By the time House of Frankenstein opened in 1944, horror stars Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff were massive draw cards at the box office and actors to look out for – therefore it makes sense that by the time of this film their credits preceded the title. Opening on a rainy night with a travelling show business carriage trekking it through the wet plains, the film is the first in a smorgasbord of movie monsters that Universal Studios were so proud of (and rightfully so, as these creatures and everyone associated with them, built the studio and made it what it is today). This curtain raiser is a perfect summary of what the film doesn’t shy away from being – a carnival of monstrosities and a showcase of freaks. In House of Frankenstein, the monsters are presented as distinct outsiders longing for acceptance, while in The Howling, the monsters are secretive and reluctant to be outed as outsiders. In fact, the major comparative filmic element shared between House of Frankenstein and The Howling is the inability to remain innocuous and the failure of responding to the ordinary cries of the pedestrian.
In this film, Boris Karloff plays Gustav Neimann, a scientist imprisoned for indecency who is maniacally obsessed with the deceased Dr. Frankenstein (who is of course now long dead but who’s ghost hovers over the entirety of the film). Neimann has Frankenstein’s notes (given to him by his brother who worked with the infamous doctor) and has a tumultuous relationship with Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) a hunchback, who he promises a perfect body – eventually. Hunchbacks will become a major horror movie archetype during this period and almost always serve as servant to oppressive and more intellectual dictators. The film is a product of World War II and the Hitler regime with the Nazi obsession with good health, plays within the subtext in regards to the characterization of Daniel and his desire to be “perfected”. In The Howling (1981) – a modern take on the werewolf mythology – good health and radiance is associated with Christopher Stone’s character of Bill Neill (“I own a few health clubs…”) and in Gary Bradner’s novel, Karen and her husband are resented by the rapist because of their good looks and health – for the most part, physical abnormalities are usually associated with the monstrous or the poor unfortunate misunderstood (Erle Kenton and his twisted body and Dr. Waggner with his bad leg et al), however physical prowess can also be akin to supernatural monsters such as Marsha Quist with her athletic physique and her brother T.C. who is described as “part bloodhound”. In House of Frankenstein, physical perfection is ultimately summed up in the character of Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) who Daniel the hunchback falls in love with. Ilonka is a gypsy girl rendering her also one of the “unfavourable” as far as the Nazi regime went, and therefore her physical beauty and athleticism enforces her difference much like the werewolves of the Colony.
After an electrical storm frees Neimann and Daniel (the lightning that is now so closely associated with the Frankenstein mythology releasing the unnatural order), this duo of evil doings come across Professor Lampini (George Zucco) who was seen in the opening shot of the film. Lampini has the skeleton of Count Dracula, and once this is noted he is killed by Daniel and the dutiful hunchback and the demented Neimann take charge the carriage.
What then unfolds is a busy and highly charged film that is ultimately made up in two parts – the interaction of Dracula (John Carradine) and Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne) and then Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, coping with his endless lycanthropy that he wishes to cure. Much like Karen White and Terry Fisher in The Howling, Anne Gwynne is the personification of the new American woman as Rita Hussman, and she is presented as a determined and strong leader. She insists that the men in her life do as she says for the benefit of culture (she is also excited by horror and by the supernatural); while her European husband throws out lines that reference the idea of “keeping the wife under control”. This ideology is nicely paralleled in the first half of the movie with Larry Talbot’s lycanthropy later in the second – the idea that this sophisticated happy go lucky woman is too “socially free” for the stoic patriarchy of European men is inexplicably linked to the animal urges of a depressed Larry Talbot. When Neimann intercepts and presents Dracula’s skeleton, he is shunned, and then in order to enact vengeance on the people who initially imprisoned him (all related to Rita Hussman) he removes the stake from Dracula’s chest cavity and resurrects the immortal bloodsucker – old monsters are reborn and new society will pay. This is a theme thoroughly explored in The Howling – werewolves are from folkloric legend (in Bradner’s novel, the opening suggests old European heritage) infiltrating a contemporary society and finding a home in New Age philosophies. The carnival showcase that Karloff’s Neimann presents is a place generally associated with culturally significant oddities such as Jo Jo the Dog Boy and other famous wolf and dog children and adults that would be on exhibit post-Darwinism. As well as the dissolve metamorphosis from Chaney Jr. to a werewolf, John Carradine’s materialisation from skeleton to fully fleshed out Dracula is a great visual, however Carradine’s Dracula is nowhere near as menacing or as commanding as he should be.
Directed by Erle Kenton (who of course is the namesake of John Carradine’s werewolf character in The Howling) the first half of the film deals with Dracula and his attempts at seducing Rita Hussman, with his desire for her to become a vampire. The two parts of the film systematically read like the first moments of The Howling – in that the opening plays out like an urban thriller and then post-catalyst we enter new terrain at the Colony where cityscape makes way for earthy forestry. House of Frankenstein also responds to endearing and telling soliloquies and offers the biggest one to Rita Hussman who recounts her experiences with Count Dracula. This is similar to Karen White’s retelling of her night at the porno shop where she encountered Eddie Quist – however, Rita’s plays out erotically charged while Karen’s is part catharsis and part neurosis and post-trauma bloodletting. Rita’s image silhouetted in darkness and then stepping into the soft glow of a lamp shade, all the while in her dreamlike state is mesmerizing. The way she talks about the darkness and being in the throes of becoming one of Dracula’s kind – slipping into death and preparing to reawaken as a vampire – is delivered with a great sense of sensuality and lust, whereas Karen’s group therapy moment in The Howling is a revelation of a different kind – the fear of accepting sexual assault, and the uncharted desire to repress memory. As aforementioned, John Carradine’s Dracula is not as menacing as Lon Chaney Jr.’s in Son of Dracula (1943) who really does play the role with a gruffness, authority and quiet rage, instead Carradine’s performance of the count is played out like an impish magician. The film makes a lot of use of Dracula transforming into a bat through animation and with the use of a puppet bat, plus it introduces some great images such as the bat lunging at a victim’s throat in shadow form. After Dracula is exposed to the rising sun, he returns to his skeletal state and Rita is freed from his treacherous grip, while Neimann and Daniel move on to the village of Vasaria (which will become the noted go-to place for some of Universal’s monster outings to come).
The second half of the film is the Talbot section and here we get a sense of this poor werewolf’s desire to either be cured or die. He is also loved by Ilonka the gypsy girl (a fellow outsider), and therefore, a chance for redemption is perhaps of the cards. House of Frankenstein would be the first monster mash-up outside of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Return of the Vampire, in that it is a host to multiple monsters and outsider fringe dwellers – Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein monster, a hunchback, a mad scientist, a potential vampire in Rita Hussman and a gypsy girl. In that regard, the multi-monster dynamic of House of Frankenstein pays tribute to each distinct character whereas in The Howling, another film which is dedicated to the multiple threat of many monsters, gives it’s menace a mask: civility (except for perhaps the Quist siblings).
Hypnotised by Ilonka’s beauty during her gypsy dance, Daniel the hunchback is enraptured by the vigorous musical moment; and the film pays tribute to the dance of Esmerelda in the big spectacle box office smash The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Here, the beautiful outsider and her connection to the disfigured outsider is made in one magical scene, and this is something that The Howling employs on a squeamish level: when Eddie tells Karen that she is “different” and that “she could never be like them”, he is ultimately saying that he understands her through her intelligence, beauty, determination and strength as well as her vulnerability and reluctance to letting go (being able to scream). This is something that he has also instilled upon Karen – drawing comparisons to himself and this news anchor; marking them both as “outsiders” simply because of their desires (her desire for the truth and to report such truths and his desire for the carnal and the celebration of the bestial). Unlike Daniel’s lust for Ilonka (and Eddie’s lust for Karen), the gypsy girl is deeply attracted to Larry Talbot’s loneliness, and through that dedication to his wellbeing, she helps him to restrain his monstrous werewolf self. The famous werewolf poem is once again altered for this film and is quoted as:
“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night may become a werewolf when the wolfsbane blooms…”
House of Frankenstein also happily leans into a love triangle and makes it’s connection to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – with the two monsters frozen in ice since the dam busted open – with swift precision, and much like The Howling it does successful go full circle and catch up with itself in regards to franchise while Joe Dante’s werewolf offering snatches onto it’s own tail by ending the film back in the “civilized” world and outside of “experimental living”.
The fun of House of Frankenstein is that is continually engaging and right to the point – possibly the most energetic, kinetic and fast moving of the Universal horror movies. Some wonderful set pieces pop up and entertain: lapse dissolves of fire burning brightly and the two heavyweights of horror the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man emerge from their icy graves, the Wolf Man’s musical theme – those incredible three notes that bark out this cinematic lycanthropic terror, Chaney Jr.’s poignant performance as a man angry that he has been rescued and deeply depressed and longing to die (“I wanted to die” being something that he says very early on in his first appearance) and the sharp exposition that ties the film up to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – all of these elements make up for one swift ride. Also, being generous to cinematic lycanthropes, it’s as if the Larry Talbot story is the major narrative tie between Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein and then House of Dracula (1945).
In hopes of curing Talbot’s lycanthropy, Neimann promises to build him a new brain: “I’ll lift this curse from you forever”. Here the notion that Talbot’s lycanthropy is something neurological shares some significant similarity with the werewolves in The Howling who are all in therapy – and also, Eddie Quist’s comical spit: “I want to give you a piece of my mind”. Much like Robert Picardo’s gleefully grotesque Eddie, Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster is towering and monstrous, and is permitted to be terrifying; he is completely not what Boris Karloff did with the character with his sensitive pathos delivered in Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. Nor does Strange have any relations with sympathetic characters such as little Janet Ann Gallow (Ghost) or lifelong companions like Bela Lugosi as Ygor (in Son, which is the Hungarian’s finest role).
Talbot’s first conversation with Ilonka is strained and he remains distant, un-chatty and careful not to let himself get too involved. She says: “You haven’t smiled once” and follows that quickly with: “Don’t start barking at me” – the film plays with lines that are double entendre (references to dogs and wolves) and issues of sadness and despair – “Why are you always so sad?” Larry Talbot’s loneliness and isolation as a werewolf is much more akin to Erle’s from The Colony in The Howling then any of the other werewolves – however, Dr. Waggner’s “Thank God” (a man of science sighing out a praise to an entity that lives outside of science) suggests a deep longing to rid this curse (which he initially refers to as a “gift”). In House of Frankenstein, the doctor is Neimann who is also just as morally corrupt as Waggner, and just as self-serving with selfish motives. He abandons his promises to Larry and Daniel while the moon’s powerful influence on Larry put all of Neimann’s work to shame – there is no control over the supernatural, not even in the realm of science. Waggner sees this in The Howling take shape in the form of political resistance and rebellion from Marsha who leads the pack of werewolves against the repressive Waggner regime, while in House of Frankenstein narrative facets such as Daniel’s admiration of Larry’s physical prowess (“Mr. Talbot is big and strong…”), Neimann’s plans to give his oppressors the brains of the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster and Ilonka being told that Larry is a werewolf all make up for a socially revolution in the markings of a monster movie mash-up. The film delivers its most touching moment where Larry confesses killing someone in his werewolf state and that he wanted to kill and knew he was doing it. The suggestion of Larry now starting to enjoy the kill is on par with the bloodthirsty rage of Eddie Quist. Larry says: “I want forgetfulness, peace…” jars the romance and desire, as the sadness of Larry who can’t help himself but has now the added worry of enjoying the kill hits overdrive. It also hits the main point with the line: “Only death can bring us peace of mind. And a werewolf doesn’t just die, he must be killed.” Once again, silver bullets are the answer and “Fired by the hand of one who loves him enough to understand.”
In House of Dracula, John Carradine returns as a non-threatening Dracula and he longs for a cure for his vampirism. Nina (Jane Adams), a hunchback nurse (carrying on the tradition of the deformed assistant) is the assistant to Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) who could have such a cure for the desperate Count, while the beautiful and physically healthy Nurse Morelle (Martha O’Driscoll) catches Dracula’s eye. He is instantly attracted to Edelmanm’s lovely assistant and the film pits the two nurses at polar opposites – the beautiful and the deformed. Radiance and health are in opposition to torment and martyrdom, and in The Howling this is also the case with some of the werewolves happily existing in their lycanthropic state while others struggle. Finding a cure for monstrosity is something that permeates the fabric of House of Dracula and is something that is commonplace in monster movies where the featured monster fears their own abnormality – it is interesting to note that werewolves more so than vampires follow this narrative type. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr. of course) is also in this film, wanting a cure for his lycanthropy (this time with a pencil thin moustache). Nurse Morelle says of Larry: “There was something tragic about him, he had the look of a man tormented by fear”. Once again, women are completely attracted to sorrowful Larry thanks to his pitiful demeanour which is something bought up by the nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) in An American Werewolf in London but not found in The Howling, where romantic and sexual attraction is limited to pure lust (Marsha’s seduction of Bill through a bite and so forth).
An image of Larry behind bars presented like a freak on exhibition, pleading to get a cure is a striking visual in a relatively subdued outing (much more relaxed and quiet than it’s predecessor House of Frankenstein). The culture of Vasaria is the most interesting additive, where this world of monsters, the dark world, angry villagers, gypsies and scientists all co-exist and in a sense Vasaria is like an ancient variant on The Colony in relation to the accepted factor that werewolves live in a woodland community complete with a tennis court.
The full moon causing Larry his dramatic and fast transitions into a werewolf is benchmarked here in House of Dracula in that it is the first of his transformations to feature a cut away to other characters who see him change in front of their eyes which is a precursor to a sped up and less gruesome variant on Eddie’s transition in front of Karen in The Howling. Nurse Morelle’s desperate plea to the Edlemann to do something for Larry cements her romantic interest in him (also a testament to Larry’s depressive state being something that has the women smitten, as opposed to Eddie Quist who lusts after women who find him repulsive). Here, the rapist and serial killer that is Eddie as opposed to the tormented Larry Talbot bring both iconic werewolves at polar opposites in the rationale and reasoning sitting behind the world of unspeakable horrors. Larry here is angrier, more desperate – falling into despair at points in time also, and while the film brings back in the idea of botany as a cure to lycanthropy – which was a major factor in Werewolf of London – the film is sadly not the best of the Universal cannon. The film does feature some haunting imagery such as nurses sitting out on a Cliffside lit by the full moon contemplating the fate of Larry, but is then followed up by rushed and slightly silly sequences such as Edelmann lowered into a cavern.
Thankfully, this sequence is then rescued by a great attack from Larry in his werewolf state. The Wolf Man in this film has some nice aggressive moments and some of the freeze frames in the dissolves are excellent in that you get a moment’s time to see some of the varied make-ups used. But the movie introduces another uncredited movie monster in that Edelmann becomes a Jekyll and Hyde deal, and the mad scientist of dual personality is born compete with a monstrous transformation which sparks an onslaught of angry villagers (something that will come to bring peace and order in all of these monster movies). It also says something about working women – Nina the hunchbacked nurse and Nurse Morelle, the resourceful heroine of the piece. These women of science are set up as different, but in essence both sacrificial characters – Nina puts off her own operation to fix her back in order to give way to Larry’s salvation, while Miss Morelle compromises her own career to help the tormented Larry. Miss Morelle becomes torn between two monsters as Dracula wants to birth her into darkness as a vampire, while Larry who initially is so preoccupied with his own despair doesn’t even notice her eventually feels something for this statuesque beauty. Here Larry is over the idea of dying because he feels and fears that he can’t, so he spends the entire movie wishing for a cure. Larry’s condition is fixed apparently, through an operation (in The Howling the werewolves are given therapy; group therapy with the deleted scene being the most revealing), and in this curing of his werewolvism Larry is permitted a somewhat happy ending. Larry’s lycanthropy is outed by the time we get to the House of movies, and here the rational Edelmann becomes the tormented character – a baton exchange of a character accursed with torment, however, the scariest character in the film is the instigator of the angry mob played by Skeleton Knaggs with his creepy voice, scarred face and the bug eyes. After his operation, Larry can stand in the glowing full moon and not transform, while the crazed Edelmann resurrects the Frankenstein monster after having a frenzied dream which is a beautifully conceived surreal moment in the film. Larry turns into a heroic character who is forced to kill the psychotic scientist (who incidentally frees Larry from his lycanthropy) and in the only film that doesn’t feature the Wolf Man’s musical sting, Glenn Strange – a fantastic monster – is wasted in a tiny bit role that comes way too late. The final image has Larry leaving the burning manor with Miss Morelle in hand – a werewolf is cured and transformed into a heroic gentleman who has saved the townsfolk from a manmade monster. Burning ends the film – which is something that is revisited come The Howling. Lawrence (Larry) Talbot won’t turn up until the 2000s in a big budget reimagining of the original The Wolf Man.