#16 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
What if Igor was the main character and he was sympathetic? That’s almost what Erle C. Kenton’s House of Frankenstein tries to do, and if that had ended up the focus, even with all of the monster resurrections happening around him, I think something really interesting could have happened. Instead, the storytelling is so jumbled that what initially feels like a series of events that could tie together into one grand ending ends up being just a series of events towards a conclusion. Well, at least we have Boris Karloff classing the joint up again. He’s better than this movie deserves.
A madman, Dr. Gustav Niemann (Karloff), has been in prison for fifteen years for doing what Henry Frankenstein had done: steal bodies for experiments on controlling life or death. One evening in his cell, as he explains his theories to the hunchback in the cell next door, Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), lightning hits the prison just right and the two are able to escape amidst the rubble. They quickly come across the traveling horror show led by Professor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco) whom Niemann orders murdered by Daniel, and the two take the place of Lampini and his driver. One of Lampini’s horrors is the supposedly real skeleton of the real Count Dracula, complete with stake still sticking out of where his heart should be.
Niemann has two motives. The first is revenge on the men who organized to put him in prison including the burgomaster and his old assistant. The burgomaster is in the town of Visaria, and the movie turns into a Dracula film for about fifteen minutes as the count (John Carradine) comes back to life when Niemann removes the stake, looking for a quick weapon to attack Burgomaster Hussman (Sig Ruman), which brings Dracula back to life. With the promise that the two will serve each other as long as they protect each other, Dracula dominates the film until a chase happens and he dies. Well, that was fun. He got Hussman, though, so there’s that. Apparently, the film was conceived of as a monster meetup, but how Dracula s completely separate from the other two monsters to come and gets dropped completely at the twenty-minute mark is weird. There’s a whole section of the film that could get hard cut out and there’d be no real issue with following what happens next.
Well, Niemann and Daniel show up at the town of Frankenstein where they get a quick rundown of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, including a great matte painting of the dam that broke and the ruins of the castle. There they meet the gypsy dancer Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), and Daniel develops an unrequited crush on her. Cut out the Dracula section of the film, and this is really the beginning. There’s Niemann towering over everyone as the driving force of the plot, but underneath is this little character-based story about an ugly hunchback who grows to love a pretty girl. It’s handled with surprising tact, giving Daniel enough kind and polite affection from Ilonka to get him going believably. It all falls apart when Niemann goes into the ice caverns underneath Castle Frankenstein and discovers the frozen bodies of the monster (Glenn Strange) and Lawrence Talbot, the Wolf Man, (Lon Chaney, Jr.).
The monster is essentially lying down and passive until the final two minutes of the film, which allows time to focus on Talbot. He still wants to die, and here comes Niemann, a scientist who promises that he will find the secret of Frankenstein, the secret of life and death, and kill the Wolf Man once and for all. At the same time, Ilonka develops a crush on the tall, handsome (?) man, especially in comparison to the hunchbacked Daniel. This little love triangle is, aside from Karloff who owns every second he’s on screen, the best part of the movie, and it gives Daniel some wonderful motivation. He’s very much the most interesting character in the whole thing.
I was expecting the film to take all of these things (the love triangle, Niemann’s obsession, the monster, the brewing of a torch-wielding mob from the town of Frankenstein because Universal monster movie) and bring them together in a whirlwind of an ending as one event fed into another in a climax that felt dizzying in its ability to handle so many narrative strands at once. It did not happen. Instead, the love triangle gets sorted over here. Niemann and the monster get sorted over there. There’s very little intertwining of events. Throw in the fact that Dracula never comes back, and this is a script (credited to Edward T. Lowe) of different ideas thrown together without figuring out how to make them all part of the same story.
Still, I grasp onto that sweet little love triangle and Daniel’s pathetic state as well as Boris Karloff’s wonderful performance as the core of this film. Naish (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice in his career) really gives Daniel a wonderful sense of humanity, feeling like a thematic extension of the original vision of the monster in the first Frankenstein, an ugly, unloved man who cannot find his place in the world. The rest are fine. Chaney can’t match his performance in the previous Wolf Man film, but he gives it a go. Verdugo is pretty as Ilonka and Strange is there as the monster. It also looks quite good from beginning to end, which seems to be a staple of the Frankenstein movies.
I also want to make a small note of how the film decided to do a werewolf transformation artistically instead of just using the series of dissolves. Most of the transformations throughout the series are just closeups of Chaney’s face as they go from one stage of makeup to the next. Here, there’s a tracking shot that pans from a broken window to follow a series of footsteps of a man that turns into the footsteps of a werewolf, finishing with a look at Chaney in makeup. It’s much more interesting than the series of dissolves.
It doesn’t work overall, but there’s real narrative meat on the bone, even if the whole thing is somewhat malformed.