(4/10) In a nutshell: Universal’s horror stars gang together for the franchise’s second monster bash in a film that is a mix of good and mad. There’s too much going on in a too short period of time, Dracula is thrown by the wayside and the plot holes are big enough to fill a stadium. But there’s also a dash of originality and some first-class acting in this 1944 film.
House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal. Tomatometer: 55 %. IMDb score: 6.2
Quick! Give me the five greatest mad scientists of the forties! Did you say Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carroll Naish? Great, now you have them all in one film! This was the second monster mash movie after the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), starring Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Lon Chaney also turns up in House, again as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The film is sometimes referred to as ”The House of Frankenstein” and sometimes without the prefix.
Of course, one name is conspicuously absent from the roster: Bela Lugosi – considering that Count Dracula makes an appearance in the film. But this time around he is played by John Carradine. The reason for his abscence has been the topic of much speculation. Some have proposed that it was his appalling appearance as the Frankenstein monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man that made Universal shut their doors. But the problem with the monster wasn’t Lugosi’s fault, and Universal knew it. He was miscast, badly directed, badly scripted, badly doubled and almost edited out of the picture – and the studio knew it. They also knew he could do a good Dracula in his sleep, even if he was drunk or jacked up, as he increasingly was in the forties. In fact, some early promotional material shows Lugosi’s name attached to House of Frankenstein. The real reason he isn’t in the film seems to be that at the time of filming he was touring with a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Lon Chaney Jr. had in fact played Dracula before, in Son of Dracula, but since he was stuck as the werewolf, the Shakespearean actor and Universal’s new favourite mad doctor, John Carradine, must have seen like a good replacement for Lugosi.
And considering how badly Dracula is treated in the film, it may be just as well that Lugosi stayed away.
For Universal, it was something of a jackpot to get Boris Karloff back to the franchise. Prior to the fall of 1944 he hadn’t been working for Universal since Black Friday in 1940, and after the reduction of the Frankenstein monster to more or less a prop in The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), he refused to play the part that he once created – also because he was avoiding to get typecast in the lumbering monster role, a role he did variations on in a number of films in the thirties, before again getting typecast as a mad scientist.
This time Karloff plays Dr. Gustav Niemann, almost unrecognisable in a big beard, who is stuck in a medieval dungeon along with his cellmate, the simple hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish in one of his best roles). Since this is the movies, lightning strikes the prison, releasing the two poor bastards, who escape and bump into a carriage transporting a mobile horror show, consisting of a driver/assistant and the master of the show himself, professor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco in what must be his smallest role ever in a horror film). Niemann has the powerful Daniel kill Lampini and the driver, and a cut later we see a shaved and recognisable Karloff donning a stylish moustache, and Daniel in the driver’s circus costume.
As has been made clear from some elaborate exposition in prison and talking to Lampini, Niemann is on his way to Visaria, formerly known in previous films as Vasaria, to seek out the some of the people that put him in jail to kill them, because that is the sort of stuff that Boris Karloff does in films. His crimes have of course been conducting Frankenstein-like experiments, and conveniently enough Frankenstein’s ruined castle (that is Ludwig Frankenstein’s – the second son of Henry Frankenstein) is located in the same town as his tormentors. Once in possession of Frankenstein’s diary, he is convinced he can also make poor hunchback Daniel ”like other men”.
Daniel insists on picking up the perky gypsy dancer Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) after she is abused by her master, and he falls in love with her, and she takes pity on him and his deformed body. Daniel and Niemann put up their show in town, and we then change the scenery.
Now we meet Burgomaster Hussman (Sig Ruman) and Inspector Arnz (Lionel Atwill) at a friendly game of chess. The burgomaster’s daugher-in-law Rita has decided that they all, including her husband Carl Hussman, the burgomaster’s son (Peter Coe) are to go downtown to see the horror show, which they do, engaged in some friendly banter. And to make a long story short, Niemann, presenting himself as Lampini, shows them a skeleton with a wooden stick driven through the place where the heart once was, and assures them that it is the skeleton of Count Dracula himself (even though he does not believe so himself). The burgomaster is more interested in this ”Lampini” whom he thinks he recognises, before Daniel lowers the curtain.
Absent-mindedly Niemann removes the stick, and lo and behold, Dracula materialises in the form of John Carradine. This Dracula is quite a wimp and promises to obey all Niemann’s commands if Niemann sees to the fact that his coffin is ready by dawn every night – since of course vampires perish in sunlight. Doesn’t quit sound like the ”I who have commanded the armies of darkness” kind of Dracula we know, does it?
Man. This is so convoluted that I have to sum it up briefly. So. Niemann sends Dracula to kill Hussman, which Dracula doesn’t do, instead has a nice cup of wine with the family, until he decides to seduce Rita with his Dracula powers, and rides off with her. When he sees the police chasing Dracula, Niemann ditches the coffin and buggers off, and Dracula is killed by the sunlight while clutching the lid of the coffin. The end. Um no, not really, we are only 30 minutes – or halfway – into the film. But that’s the end of Dracula, and now we move on to a completely different film. Did the Dracula segment that took up half of the film have anything to do with anything in the rest of the film? No. It was just a way to get Dracula into the script, almost as an afterthought.
Well, Daniel and Niemann find old Frankenstein’s lab, that has now been burnt down in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review) and then flooded and destroyed in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Here they find both The Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster incased in ice in a cave. It is, as Niemann points out – glacier ice. Which would make sense if there was any clacier around, but to my knowledge glaciers dont usually form in isolated caves. But they do in quite a lot of horror films in the forties. Niemann figures that the two monsters know where Frankenstein’s notes are so ”we will release them, and they will help us”. Just like that. Of course they will. Because they’re known to be cood chaps that way.
The first out of the ice is old Lawrence ”Larry” Talbot (Lon Chaney), immediately settling into his ”why me?” routine from the previous film, hulking and whining about how nobody understands him. But he agrees to help, since Niemann is convinced that he can cure Talbot with the help of Frankenstein’s diary. Yeah, because that turned out so well the last time. Indeed they find the notes, but also dig up the Frankenstein monster, who isn’t alive, and load him on the carriage, and off they go to Niemann’s old lab.
Now the hitch is that Daniel can no longer accompany Ilonka (remember the gypsy girl) in the driver’s seat, since Niemann can’t stand Talbot’s annoying whining any more than the viewer, and sends him out to drive. Daniel is jealous, as he should be, since Ilonka starts to fall in love with Talbot. Ah, and when they arrive to the lab, Daniel is of course eager to finally have his body fixed. But no, he can wait, says Niemann because Larry Talbot has to come first. But he won’t do Talbot either, because Niemann must first test his method on the monster to see if everything works: he has brought along one of his tormentors, to put his brain into the body of the monster. The ideas is to then put the brain of Daniel into the body of Larry Talbot. But Talbot is impatient, since it will be a full moon tonight, and ”No! No! I can’t through that again!” Gobble gobble slobber slobber. And once again, it is curious how nobody seems to be the least worried about the fact that there will shortly be a raving werewolf loose in the house.
Ah, well, we also get a confrontation between Daniel and Ilonka, who admits she is in love with Talbot, and Daniel informs her that he is a werewolf and she says he is a lier and ”I hate you, I hate you, you are mean and ugly”. And then Larry informs her, that yes Daniel is mean and ugly, but he is actually right and the only way to kill a werewolf is by a silver bullet shot by someone who loves him. Umm, wait, didn’t we establish in the previous film that silver bullets don’t actually kill werewolves? That was sort of the whole premise of the last film. Well, nevermind.
Of course, come midnight Talbot turns into a werewolf, attacks Ilonka, who shoots him with a silver bullet and they die in each others arms. Meanwhile, Niemann revives the Frankenstein monster (now played by the gigantic Glenn Strange). Daniel is pissed because Niemann failed to deliver on his promise and had his girl killed, as well as the body he intended to inhetit, so he tries to kill Niemann, but instead is himself killed by the Frankenstein monster, who picks up Niemann, but then the angry mob enters. Yes, it is a Frankenstein film, we must have an angry mob. The angry mob force the monster, carrying Niemann, out into the swamp, where they drown in quicksand, in one of the most hilarious death scenes of all time. Boris Karloff clearly wasn’t comfortable with putting his head under the murky water and looks stiff as a board – and then draws a huge breath before obviously pulling himself under, just like he was swimming and wanted to get his hair wet. He might as well have pinched his nose.
OK. The good things: again, J. Carrol Naish does a wonderful job as the down-trodden and well-meaning outcast, just as he did as the ape-man in Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942, review). The acting is good almost across the board. Karloff does mad scientists in his sleep, and is clearly adamant about doing his best for the franchise he kicked off so brilliantly 13 years earlier. And despite his murderous schemes, he actually plays Niemann as a basically likeable guy – you actually want the sod to succeed right up until the end. Lionel Atwill is always good, and he is actually better at playing a bit eccentric nice guys than villains – even if he has quite a small role in the film. George Zucco is almost unrecognisable in a get-up that strongly brings to mind the original burgomaster in the 1931 film Frankenstein (review), and he even plays the role as if he wanted to do it as an homage. It is a small throwaway role, but remains memorable because of Zucco’s brilliant talent.
Universal’s real find in the film is 19-year old Elena Verdugo, as Ilonka, a petite, spicy girl who brings incredible warmth and life to her portrayal of the simple, but kind-hearted gypsy girl. Verdugo lights up the screen every time she steps into the picture, and is absolutely mesmerizing. I think I’m a bit in love, and so must audiences in the forties have been. Verdugo was born in Paso Robles in California, and despite the fact that she often got to play señoritas, gypsies, ”natives” and oriental harem girls, her family had resided in California since the 18th century, when they moved there from Spain. In fact, Univeral’s studio lot stood on land that was once granted by the Spanish crown to a Jose Maria Verdugo, Elena’s ancestor.
A dancer since childhood, she spent her teens in small roles as dancing girls, until she was picked up by Universal, who had noticed her in tiny roles in two recent Paramount films, for House of Frankenstein. She played over 20 films in the forties and early fifties, mostly as an ”ethnic” woman, which paradoxically meant she had to wear a wig, since she was a natural blonde. Apart from House of Frankenstein, her most prestigious film role was in a supporting part in the A film Cyrano de Bergerac starring Jose Ferrer and Mala Powers in 1950. In the fifties she gradually moved into TV and radio. She was the first Latin woman to play the lead in a major TV series in 1952-55 when she played Millie Bronson in Meet Millie. She is best known, though, as the kindhearted nurse Consuelo Lopez in the popular series Marcus Welby, M.D, that ran from 1969 to 1978.
As of writing this review in February 2015, she is the third actor I have featured on this blog that is still alive. She is now residing in a nursing home in California. For her role on Marcus Welby M.D. she was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1973, an Emmy in 1971 and 1972, and won an Image Award in 1971. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In November 2016, she is the 44th oldest movie star alive, at 91 years, according to this list.
Bela Lugosi allegedly never forgave Lon Chaney Jr. for ”defiling” his Dracula role in Son of Dracula, in which Chaney was clearly miscast (although Hollywood loves making up these rivalry stories, so they should be taken with a grain of salt). At least, he needn’t worry about the dignity of the role in John Carradine’s hands. Although he has no help at all from the script, and does the role very different from Lugosi, Carradine brings his absolute best to the table, hamming it a bit at times, but so did Lugosi, but playing a very dignified count. I do like that he doesn’t put on any silly accent, but plays the role very naturally in his own Thespian delivery. One of the best scenes of the film is where he seduces Rita with a magical ring. We do deplore the flapping rubber bat, but the scenes of him turning from a bat to a man – done as an animated shadow on the wall – is pretty neat for the time. It’s just such a shame that the screenwriters didn’t have much respect for the character.
Anne Gwynne as Rita Hussman was – like so many of the B stars at the time – a former model who became a Universal staple in the late thirties and had a moderately successful career as leading lady or ”the other woman” in westerns and a few thrillers and horrors in the forties, and had a few guest spots on TV in the fifties. She played a substantial supporting role in the third Flash Gordon serial in 1940, had a brief appearance in an episode of the serial The Green Hornet (1942, review) and played the lead in the cheap horror sci-fi western Teenage Monster in 1958. She is quite good as the lively and head-strong Rita in House of Frankenstein, but the script gives all of her best material in the beginning of the film, after which she disappears. Busty Gwynne was also a popular pin-up model among American soldiers in WWII.
Peter Coe was born Peter Knego in Yugoslavia and trained as an actor in England before moving to Hollywood in the mid-forties. His role as Carl Hussman was one of his first, and was followed by one of his biggest in The Mummy’s curse. He plays the role with a lot of energy and sincerety, but his career never really went anywhere and he spent most of it playing ethnic bit-parts in both A and B films and TV series. He was a good friend and drinking buddy of cult director Ed Wood, and Ed Wood actually died in his home in 1978.
In a small role we see one of our old favourites, German-born film director, stage actor and bit-part player Frank Reicher, best known as the captain in King Kong (1933, review), who also appeared in The Devil-Doll (1936, review), The Invisible Ray (1936, review), Dr. Cyclops (1940, review) and Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review). As an extra we also meet prolific bit-part hack Gino Corrado, not known for appearing in films like Gone with the Wind (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942).
I usually give a presentation of a film’s stars, but I suppose you know who they are, and there are so many of them here, that I’ll be here for a week if I go into more detail. Google.
The film was directed by Erle C. Kenton whose crowning achievement is the brilliant Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), but who dropped the ball on The Ghost of Frankenstein. He fares a little better this time, and the direction isn’t really a problem on this film, even though it has none of the gothic beauty of the early Frank movies. But he does create some moments of genuine atmosphere – most notably the scene with Dracula and Rita, and the end where Talbot and Ilonka are enshrouded in mist in their last embrace is also memorable. There are a few nice camera angles and Kenton isn’t afraid to get close up and personal with the actors, shoving the camera right up in their faces, creating some tense moments. He is good with a moving camera, but might have incorporated more of that.
Despite this being a B movie, it still has a decent enough budget to make for some pretty good sets, and Kenton is helped by veteran cinematographer George Robinson to make the most out of them. The crew is to a large extent the same as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – and of course makeup guru Jack Pierce is on board, again working double-time to make both The Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster. The monster makeup certainly looks better on Glenn Strange than on Bela Lugosi, and it looks from the short scenes where he is alive in frame like Boris Karloff actually did some directing, as we again see a hint of the humanity that Karloff so beautifully bestowed the creature with. But unfortunately Strange can’t help but looking a bit like a big oaf through the scenes, although he handles the physical performance well – again probably instructed by Karloff, as there are some of the trademark gestures of Karloff’s work. This is probably the best portrayal of the monster in the original franchise after Karloff abandoned the role. The only question I have is why they didn’t give the role to stuntman Gil Perkins, who is on board on this film, and actually carried out the part pretty well when he doubled for Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. He looked good in the makeup and actually had some acting experience. Glenn Strange we saw previously playing the lead as the werewolf/gardener in the super-cheap The Mad Monster (1942, review) alongside George Zucco.
Lon Chaney Jr. – well, we’ve covered him before. He just wasn’t the actor his father was, and although he had his moments, he just looks like a clumsy amateur alongside actors like Boris Karloff and J. Carrol Naish. It doesn’t help that Edward T. Lowe Jr’s script gives him idiotic whining lines through the whole film – making his trademark line ”No! No! I can’t go through that again!” I understand that he’s supposed to be a victim of his circumstances, but would you please give the man some backbone? And for the record, I never could learn to appreciate the wolf man makeup. Pierce clearly took his cue from the Hypertrichosis syndrome, rather than try to make Chaney look like an actual wolf – and then added something that looks more like a pig’s snout that a wolf’s muzzle, and then added a severe underbite. Just looks ridiculous. And then those crazy furry feet. There, glad I got that out of my system, I know the makeup is a brilliant piece of craftsmanship, and I don’t want to take anything away from the awesome Pierce, but I just always thought the wolf man looked absolutely stupid. And then he lumbered around in Chaney’s bulky frame, nothing like the lean predator he was supposed to be. Argh.
The premise of the script is actually not all that bad, and it was The Wolf Man writer Curt Siodmak who came up with the basic story, and if you would remove the detached Dracula plot and focused more on the Gustav Niemann/Daniel story, which works very well, it might have been a better film.
House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman, Frank Reicher, Gino Corrado. Music: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau. Cinematography: George Robinsin. Editing: Philip Cahn. Art direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina. Set dedoration: Russel A. Gausman, A.J. Gilmore. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: William Tummel. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Stunts: Billy Jones, Carey Loftin, Gil Perkins. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal.