31 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: HOUSE OF MIRTH

After the miserable failure of House of Frankenstein, there wasn't much that the next Universal horror movie had to do besides show up to be an improvement. But House of Dracula does more than just show up. Perhaps because the filmmakers realised on some level that this was to be the final hurrah for their iconic characters (at least, in a "serious" horror film), this last gasp of the second wave of Universal monster pictures is pretty damn weird in just about every manner, and while that doesn't imply that it must also be good, at least the weirdness gives it a surprising, fresh edge that might as well pass for good by this point in the cycle.

How weird am I talking? This weird: the film opens with a bat flying onto the grounds of the stately home of Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), a well-respected doctor known for his treatment of inexplicable conditions. That bat transforms into Count Dracula (John Carradine), who wakes up Dr. Edlemann to request that they have a brief consultation in the basement; and in the basement, Edlemann finds a coffin marked with the Dracula family crest. Dracula confesses that yes, he is the world-famous vampire, and he has come to Edlemann's Visaria clinic to beg that the doctor find a way to cure him of his vampirism.

No, you really just don't find that kind of opening to a horror movie every day. It's already pretty strange that Dracula presents himself like a gentleman caller; the fact that he's looking for a medical treatment for his state is almost easy to miss, given how extremely peculiar the whole scene plays out. I like it, it has a certain "we are not going to give a shit about the rules" quality. Throughout House of Dracula it's somewhat plain that Edward T. Lowe (it's impossible to believe that the same mind perpetrated both of the House of movies) was trying to amuse himself by making things as absurd as he possibly could. In the context of the rest of the film, the mere fact that neither Dracula nor Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr. of course) has any explanation for why they're not as dead as they were in the last film barely registers. It's all part of the "what the hell, if the things are going to end here we might as well end them in the most gaudy way possible" tone that makes House of Dracula so magical.

Speaking of Larry Talbot, he shows up at Edlemann's clinic looking for help, as well, but the doctor must turn him away for the moment. Thus Larry goes into town and acts like a crazy bugger, to get himself thrown in prison, and Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill, playing a Mitteleuropean policeman for the last time - he died after completing only two more movies) demands that Edlemann come to the station to help figure out what is wrong with this strange fellow. Neither the doctor nor his pretty secretary Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll) believe Talbot's story of lycanthropy any more than the inspector, although the fact that he changes right in the middle of Edlemann's rant about his tortured mental problems convinces everybody rather quickly.

The doctor quickly agrees to take Larry as a patient, and his conclusion after some testing consists of some fabulous bullshit medical jargon that basically means that Larry's tight skull means that he suffers from psychosomatic lycanthropy. It's amazingly campy, and I really can't imagine that it's an accident, but who can say? Edlemann has a treatment, involving the bone-softening fungus he's been developing to help treat his pretty hunchback assistant Nina (Jane Adams), but there isn't enough to fix the werewolf before tonight's full moon. So Larry tries to kill himself by diving into the sea, but all that happens is that he ends up wolfing around in the caves right at the edge of the sea. When Edlemann finds him the next morning, he also finds the bones of the unfortunate Dr. Niemann, as well as the horribly beat-up but still living body of Dr. Frankenstein's infamous monster (Glenn Strange, given even less to do than he did in House of Frankenstein, if it's possible).

Edlemann is no mad scientist, and he's not at all interested in reviving the monster; but things are about to change a bit. See, to cure Dracula, he's been giving the vampire blood transfusions, but the effect goes both ways; and every night, Edlemann goes a little bit crazy. As soon as he figures out what's happening (and as it becomes clear that Dracula is planning on devouring Miliza), he kills the Count, but the damage is done, and soon Crazy Half-Vampire Edlemann (we could probably just call him Hyde Edlemann if we want to admit that this is basically a heavily costumed rip-off) is off killing people in the countryside, with Larry getting all the blame, even though Jekyll Edlemann has cured him of his lycanthropy. In due course, Hyde Edlemann resurrects the monster, just as the Visarian villagers - get this - storm the hospital with torches and pitchforks, and things end just exactly the way the last several Frankenstein pictures have: the monster goes nuts and knocks things over and they blow up.

Notwithstanding that massively overdone ending, House of Dracula actually does a whole lot to distinguish itself. A lady hunchback heroine! Dracula trying to be a better man! A bipolar mad scientist! Bone-melting fungus! Larry Talbot spending half an hour moping about and bitching that he just can't die like he wants to! Alright, so that last one is certainly firmly in the realm of the cliché itself, but then again this film takes the rather unexpected route of actually curing poor Larry, for once and for all until the final sequel,such as it is... Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ain't exactly in continuity, even as generous as we have to be with the definition of "continuity" in these films. Where was I? Right, the resolution of the wolf man plot is as clear a sign as anything that House of Dracula was meant to be a summing-up, and a farewell, and like I already said, it seems more than likely to me that all the weird changes to what had become a rather nicely rigid template was all part of Lowe's desire to screw around with the format, to prove that he could do something more interesting than just the usual mad scientist trying to yada yada legacy of Henry Frankenstein.

As I said, this is perhaps more interesting than good, but at the same time it does enough that's better than it strictly has to be ("has to be" defined as "just a little better than Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man", if you were wondering). For starters, Erle C. Kenton finally figured out how to direct a goddamn movie this time, or maybe it's just that George Robinson stopped listening to him and did whatever he wanted to behind the camera to make the film look halfway decent. For House of Dracula does indeed look something a good deal like a proper Universal horror movie, with much bolder shadows than Kenton's earlier films (not enough to supplant Son of Dracula as the best-looking of the later monster cycle films, but it's close). Perhaps related, and perhaps not, but the visual effects are as good here as they had been since the 1930s; Larry Talbot's wolf transformations are far more believable, and the big rubber bat looks as good as any of the big rubber bats in the series. Dracula's eventual disintegration is essentially stolen from House of Frankenstein, but that's the closest I have to a knock against the effects, given that we are talking about a 1945 B-movie.

The cast is also pretty fine: Onslow Stevens is particularly delightful as the de facto protagonist, and by far the most nuanced and compelling mad scientist since Wolf von Frankenstein all the way back in Son of Frankenstein; it shocks me that I have seen only one other film featuring this altogether prolific character actor (Them! from 1954) so I can't say if this performance is a particular stand-out or not. But it's pretty fun, and anchors the movie well. The other really exceptional actor is, believe it or not, John Carradine, who is hardly recognisable as the man who botched his way through the same role in House of Frankenstein by mugging ridiculously every chance he got. His take on Dracula in this film is infinitely subtler and more threatening, and while he hadn't a trace of the charisma that Bela Lugosi exuded without even trying in every frame of the original Dracula, I honestly think that Carradine's is the most technically accomplished performance. But you know, everyone is good, pretty much; Adams and O'Driscoll are far more dynamic than most Universal horror actresses got to be, and Ludwig Stossel and Skelton Knaggs make a fine, loopy pair as the comic relief that is much more surreal than comic. The only two clinkers, unfortunately, are the headliners: Chaney, as before, is clearly done with playing Larry Talbot, and Strange once again makes no impression as the monster, simply because the monster is in the movie for a grand total of... three minutes? Four? And half of the time at least, he's just lying there.

That's actually the best thing I can say for House of Dracula, especially compared to its immediate predecessor. The monsters in this monster rally get virtually nothing to do and are never seen in each others company, but there's enough going on around the edges that I don't care. This is a pretty easy film to watch and enjoy, and while it is nothing but a cheap B-movie that represents the shuddering final breath of a once-proud brand name, it's silly enough, fun enough, and even creative enough that it's better than just a mere diversion; it's a pretty credible attempt to wrap up the increasingly arbitrary and hidebound Universal horror films in a respectful, entertaining manner.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

2 comments:

javi75 said...

I love how the posters for these movies list "Hunchback!" as another kind of evil monster....

porfle said...

Nice to see a review celebrating how much fun this little monster rally is, rather than lambasting it as a "cheap, tawdry end to a once-great series."

In particular, the Wolf Man's dramatic transformation in the jail cell stands out as one of the best scenes in any of the later sequels.