Friday, October 30, 2020

The Monster Mashes (1943 to 48)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

4 years after his death, Larry Talbot's rest is disturbed after some careless graverobbers break in and  moonlight floods his tomb, returning the melancholic monster to life. After making short work of the crooks, Larry tries turning himself in, but the authorities don't believe in his condition, so he goes on the run to take care of it himself, hoping that faraway Dr. Frankenstein can help him...

With the inception of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a new chapter was born in the Universal saga. Before this point, each series had been self contained, but from this point on, the sky was the limit.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man overestimates our patience. Most of the movie is just people sitting around talking. There's precious little werewolf action, and even less of Frankenstein's Monster. The only time the duo even fight is the very end of the film, by which it's too little too late.

The movie is paced pretty well to begin with. The whole first act is interesting, and sets up the plot well, in a friendly way to new viewers.

A highlight for me (though not for others) is the Faro-la Faro-li musical number, which acts both as some local colour, and has a great counterbalance with Larry's struggle, even causing him to freak out.

More disappointing is the climax, which only seems to happen because it had to. The writers must have been in a pickle how to begin the spectacle, so they just decided to randomly blow things up and have a scrap, the monsters get swept up, then the movie just ends, with no real resolution. It's extremely disappointing!

As for its status as a sequel, this is far more of a Wolf Man follow-up than to Frankenstein. Its connection to the first movie are little though. It's years after, Larry's father's since died, and his love interest has presumably married her other fella. Also his hometown has somehow shifted to Wales, yet everyone still speaks with a British accent.

As for its ties to the Frankenstein series, it's a little spotty. The story's set in the same town that Ghost was, though that plays no role. There's also an Elsa, but it was a little unclear if she's the same Elsa from Ghost, or a different one, and whether or not she's the daughter of the original Frankenstein. There is also nothing made of Ygor being the new monster, despite being played by Lugosi this time (in what seems like a natural casting choice, since Lon Chaney obviously couldn't play the monster this time round). I am curious how he ended up frozen though, considering he was last seen in a burning building.

The film is set in the same town from Ghost, and everyone is pissed off at Ludwig as if he created the monster. He didn't, he just had it forced upon him, then two days later he died, I would hardly say that makes him culpable for every horror the Frankenstein name ever caused. "What does Mannering need machines for? Remember Dr. Frankenstein? He ordered machines too!". Geez, what are they gonna do next, burn the M.D. at the stake for being a witch? The worst is the moustached Vazek, who openly advocates blowing up a dam and drowning everyone in the castle.

The characters here are decent, and frankly they'd better be considering they take up most of the screentime. The main hero is of course the Wolf Man, and he is in desperate need of a hug. Poor Larry Talbot can't ever catch a break! Maleva the gypsy woman appears again, and acts as a sympathetic presence, very much the heart of the film alongside Larry. She vanishes at a couple of points though, including the ending, so we never really find out what becomes of her.

The other protagonist is scientist Dr. Mannering. It's interesting how he goes from being a skeptic at the beginning, then the next time we meet him he's been tracking Larry, and not only believes he's a werewolf, but has witnessed the death left in his wake, and is pissed! It's refreshing to see the skeptic find evidence and instantly believe his eyes, rather than spend an hour doubting constantly. He's also able to answer a telephone without expositing to the audience too, which I appreciate, even if it isn't nearly as funny.

The cast do a fine job here, with Lon Chaney Jr. once again doing a good job as Larry Talbot.

Poor Bela Lugosi got the short end of the stick with this film. It's bad enough that the monster barely appears, but he's reduced to stumbling around and waving his arms like an idiot. This was because the monster was originally meant to be blind, but this was dropped at the last minute, making Lugosi look like he's overacting. His  talking was also dropped, reportedly due to test audiences finding the monster speaking Hungarian to be silly. Pahhh, what's so silly about a European monster sounding European? Pricks. As for his performance, he does a fine job with what he's given, and I applaud that the 61 year old was able to go through the arduous make-up process and play a role like this.

For a movie with such an amazing name and premise, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a sadly disappointing affair. It's got little to recommend it, though still worth checking out for what it is.

House of Frankenstein

After an earthquake damages a prison, the mad Dr. Niemann escapes alongside his hunchbacked assistant Daniel, and hijacks a touring monster caravan, full of authentic memorabilia, including Dracula's body. Niemann revives the vampire to do his dirty work, then sets about completing his research and taking revenge on all those who crossed him...

In some ways, House of Frankenstein is an improvement on its predecessor, but it also falls into many of the same pitfalls, and some entirely new ones! For a start, the plot is  disconnected, feeling more like two short films haphazardly stitched together. Despite the promise of a monster mash, Dracula never interacts with the others, dying long before they ever appear. He only dies 25 minutes in!

From the point when Niemann and co. take centre stage again, things do improve, though fall to the wayside once again. The film never really knows what to focus on, and none of the characters get enough time to shine. The monster doesn't come to life until the final minutes, and Larry's death scene comes before that point! He dies anticlimactically, with no brawl, and almost no werewolf action either!

The climax is pretty inevitable, and despite taking its sweet ass time doing what it should've done ages ago, it's a pretty enjoyable time, that wraps up the remaining loose ends in a decent enough way, with the mad Dr. Niemann meeting a suitably sticky end.

The film has quite a few missed opportunities, though they are at least tempered with good stuff. For example, the murder of the carnival man is an effectively creepy scene, but a monster ringmaster had such potential, yet he's dead in 2 minutes.

The romance between the hunchback Daniel and Gypsy girl Ilonka is botched. At first they seem to hit it off, despite his disability, but the moment strapping young Larry Talbot comes onto the scene, she's instantly horny for him, and ignores Daniel. Then when he tries telling her Larry's a werewolf, she screams "You're mean! And you're ugly! I hate you, I HATE YOU". Jeez, what a bitch! A far cry from the message seen in Hunchback of Notre Dame! Granted, Daniel is a homicidal maniac and pretty undeserving of a nice girl, but still!

The love story between Ilonka and Larry meanwhile is utterly dull, because he has all the charm of a dying limpet. The man won't stop whining, and he never smiles! At least the movie is aware of this to a degree, as Ilonka tries cheering him up out of his gloom, while Dr. Niemann is actively pissed off by his incessant moaning.

The characters in the first story are markedly more bearable. Simple of course, and the guy is very doofy, but they're not bad, and the girl is a charmingly morbid spirit! As she says of the night in one scene, "It's like being wrapped in the arms of a gigantic ghost". A wonderful sentiment, sister!

The acting here is a highlight. Boris Karloff returns to the Frankenstein series, in a different role as a mad doctor this time. He does marvellously, always entertaining! John Carradine is good as Dracula, though it's hard getting used to someone so different to Bela in the role. Lon Chaney Hr. is his usual self as Larry, which is both good and bad. The remainder of the cast are all fine too, including J. Carroll Naish as the hunchbacked villain.

Ultimately House of Frankenstein is a failure as a film. It has a lot of potential, but just about every ounce of it was botched.

House of Dracula

Mild-mannered Dr. Edelmann is working on secret experiments in his cliffside home, developing a formula that can help reverse bizarre mutations. This leads both Dracula and the Wolf Man into his care, and the body of Frankenstein's monster is also discovered. Things go better than expected at first, until Dracula's evil impulses lead him to throw a spanner into the works, turning the doctor mad and beginning all new horror...

House of Dracula is a lazy movie right from the title. I swear I have never been able to get these movies straight. The movie itself isn't much better. Any pretense of continuity is done away with, as the deceased Dracula and Larry Talbot are both alive again, not to mention the monster (though he is at least found in a swamp, if not the same one).

With its scant hour long runtime, it's a good thing that  gets off to a quick start, not wasting any time. It still manages to bore though, never really doing anything new. Anything unique it does bring to the table goes mostly unexplored.

The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too, explaining away all the supernatural afflictions with science, despite the clear magic behind them. Dracula's blood having a parasite in it wouldn't let him turn into a bat, nor does pressure on the brain explain how a man can spontaneously grow a fur coat, not to mention literally coming back from the dead.

A problem the movie faces as it chugs along is the absence of a villain. Since the doctor here is wholly benevolent, and Dracula is trying to go steady, there's no conflict. So to solve this the writers undermine the plot they were trying to explore, and just have Dracula randomly be evil again halfway through. It feels less like him succumbing to evil impulses, and more like the writers got a bit lazy.

In the last act, we have a Jekyll and Hyde style villain, with Dr. Edelmann becoming transformed into a demented mirror version of himself. This is a neat development, and leads to some good moments.

In terms of monster fights, House of Dracula disappoints just as greatly as the last. No, Dracula isn't killed 25 minutes in without meeting the other monsters...He's killed unceremoniously 45 minutes in, without meeting the other monsters. As for the Wolf Man, he gets a couple of minor outbursts early on, totalling half a minute, then Larry is cured and literally never transforms again, not even in the climax. 

And lastly, discounting the brief shots of him strapped to a table, the Frankenstein monster appears for only one minute! He knocks one man over, and does literally nothing else. Even his death is a disappointment, as it's just reused stock footage from Ghost, meaning the monster's final death scene in the series's last entry is just stock footage.

The climax is a bit of a downer, since all this revolutionary work goes up in smoke, and poor Nina suffers an unfortunate fate, but at least Larry Talbot finally gets a happy ending.

The film opens up with Larry alive once again, and still cursed. This raises the question of why he doesn't just take his condition to the authorities. They won't believe he's a werewolf at first, but when they see him transform they'll have all the evidence they need. Thankfully Larry has his moments here, even if he is a gloomy gus.

The local villagers are the most villainous they've ever been here. Without a Frankenstein to justify their raving, they're really just harassing a random doctor for 'daring' to have a clinic. They've got zero justification to think he's mad, and the only reason he does turn mad is because a vampire secretly transfuses evil blood into him!  In one scene they put up a machine for the doctor, then have the bloody nerve to whine just because they're not immediately pulling the thing down! What the fuck did you expect, dumbasses?!

Nina the hunchbacked assistant is nice, and it's cool seeing the deformed assistant be not only female, but a good guy this time! It's refreshing, and I hoped she'd get a happy ending. The doctor's other assistant and Larry's love interest is alright, and serves her parts well, from capable scientist, to would-be victim of Dracula's hypnosis, and the Wolf Man's bride-to-be.

The actors all do good turns here, with Onslow Stevens impressing, and Jane Adams having a unique role. Carradine gets more to chew on this time, but poor Glenn Strange is wasted.

House of Dracula is even more of a disappointment than its predecessor, and is only worth watching to complete the series...

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Postal workers Wilbur and Chick deliver a couple of mysterious crates to a wax museum of horrors. These boxes supposedly contain the remains of the real Count Dracula, and Frankenstein's Monster. This is proved unfortunately true when they come back to life, almost scaring Wilbur to death. He tries telling Chick what happened, but isn't believed, until werewolf Larry Talbot comes onto the scene, bringing dire warnings...

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is lauded as one of the most popular horror-comedies of all time, as well as one of the greatest Abbott and Costello films, and one of the best Universal monster movie, which it served as a coda to. A lot of expectation to live up to! For most people it does, but I didn't enjoy it that much. It's by no means bad, but I guess there were just a few things about this that bugged me, and ultimately brought the experience down. I felt that movie focused a little too much on Bud and Lou and not enough on the monsters, who drive the plot, yet get comparatively little screentime. The movie's already a decent length as it is, so being longer probably wouldn't be the answer, but better pacing and writing, in my opinion at least.

The final battle is interesting in that we don't actually see a lot of it, but are on the periphery as Bud and Lou are trying to avoid it, unsuccessfully. On one hand it's pretty annoying that a lot of the film's only monster battle is offscreen, but I think this still works in its own right, especially given the monster brawls that had become plentiful in previous Universal outings.

The ending to ...Meet Frankenstein really bugs me though. There isn't one! It just stops after the climax, quite abruptly. I find it disappointing, though the wonderful parting joke is enough to lessen the blow, and make sure you leave the film with a smile on your face.

The characters here are mixed. The biggest problem is that there are too darn many of them! There's the main duo, the three monsters, Sandra, and the two young lovers. The latter two are the ones who feel the least necessary. Neither really do much, despite their seemingly important roles (lab assistant in the spooky castle, and dogged insurance investigator, respectively). Wilbur and Chick are both fun, with just the right level of childlike naivety, and skepticism, with neither overstaying their welcome.

The Frankenstein Monster gets to do the least, since he's strapped to a gurney for most of the film, only getting to really cut loose in the last few minutes. The Wolf Man is more active in his furry persona, but not by a whole lot since he's gotta revert back to good old Larry Talbot, who's a decent cipher to the supernatural events, even if a little crazy at times. Dracula gets the most, what with being the master villain.

Sandra is an interesting character. For a start, she's fictional Lou Costello's shockingly attractive girlfriend, so you just know she's got to have some sort of ulterior motive. And boy does she ever! (You know how it is, when the girl who dotes on you so much is really only interested in using your brain to revitalise a bedraggled monster). She even orders Dracula around! When Dracula gets ornery at her later on, you believe her when she says her will is as strong as his. Unfortunately the screenwriter evidently didn't, as she's successfully hypnotised, and spends the remainder of the film as a mindless dummy, only to be killed unceremoniously at the end...Well, I say unceremonious, but I mean on a character level. Visually it's quite spectacular! And shockingly final for such a goofy comedy!

The comedy here is spot-on! The dialogue flies by at a breakneck pace, and is almost hard to keep track of sometimes.
 "You’re making enough noise to wake up the dead." "I don’t have to wake him up.  He’s up."
"Whenever the full moon rises I turn into a wolf." "Oh, pal. That's all right. I'm sort of a wolf myself!"
"What was that?"-"The wind."-"It should get oiled."
"Dracula is Dracula! And Sandra's gonna use my brain to make a bigger dummy out of the other dummy."

The movie looks fabulous! It's got an abundance of spooky old scenery, including an old castle that just so happens to be on an American island. There are a few moments of animation, such as the fun credits, and moments of Dracula's bat transformations, which are pulled off quite well, and are visualised seamlessly (I suppose they had to animate backwards to synchronize it with Lugosi's movements). The music also sounds great. The score gets across both mirth and genuine atmosphere.

Lastly, the acting. The titular boys are great! Costello can get a little shrill and loud at times, but is otherwise really talented, as is Abbott, who plays off him perfectly. Meanwhile, Lon Chaney Jr. returns as Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man, as does Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster (his third outing), and Bela Lugosi returns to the role that made him famous, 17 years later.

While I'm not the biggest fan of this film, it's still a classic, and I highly recommend you seek it out!...


The idea of combining these characters must have been a no-brainer. Who doesn't wanna see all these monsters going at it? Unfortunately the people behind it somehow managed to screw it up! There are two ways you could go with such a movie. 1, try and build on previous continuity, and tell interesting themes and develop your characters. That's the 'highbrow' route, to make these on par with the earlier Universal outings. Failing that, if you have zero interest in making such things, you could instead just shoot three monsters pummelling each-other senseless for an hour, and nothing more. Seems like a no brainer, right? But unfortunately, not only are the plots to all three of these movies inconsequential and dull, but they don't even satisfy on a popcorn level either. In fact the amount of monster fighting decreases as each movie comes! This reaches ludicrous degrees in House of Dracula, and really makes you question what the point was. Boris Karloff himself wasn't a fan, calling them monster clambakes, and I totally see why.

The lead is always Larry Talbot. He is a mopey Mildred, and I understand why, but it can be a bit tough to watch sometimes. Dracula is very weak and underused  And the Monster itself is almost a non-presence. We get a nice selection of other characters though., from mad doctors, to hunchbacks.

The continuity is pretty fast and loose, and these movies are more The Wolf Man than Frankenstein, though it always references the Doctor and his monster, with his secret notebook magically shifting from place to place.

The bright spot is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Not only did it give us what's regarded as one of their best films, giving them a renewed popularity, but as an entry in the Universal canon it's one of the best. It's a shame these movies are as disappointing as they are, but I at least applaud the idea, and we did get a worthwhile final entry, which is a relief...

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