayer Maleva (the wonderful Russian old lady Maria Ouspenskaya), to ask her how he might kill himself and rid the world of the curse of Larry Talbot.
Now, just to be clear: it seems a silver cane does not kill werewolfs, but simply puts them in some kind of suspended animation, ready to spring to life again when hit by the light of a full moon. So that we’re all clear on that now.
Maleva tells Talbot that the only man who can help him die is Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (who was played by Cedric Hardwicke in The Ghost of Frankenstein). And together they set off in a horse-drawn cart to the town of Vasaria to find the man (unfortunately on-screen for a very long time of bobbing heads against back-screen projection and cartwheels turning). Unfortunalety a very rude innkeeper called Vazec (Rex Evans) informs them that the despised doctor is dead and better remain that way, or else someone might kill him for being a dick. His castle lies in ruins. Talbot hulks and slobs some more. Unfortunaly the moon becomes full again, and Talbot kills Vazec’s daughter (Martha Vickers), who for some reason seems to be out wandering the woods in the middle of the night. This sets the angry mob of Vasaria (it wouldn’t be a Frankenstein film without an angry mob, would it?) out to get the monster. During his escape the wolf man tumbles down a hole and passes out. And this is basically the end of the first part of the film, and now we settle into a completely different film.
When he wakes up he realises he is in an ice-filled cave. Because in these horror sci-fi films of the forties there are loads of convenient ice-filled caves despite the fact that there isn’t a flake of snow visible anywhere else in the area. Boris Karloff has sometimes described it as ”glacier ice”, which would make sense if there was a glacier anywhere nearby. Just as conveniently as Ygor played by Bela Lugosi found the Frankenstein monster played by Lon Chaney Jr. embedded in a dried sulphur pit in the Ghost of Frankenstein, Larry Talbot now finds the Frankenstein monster embedded in a block of ice. Or, actually, hidden behind a thin wall of ice that has miraculously formed completely vertically in front of him. This time, of course, the tables have turned and the Frankenstein monster is played by Bela Lu … no, wait. That isn’t Bela Lugosi, that is his stunt double Gil Perkins, which is plain to see despite the makeup, as his face is in close-up.
After being chipped out of the ice, though, the monster transforms into Bela Lugosi, at least momentarily. Talbot tells the monster to lead him to Frankenstein’s lab, where the monster shows him a hidden cabinet, but Frankenstein’s diary is nowhere to be found. Talbot hulks and slobs some more. The Frankenstein monster moves his mouth, but there is no sound. Then he flails around with his arms stiffly stretched in front of him as if blind. In fact, he is blind, as anyone can remember from The Ghost of Frankenstein, but this is never explained. More on that later.
Talbot then gets hold of Ludwig Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa, played by Ilona Massey, who we had seen as the female star of Universal’s Invisible Agent (review) the year before. These two films were to remain her best known, although the leggy Hungarian blonde would later have a moderately successful radio career and had her own TV show in 1954, which didn’t survive for a second season. Anyway, Ms. Frankenstein refuses to divulge the whereabouts of her father’s journal, and then both Maleva and Dr. Mannering turn up, and as we can all guess, Elsa and Mannering become an item. Then the monster also turns up and starts throwing stuff around in his blind rage.
I sort of lost track of what was actually happening there at one point, but the gist of it is this: 1. Mannering wants to destroy the monster. 2. Mannering wants to help Talbot. 3. The monster wants to get his brain back in shape. 4. The townspeople want to destroy all of the newcomers. 5. The mayor (Cedric Hardwicke) calms everyone down. 6. Mannering somehow convinces Elsa that if he can get Frankenstein’s diary, he can destroy the monster. 7. Mannering lies and tells the monster he can fix his brain. 8. Dwight Frye makes some appearances. 9. They all end up in the ruined castle. 10. Elsa opens a secret cabinet inside the secret cabinet and there is the journal. 11. The journal says that Talbot can be cured by ”draining him of energy”, i.e. we need to fire up old Frankenstein’s lab. 12. Mannering is suddenly not only surgeon and psychologist but also electrical engineer. 13. Mannering suddenly turns from the only rational person in the film to a bonkers mad scientist, who despite his former wish to kill the monster, now all of a sudden has an urge to see it ”restored to full power”. Why on earth, we will never know. 14. We get a sad excuse for a Frankenstein lab scene with a few Tesla coils and spark plugs. 15. The monster is juiced up. 16. Conveniently a full moon comes up. 17. The monster breaks loose. 18. The Wolf Man breaks loose. 19. Bela Lugosi’s stunt double Gil Perkins fights Lon Chaney’s stunt double Eddie Parker, with a few close-up cuts of the two actors spliced in. 20. Despite the mayor’s protests, Vazec blows up a dam, and drowns the castle, ridding the world of the two monsters forever (yeah, right). The end.
There are some good things and some bad things about this movie. Most of the good things appear in the first half, and especially the beginning promises a lot. Unfortunately Lon Chaney manages to be both hammy and bland at the same time, although he as his moments in the movie, that is, when the script actually gives him any sort of decent lines. Unfortunately this is not very often. But Chaney does have a certain child-like sincerety to his acting, which has you rooting for the guy, and you actually feel kind of sorry for him. Chaney isn’t the problem of the film.
The script, like the film, gets off to a good start, and I would have enjoyed the movie that was sort of promised in the beginning with Talbot stuck in a hospital trying to gets to grips with being brought back to a miserable life as a werewolf once again. It seems that Curt Siodmak had a good idea going on here, before it all slipped downhill. According to legend, Siodmak actually proposed the idea as a joke to producer George Waggner one day when he needed money for a downpayment on a new car he wanted to buy: Hey, wouldn’t that be a cool movie, ”Frankenstein Wolfs The Meat Man”, as the German allegedly mispronounced it in the conversation. A few hours later a baffled Siodmak got a call from Waggner telling him to go ahead and buy the car.
But after the first 20 minutes the film starts dragging until we get to the Frankenstein part of it, where it gets awful, jumbled, illogical and derivative. Siodmak and Neill can’t resist recreating the scene from the first film with the father carrying his dead child in his arms with an angry mob backing him up – I mean do we have to have angry mobs in all these films? And of course they’re always rural peasants. And again the setting is completely changed from the previous film. In The Ghost of Frankenstein, Vasaria was a sizeable city, (for some reason stuck in the 19th century), and Frankenstein lived in a mansion. Now Vasaria seems more like a small village in the woods (although we don’t actually see much of it for budgetary reasons), and the ruins are those of a medieval castle. And just like in the previous film, the townspeople hate Frankenstein (even though he is dead), despite the fact that he ”killed” the monster and saved the day in the film before.
The direction is not altogether bad, but apart from that first graveyard shot and a pretty neat flooding scene with a good-looking crumbling miniature castle, Neill doesn’t do very much with the film – we get some cool camera angles and semi-large-scale flooding and a bit of wirework in the end, but that doesn’t save the movie. And at one point, during a street celebration, there is a whole musical number, which doesn’t seem to serve any sort of purpose, other than – well, having a traditional folk song in the film. Maleva tags along all the way, but plays out her role when she brings Talbot to Vasaria, and just acts as dead weight after that. Someone at the studio probably felt sorry for the original boogie man Dwight Frye and had him stuck in a supporting role as a villager (again). This is probably his biggest bit-part in the latter Universal horror films, after playing Renfield in the 1931 Dracula, and the creepy henchmen Fritz and Karl in the two first Frankenstein films. The only problem is that his role is completely inconsequential, and feels like it’s been expanded just to give Frye a few more inconsequential lines. The stunts are not very well filmed, but they are impressive, especially in the final fight where Eddie Parker does high leaps from lab equipment and lockers onto Gil Perkins. But the scene is jumbled, ill-cut and ends abrubtly.
But what really sinks the movie is the way it treats the Frankenstein monster. Now, if you haven’t seen The Ghost of Frankenstein, pay attention. In that film Lon Chaney played the monster, and Bela Lugosi played the villain Ygor. In the end of the movie Lionel Atwill tricks Cedric Hardwicke into replacing the monster’s brain with Ygor’s. This leads to the monster not only getting Ygor’s mind, but also his voice – Bela Lugosi’s voice. But, since Ygor’s and the monster’s blood types didn’t match, it turned the monster blind (”the blood won’t feed the optical nerve”). Yeah. And that is why Lon Chaney as the monster flailed around with stiff arms in the end of the picture – because he couldn’t see. Now, in that film, even though it was utterly silly, it all sort of made sense.
And in the original script for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man it also probably made sense – because in the script the monster had lines, and a whole storyline, which would probably have explained his blindness and his other ailments. And since the monster was actually Ygor, it made some sense to put Lugosi in the role, as the monster would still speak with Lugosi’s voice. As it turns out now, with a mute monster, we are never informed of the Ygor plot, and it makes no sense whatsoever that the filmmakers put the 60 year old, slumming Lugosi in the role. He had none of the physicality of Karloff, nor even Chaney, and looked nothing like either of them. The makeup on Lugosi just looks completely and utterly silly, and his over the top grimacing turns the monster into an unintentional comic relief. And for the first time in the franchise, makeup guru Jack Pierce´s makeup is really bad, and looks glued on (see pic below). This may have partly had to do with time constrictions, and partly that Lugosi wasn’t fond of long makeup sessions. The stupid rigid outstretched arms, that get no explanation in the film, doesn’t help matters at all. Nor does the fact that we actually see Lugosi speaking at several instances, but without sound. It is all just a horrible, horrible mess.
Add to this the fact that we have Gil Perkins standing in as the monster in the first shots, and Gil Perkins looks absolutely nothing like Bela Lugosi. The reason to this was the fact that Lugosi hurt his leg at one point of filming and had to be replaced by Perkins in some scenes where a stunt double wasn’t actually needed. And since this was a B film with a short shooting schedule, there was no time to wait for Lugosi to recover. And even in the stunt scenes, like the fighting between The Wolf Man and the monster at the end, many shots are filmed in such a way that everyone clearly sees that it is not Lugosi wearing the makeup, but Perkins, and possibly another (uncredited) stunt man. Many of these shots actually aren’t especially difficult from a stunt point of view, but rather pretty basic wrestling scenes. But since Lugosi was a 60 years old, substance abusing man with a chronic hip problem, he was unable to do even the most basic action scenes, and was mostly cut into the scenes in closeups or just swinging his arms. Again: why on earth would you make this guy play the Frankenstein monster?
The only reason, of course, would be if he spoke. Which he doesn’t. Why? Well, according to film historians the test audiences burst out howling with laughter when they heard the Frankenstein monster speak his lines with a thick Hungarian accent, especially as Lugosi would intentionally send up his accent and mannerisms when playing Ygor. In a panicked attempt the save the movie, the studio cut all his lines, and with them a good deal of exposition and plot, and probably made the movie even worse. And it didn’t do much to help Lugosi’s already declining career. Lugosi would still hang on with four more B movies in 1944, before he more or less sunk into obscurity. It also explains some prolonged scenes where nothing happens, as the editor probably had to pad out the running time with all of Lugosi’s lines cut.
As a disclaimer here: The film isn’t all bad. It is absolutely watchable and even moves along at a decent pace. Neill wasn’t a bad director, but the script simply called for more than the budget would allow, making the film feel awfully cheap. To his credit, he makes some occasionally very effective work with what he’s got to work with. There are a lot of people out there who disagree with my assessment. I’ve read reviews calling this the most entertaining of all the later Universal monster movies. And it is – occasionally – quite entertaining. But for me, the entertainment was undercut by all the flaws, and while I found it hilarious to watch precisely because of all those flaws, I still can’t call it a good movie. So, if you love to have a beer or a bong and laugh over bad B films, I warmly recommend Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Other than that, this film is strictly for Universal horror afficionados.
The rest of the cast is adequate for the film. Best of all is Ilona Massey, who brings a lot of charisma to her proud European blonde bombshell, just as she did in Invisible Agent, and even loses some of the stiffness from that film. British Patric Knowles does what he can with his role as Mannering, but it must have been impossible to create any sort of coherence in a role that was turned on its head time after time so that the script could get to where it was awkwardly going.
Patric Knowles started his career in England and worked himself up the career ladder as a dashing, dark leading man. At Hollywood in 1936, he was quickly typecast in clean-cut heroic roles, but often playing second fiddle in moderately successful A films or leads in cheap B films. He starred as Erroll Flynn’s brother in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and again teamed up with Flynn as Will Scarlet in the all-time classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which is probably his best remembered role. Confusingly, he also played another role – the one as the romantic rival to Lon Chaney – in The Wolf Man. Although his career never moved much forward neither did it ever collapse, and he continued to act all the way up to 1973, in his later years he often played stern military types. His only other sci-fi film was the half-good Jules Verne adaptation From the Earth to the Moon (1958), where he had a substantial supporting role as one of the arms manufacturers that are highly sceptical about shooting a rocket to the moon. In private Knowles was an amateur aviator and a close friend to Erroll Flynn. Both Massey and Knowles have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Lionel Atwill, a staple in B horror films in the late thirties and early forties, was often cast as a mad doctor or other villainous characters, but was perhaps at his best when he played less sinister roles, which often allowed for a bigger range of character traits and emotions. See for example my review of The Son of Frankenstein, possibly his best remembered role to date. Atwill is splendid here as the mayor of Vasaria, giving a showcase of the good-hearted and jovial Atwill, something of a moral compass of the town. He gets a considerable amount of screen time, but more could have been done with his role.
Maria Ouspenskaya was superb as the sinister but helpful Maleva in The Wolf Man, but in this film she is slightly out of her bounds, losing the mystique from the first film. She does her part adequately, but doesn’t shine. What sets Ouspenskaya apart from the rest of the cast here, is that this Russian defector was actually nominated for Oscars for supporting roles twice. Ouspenskaya was a praised stage actress and instructor (studied under the legendary Konstantin Stanislawksi) in Russia and the Soviet Union, who stayed in the US after her theatre company had visited the country in 1922. She became a dominant Broadway actress and founded her own acting school in New York, which she moved to Los Angeles after entering Hollywood with a splash in 1936 in a tiny bit-part in Dodsworth, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination. Her second came in 1939 with Love Affair, again in a small role.
The short, skinny Ouspenskaya was known and notorious for her overbearing and domineering attitude, and often acted as a diva on movie sets. She was obsessed with astrology and would always arrange her shooting schedule and her travels according to phone calls to the L.A. Times horoscope writer. This made her fiercly disliked by crew and cast on many films, and as a result she didn’t appear in more than a dozen films in as many years. She also darted between prestigious A-listers to dodgy B films, like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), where she played the Amazon queen. Chain-smoker Ouspenskaya fell asleep smoking in bed in 1949, and suffered severe burns when her sheets caught on fire, which led to her demise of heart failure three days later.
Dennis Hoey is another highlight of the film, but the problem with the movie is that there are too many characters that get lost for too long stretches and have too little to do for them to make any lasting impression. Hoey’s police inspector is a perfectly well played role that gets dragged down in the bad acting of the two monster leads. Hoey is well known to all Sherlock Holmes fans for his recurring role as Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes in many films in the forties. This led to him being typecast as police inspectors and other men of authority in a number of films. His son Michael A. Hoey was a jack of all trades in Hollywood, best known for directing the schlock horror sci-fi film The Navy vs. The Night Monsters (1966), and was nominated for two Emmys for his work as editor and title designer on the TV series Fame (1982). Michael’s son Dennis Hoey was an extra on two Z movies in the early nineties (one starring Roseanna Arquette) and even tried his luck as a makeup artist in one straight-to-video erotic thriller, a Penthouse porn film and an episode of the TV series Real Sex. His career never really took off …
Harry Stubbs as Guno (can’t remember who that was) was probably at this time the actor who had appeared in most werewolf films in the history of cinema, as he appeared in the very first American werewolf movie, Werewolf of London in 1935, and The Wolf Man. He can also be spotted as an extra in The Invisible Man (1933, review) and The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review).
In a small role as Talbot’s crypt keeper we see one of the United States most revered acting instructors, Jeff Corey, in an early role. Never a big movie star, he nonetheless was revered within Hollywood and a much respected character actor, and no stranger to genre cinema in neither film nor TV. Among his appearences in sci-fi films one can find him in the third biggest role in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), as the leader of the mutant humans in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), a bit-part in the Roger Corman Star Wars ripoff Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and The Creator (1980) starring Peter O’Toole. He guest starred in a number of sci-fi series, including the co-lead in an episode of The Outer Limits (1963), and as Plasus, the leader of the floating city of Stratos in the Time Machine-inspired episode The Cloud Miners in the original Star Trek (1969). He also had a recurring role as the supervillain Silvermane in the animated Spider-Man series (1995-1997). He guest starred on The Bionic Woman (1977) and Babylon 5 (1996).
Friends of fantasy films might spot him as Craccus in The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) and as High Vizier in Conan the Destroyer (1984). Apart from all this genre work, he also appeared in a number of A-films, many of them westerns, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit (both 1969) and Little Big Man (1970). He also appeared in films like My Friend Flicka (1943) and Joan of Arc (1948). Among his acting students were many of Hollywood’s greats, like James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Peter Fonda, Roger Corman, Irvin Kershner, Jane Fonda, Leonard Nimoy, Cher (didn’t help much), Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams.
Martha Vickers was a photo model who did her acting debut in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – if you can call being a corpse ”acting”. Vickers did a few other small genre roles for Universal, including Captive Wild Woman (1943, review) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). In 1946 she raised many eyebrows, especially male eyebrows, as Lauren Bacall’s wild sister in the Humphrey Bogart-helmed film noir The Big Sleep, which catapulted her to celebrity status. The role made her typecast as a bad girl, as which she appeared in a number of films in the forties, without ever proceeding to leading lady status. In the fifties she appeared as a guest star in a number of TV series.
Among the crew we find many of the usual suspects of the Universal horror stable: composer Hans J. Salter, not providing one of his most memorable scores, as he relies partly on stock music, editor Edward Curtiss, set decorator Russell A. Gausman, costume designer Vera West, makeup artist Jack Pierce and special effects legend John P. Fulton.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. 1943, USA. Directed by Roy William Neill. Written by Curt Siodmak. Sort of suggested by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye, Don Barclay, Harry Stubbs, Jeff Corey, Martha Vicker. Music: Hans J. Salter. Cinematography: George Robinson. Editing: Edward Curtiss. Art direction: John B. Goodman. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: Melville Shyer. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Stunts: Gil Perkins, Eddie Parker. Produced by George Waggner for Universal.