#9 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
I keep expecting this franchise to maintain a constant descent into silly mediocrity, but it keeps surprising me. The first two-thirds of Frankenstein and the Wolf Man is the best the Universal Franchise has ever gotten up to this point. The last third is rote repetition of cliché, but that first two-thirds is an exploration of guilt and trauma that’s surprisingly effective and penetrating. Anchored by what may be Lon Chaney’s finest performance (which may not be saying too much, but he was surprisingly good here), this is the first film in the franchise since The Bride of Frankenstein that feels like it has ambitions beyond monster mayhem. That its monster mayhem in the end isn’t exactly spellbinding is unfortunate, but it caps a film that wasn’t honestly building up to it.
Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) died at the end of The Wolf Man, and four years later a pair of grave robbers sneak into the Talbot mausoleum to steal Talbot’s ring and money he was supposedly buried in. They discover that his body has not degraded in any way, and that he’s been covered in wolfsbane. Once they remove it and the full moon hits him, Talbot awakens and becomes the Wolf Man once again, going on a rampage until he collapses in a street in Cardiff. He admits to his own involvement in the grisly murders that happened while he’s around to his doctor, Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles), who describes everything in psychological terms, dismissing Talbot’s tale of transfiguration as nothing but ravings. Talbot, though, is racked with guilt as his uncontrollable actions, and sets out to figure out how to kill himself.
He seeks out the old gypsy woman from the previous film, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), and finds her some time later in an unnamed central European country. She tells him that there is nothing she can do, but she heard of a man who had discovered the secrets of life and death, one Doctor Frankenstein (thunder and lightning here, please). The way the film tries to keep up with the canon in the previous Frankenstein films is admirable, but somewhat incomplete. I think the castle changes in every movie. The monster (Bela Lugosi) got crushed by a burning beam in the attic in the previous film, but Talbot finds him under the building in a block of ice for some reason. Still, it’s supposed to be Ygor’s brain in there, but, apparently, the test screening where Lugosi spoke as the monster went so poorly that the director Roy William Neill just decided to cut out every single line of intelligible dialogue. This decision creates a rather large hole in how the film plays out, but it also has the added benefit of fully focusing on Talbot himself.
Talbot gets contrasted, not with Frankenstein’s monster, but with the villagers of the small town Vasaria. When I say that the film is about trauma, I’m really talking about how the townsfolk are presented, mostly through two prominent characters the mayor (Lionel Atwill) and Vazec (Rex Evans). After the arrival of Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey), brought to meet Talbot under false pretenses, Vazec is constantly trying to rally a mob to destroy the stranger in town as well as the last of the Frankensteins, an obvious reaction to the amount of death and destruction brought upon Vasaria by this family. The mayor tries to reason with the mob and find a way to negotiate between the two parties.
There’s a festival, and as a gypsy singer sang for the crowd, I was convinced that the film was something special. The village trying to move on despite the pain with Talbot trying to talk with Elsa about finding her father’s notes that could lead to him figuring out how to kill himself combine into something really special. It’s not to last, though, because Dr. Mannering comes back into the picture, and we get our stereotypical mad scientist who must go too far with science even though Dr. Mannering was originally portrayed as a kind and considerate man of science who just wanted to help Talbot. Being within feet of the equipment made by Henry Frankenstein apparently just turned him crazy, I guess. He’s supposed to use the notes Elsa finds to help end both the Wolf Man and the monster forever, but he just decides to make them stronger for reasons, and we finally get our showdown between the two monsters to end the film.
And that’s unfortunate, because the portrait of guilt and trauma was surprisingly well written by Curt Siodmak while Neill photographs things handsomely. It’s an evocation of the look that James Whale had established in the first two Frankenstein films, and it does it well. In the middle of it all is Lon Chaney Junior giving the performance of his career. He would never have been considered for an Oscar for it, not just because it’s in a silly horror movie, but because he rises to a solidly good performance in a film that ends up feeling like it doesn’t really deserve it. Still, that’s a key to how well the first two-thirds works. The ending doesn’t live up to the promise of what came before, but it doesn’t completely diminish the whole.