29 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: FARO-LA FARO-LI!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what desperation looks like. By 1943, the steam was mostly out of the second phase of Universal horror movies, even in their new cheaper, B-picture incarnation, and if the cycle was going to keep on going, something bold and splashy had to be done, for then as now movies made their money from a snappy advertising campaign more than because of their inherent quality. The solution, in retrospect, seems inevitable; but who can say how many harried meetings it took until some Universal executive hit upon the idea of putting two of their A-list monster into a movie together. The result was titled, with all due shamelessness, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and that was pretty much the end of Universal's horror line as a home for even the vaguest kind of serious filmmaking until 1954.

The action takes place four years after The Wolf Man, and an indeterminate time after The Ghost of Frankenstein, but by this point we've pretty much abandoned continuity for keeps. Anyway, for about 25 of its 37 minutes FMtWF is pretty strictly a sequel to The Wolf Man only, and while it's still a pretty shoddy sequel, this is the only part of the film that works even on the level of a satisfying B-movie. In Llanwelly, Wales, a couple of hopelessly stupid grave robbers (Cyril Delevanti and Tom Stevenson) break into the Talbot family crypt one moonlit night to steal the cash allegedly hidden in the coffin of the late Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), according to family tradition. When the open it up to take a look, they find Talbot's body in extremely good repair for a four-year-old corpse, surrounded by a small mountain of wolfbane. Even though one of the robbers has the presence of mind to recall the old rhyme about werewolves (the words have changed, to indicated the new wrinkle in the mythology, that it takes a full moon to transform the werewolf, and that is how that piece of ancient lore got invented by a screenwriter in 1943), they're both so focused on their task that they don't notice when the moonlight strike's Talbot's face, waking him up and turning him into a beast, killing them both in the time it takes to draw a breath.

Cut to Cardiff, a long way from Llanwelly, where Larry Talbot wakes to find himself in a hospital, having been treated for his bizarre wounds by the kindly Dr. Frank Mannering (Patrick Knowles), who is of course interested in this mysterious subject's history, but Talbot can't remember anything but his own name. That doesn't sit right with the impossibly aggressive Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey), theoretically investigating what happened to Talbot but plainly more interested in accusing the victim of something - anything! And when he goes to Llanwelly and finds that Talbot died years ago, he becomes convinced that the man in Mannering's hospital is hiding something terrible. Which he is, of course, and the night that Owen is in Wales happens to have also been a night that Talbot escaped in wolf form and killed someone. Thus the next day he starts raving about lycanthropy and how he must dies before he kills again, and both the doctor and the policeman conclude that he's a raving loony who should be locked up.

Ain't no locking up a werewolf, though, and that very same night Larry escapes, traveling all the way to Germany (which couldn't be named Germany - there was a war on, you know) in the space of a single cut, having apparently spent a whole month looking for Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who was such a help to him four years prior. When he finally finds her, she cannot think of any way to free him from his curse, but there is someone in the nearby town of Visaria who might be able to, a certain Dr. Frankenstein.

Then, like a light-switching getting flipped, Frankenstein/Wolf Man goes dead in a heartbeat. The opening act is hardly perfect; Larry's resurrection is about as contrived as anything in a Friday the 13th picture for a start. But at least it built upon the story present in The Wolf Man in a reasonably logical manner, and Roy William Neill's direction (his only monster film; at this time, he was working on the Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone, mostly) recaptures at least some of the Gothic eeriness of its predecessor, even if it is unmistakably cheaper and the studio lighting not remotely as well-sculpted (the current film's cinematographer, George Robinson, had done a few horror films already and would do more, explaining why the film at least looks much better than The Ghost of Frankenstein).

Once the plot gets to Visaria, however, this goes from being an adequate sequel to The Wolf Man to being a terrible sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein, a film already not good enough to support a terrible sequel. It's not just that continuity is shot in the face and left for dead here - the film just becomes incredibly stupid and lazy, not just in the screenplay, a massive misstep for the usually reliable Curt Siodmak, but in every element of its execution. But let's stick with the screenplay for now. Larry arrives in the ruins of Frankenstein's manor in wolf form, hiding from the local villagers, and the next morning he snoops around and of course he finds the monster (Bela Lugosi). But can you guess where? In a subterranean ice-cave. How that makes sense on any level, let alone in reference to The Ghost of Frankenstein, is completely beyond me. At any rate, he gets the monster out, and asks it to help him find the late doctor's research papers. The only thing he finds there of any use is a photography of Elsa Frankenstein.

Long story short, Larry finagles a meeting with Elsa (Ilona Massey, who is absolutely awful), and begs her for anything he can possibly give her pertaining to her father's creation, because by now he has it firmly in mind that this will help him out; Mannering finds Larry in Visaria, and shortly thereafter finds the monster, who drifts in just long enough to disrupt the local Festival of the New Wine; and before you can say, "this isn't going anywhere at all", Mannering has concluded that he can transfer Larry's wolf life-energy into the monster's body, thus killing the wolf man and fixing the monster - a development that springs from absolutely nothing in Mannering's character besides a close-up where he looks up and whispers, "I can't destroy Dr. Frankenstein's creation". Elsa is decidedly unhappy about this change of plans, but luckily, the locals have a plan that involves blowing up the dam and drowning the whole damn lot of them.

Practically nothing that happens following Larry's transformation into a wolf on the road to Visaria makes even the least degree of sense, but the "life-essence transference" finale probably takes the cake for the stupidest kink in the plot. But even that isn't the really crushing problem with the movie; at least it has a crazy bad-movie energy to it. What wrecks Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man above all else, from a story perspective, is the miserable long slog in the middle where absolutely nothing happens except that Larry mopes about whining about how he wants to die; conveniently forgetting that he did die, and was dead for four years, and only two greedy grave-robbers are responsible for his current state. This is atrociously boring, and the film just keeps wandering for one endless minute after another waiting for the monster to finally come back.

When he does, things don't improve much. Bela Lugosi's performance got savaged when the film was new, though in recent years some people have tried to argue in his favor, pointing out that a great many of his scenes were cut, allegedly because test audiences laughed at the monster speaking with Lugosi's voice. Those cut scenes, we are told, explain how he is blind and otherwise damaged, which therefore explains his stupid, stupid walk, the arms-outstretched stumble that has somehow become linked with the character over the years. But simply knowing that Lugosi's performance was compromised by cutting does not change the fact that what's left of the performance looks absolutely silly. And even with the added footage, there would be no excusing the hammy facial expressions that Lugosi uses in virtually every shot. I'll say this much in his favor; it's easy to forget, that the creature in this movie is not the same creature from in the four previous Frankenstein films. The monster was given Ygor's brain at the end of the last film, recall, and it's actually a bit nifty to thus have the actor who played Ygor playing the Ygor-creature here.

If pressed, though, I'd have to say that the single worst part of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is not the aimless, brainless screenplay; the slack performances; the perfunctory direction that loses all sense of style once the action leaves England; it's the song. During the Festival of the New Wine, we are subjected to the profoundly annoying Song of the New Wine, in which a far-too-enthusiastic singer (Adia Kuznetzoff) leads the whole town in a romping, three-minute sequence with metaphorically suggestive lyrics including "Life is short but death is long, faro-la! faro-li!" Of all the many random musical numbers in the 1940s - and they are far more common than anyone would like or need - I can't think of another that damages the tone of the film this badly, and without even the benefit of being a half-way decent song. At least it's insane enough, in context or out of it, to give the movie some balls-ass crazy momentum when the film is at its most airless. It does not, however, do anything to keep Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a whole from easily snagging the title of Most Pointless Universal Monster Movie, at least for the time being.

Reviews in this series
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

3 comments:

javi75 said...

This was very funny to read.

I wonder what expectations you have for the new Joe Johnston Wolf Man remake.

Tim said...

Let us say that I am very interested in what happens with Anthony Hopkins's performance, and all of my expectations for the movie radiate outwards from that. Del Toro makes a shockingly good Lon Chaney, Jr. surrogate, or so the trailer makes it look.

Brian said...

This was the very first Universal Monster Movie I ever saw, I owned it on VHS as a child, and so it holds a very special place in my heart.

Of course, I also haven't seen it since I was about 10.