Monday, October 19, 2009

“Kill my trusted old assistant? Why, no. I'm going to repay you for betraying me.”

1944 saw the return of Boris Karloff to the Frankenstein franchise but not as the Monster. WHHAAATT? Well, yes. This movie, a monster mash by the name of House of Dracula, put Karloff in the Mad Scientist role and threw a whole bunch of misanthropes and malevolents at the screen.

A mad scientist, who was imprisoned 15 years for trying to put a human brain into a dog’s head, is freed from his prison during a freak storm that breaks the walls down. He and his hunchbacked cellmate escape and murder the proprietors of a traveling carnival/circus thing (what is it with carnivals being repositories of weirdness this month?), travel to the town of Reigelberg, unleash Dracula from his coffin to have some revenge on one of the doctor’s enemies and then move onto the next town (without Drac) Frankenstein, where they find the Wolf Man and Monster frozen in ice, revive them, find Dr. Frankenstein’s notes somewhere in the House of Frankenstein (Dun, Dun, Dun!!) and then travel to Visaria ((which, I’m assuming relates to Vasaria from some of the other late period Universal Horror films) to continue the doc’s multipronged scheme of revenge and Mad Science.

Dr. Gustav Niemann: Boris Karloff is thoroughly badass as the frightfully amoral Mad Scientist. He’s introduced at the beginning by reaching his hand through the narrow window of his cell to strangle his jailer for the purpose of getting chalk out of the guy so he can draw formulas on the walls of his cell. That’s pretty hardcore SCIENCE right there. Then when he gets free, he’s just so methodical and cold in his plans, adapting quickly and ruthlessly to new situations. His delivery is great, and he’s actually a pretty cool villain. I mean, he screwed over Dracula and got away with it.

Daniel: J. Carrol Naish is the unfortunate hunchback who falls in with Dr. Niemann. He’s obviously not right in the head, has some freakish strength, but really, he just wants a normal body and to be loved by the gypsy woman that he rescues along the way. He’s quite sympathetic and does an all right job of it. Poor henchman just can’t get a break.

Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr. is quite fine in his signature character. Apparently there’s a Wolf Man Meets Frankenstein movie where just that happened and both creatures somehow ended up frozen, Captain America style in the basement of the House of Frankenstein (Dun, Dun, Dun!!). He gets thawed out by Niemann, who wants Frankenstein’s journals. Talbot helps him on the condition that Niemann find a way to cure the curse of lycanthropy, since it sucks to be Larry Talbot every full moon. Talbot’s sympathetic, sure, but he’s also incredibly impatient about finding a cure.

Dracula/Baron Latos: John Carradine (yep, he’s been in at least a few Universal Horror films) is all right as Count Dracula, but he doesn’t do a whole lot. Niemann pulls the stake out of his skeleton’s chest, Drac’s back and agrees to wack someone for the doc in return for protection of his coffin, but when Drac meets his target’s granddaughter in law, he goes back into standard Dracula procedure (hypnotizing and seducing a beautiful woman with the intent of violating her later) which, as things turn out, ends in a near-dawn chase scene where Niemann tosses Drac’s coffin out onto the road and Drac sees the sun. So, Dracula’s actually kind of a chump in this film.

Ilonka: Elena Verdugo is the gypsy woman that Daniel falls in love with. She actually shares a moment with Daniel when she sees his hump for the first time but still wants to be friends, but its obvious from the get-go that she’s not interested in Daniel the same way that he’s interested in her. She’s also rather flighty, immediately taking to Larry Talbot when he joins up with the doctor’s crew, and this of course just eats away at poor Daniel.

The Frankenstein Monster: Glenn Strange is the monster but as in the later House of Dracula, doesn’t really do a whole lot. He was also frozen Captain America Style, but for some reason the event left severe tissue damage to him and he’s sick and immobile for most of his screen time.

Burgomeister Hussman: Sig Ruman (who was also, get this, the leader of the Nazi villains in the Marx Brothers’ A Night In Casablanca: Heinrich Stubel) is the kindly burgomeister who long ago helped sentence Niemann to prison. Dracula kills him as a favor to Niemann for setting him free.

Karl & Rita Hussman: Peter Coe & Anne Gwynne are Hussman’s grandson and granddaughter-in-law. A standard couple for a monster movie victim thing, they’re not very interesting, but they’re also not in the movie long before the action moves to a different town.

Inspector Arnz: Lionel Atwill plays a police inspector with a striking similarity to Inspector Krogh from Son of Frankenstein, except without the fake arm. He’s a friend of the Hussmans and it was a nice character nod to Atwill’s earlier portrayal of Krogh, but the movie just kind of tosses him in as a glorified cameo and then moves on.

Professor Bruno Lampini: George Zucco is the friendly carnival guy who picks up Niemann & Daniel. Then he makes the mistake of not wanting to go where they want to go.

Strauss & Ullman: Michael Mark & Frank Reicher are two of Niemann’s old enemies from Visaria. Niemann kidnaps them and plans to put their brains into the bodies of the Wolf Man and Monster. Now, a special note about Michael Mark. He’s been in a bunch of these Frankenstein films. He was a burgher in Son of and Ghost of, and more importantly, he played Maria’s father in Frankenstein. Like I said in that review, the scene where he’s walking through the village with his waterlogged daughter in his arms with a stunned and broken look on his face is just so amazing and painful at the same time.

Erle C. Kenton, Universal’s go-to guy for 1940’s monster mashes. Visually, there’s nothing really wrong with the movie, but there’s not a whole lot that its got going for it either. The visual effects of Dracula transforming from bat to human aren’t as great as in some other films, but the way Karloff is generally lit is usually very good, so I guess it evens out. The ending with the quicksand is also a pretty cool scene.

Curt Siodmak (story) and Edward T. Lowe Jr. (writer) throw a bunch of monster movie tropes at the screen and some are interesting. Dracula’s just kind of wasted in his appearance, and Larry Talbot is doing his thing trying to find a cure for his condition, but the stuff with Dr. Niemann (and his slightly silly, rather disturbing backstory of trying to put a human brain into a dog’s body) is pretty solid and the stuff with Daniel at least tries to be a little different. I’m of two minds about the Dracula section, because while on one hand it shows just how ruthless and dangerous Niemann is in that he can screw over Dracula, it also introduces us to a bunch of characters that don’t have any bearing on the rest of the story. The whole part feels like a digression rather than a major part of the film. Still, I don’t fault the film for trying, and the overall pace of the film moves at a steady clip that doesn’t waste a lot of time.

Hans J. Salter & Paul Dessau deliver a standard, sweeping score that works well. Not much more I can say.

House of Frankenstein is an odd film (like a lot of these 40’s era Universal films are, I’m noticing). Not quite up to par with the original films in the respective franchises being mined, but still offering some good performances, interesting situations and the fun novelty of being a monster mash film (and monster mashes never get old). If you have the Legacy Collection box set (and I do recommend these sets because you get a lot of classic movies in each), yeah, check it out. As far as the must-see Frankenstein films, I’d say see Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, the other two are optional.

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