30 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: HOUSE OF PAIN

I have not been able to determine much information about the box office fortunes of the Universal monster films in the 1940s, so I cannot say if Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Son of Dracula, the studio's two franchise entries from 1943, made any particular sum of money worth mentioning. I suspect they must have, because their last horror film of 1944 - a banner year for monster movies, with two mummy films and an Invisible Man picture - was a hectic mash-up of those two movies. From Frankenstein/Wolf Man, we have the benighted notion of the monster rally, and with Son of Dracula having restored the Dracula name to the front and center of audiences' minds, the vampire count got added to the mix this time around, too. Supposedly the mummy Kharis was even going to make an appearance, in the first conception; thank God that fell through, or the result would doubtlessly be even more fragmentary and disjointed than the hopeless muddle that a mere three monsters produced. I give you, dear reader, House of Frankenstein, 71 incomprehensible minutes of the very worst Universal had to offer.

Incidentally, there's not a single person named Frankenstein anywhere in this film, although there are a couple scenes in the ruins of Ludwig Frankenstein's castle, so I guess that nearly justifies the title. But the mad scientist of importance to this film is what you might call a Frankenstein fanboy, Dr. Gustave Niemann (Boris Karloff) of Visaria. He has been imprisoned for the shocking and obscene crime of trying to marry a human head to a dog body - perhaps it was the other way around, but you get the point. He is currently in year 15 of an apparent life sentence to a castle-like asylum, only having contact with guards and his neighbor, the miserable hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). Obviously nothing good can come of putting a mad scientist and a hunchback next to each other, and during an especially nasty thunderstorm, the pair is able to make their escape when lightning puts a huge hole in the building.

The first person they meet after their jailbreak is the proprietor of a traveling horror show, Professor Lampini (George Zucco), who needs their help to get out of a spot of trouble. He offers the men a ride in thanks, and on the road shows off some of his finest specimens - including the actual skeleton of Count Dracula, a stake still in its chest. Niemann really doesn't give two shits about a fake vampire prop, and when it becomes obvious that Lampini won't take the doctor to Reigelburg to visit an old "friend", Niemann throttles the showman and takes his place.

Naturally enough, that old friend in Reigelburg is actually an old enemy - one of the three men responsible for Niemann's incarceration - and he has murder on his mind. Luckily for Niemann, Burgomeister Hussman (Sig Ruman) has a pair of young newlyweds visiting - his grandson Karl (Peter Coe) and American granddaughter-in-law Rita (Anne Gwynne) - and they're terribly excited at the thought of seeing wagon-based chamber of horrors, and taking along a fusty old grampa and his fusty old friend Inspector Arnz (the inevitable Lionel Atwill) to have fun with them. Hussman almost recognises Niemann right then and there, but he's too distracted to think about it closely; Niemann is ready to spring on the old man and kill him, and he pulls the stake out of the vampire skeleton to do just that, but then something terrifying happens. The skeleton re-grows veins and nerves and skin, and lo! Count Dracula (John Carradine, this time around) is reborn!

Niemann and Dracula cut a deal whereby the vampire will deal with Hussman and the scientist will protect him from all harm. Thus begins an intrigue, in which Dracula works his way in to the Hussman home, killing the Burgomeister while in bat form, and preparing to steal Rita away to live as his vampire bride. But Arnz and Karl figure out that something is up, and the chase Dracula, Niemann and Daniel across country, and finally Niemann concludes he must cut his losses and leave the count to his fate, which involves evaporating, clothes and all, in the first rays of the morning sun. Rita wakes up from her trance, and embraces her husband, the evil gone forever.

So ends the first part of House of Frankenstein.

I was not at all prepared the first time I saw the movie, and even now, knowing what to expect, I still found it hugely irritating. What it doesn't say on the label is that House of Frankenstein is really two separate short films, united by the framework of "Niemann wants to kill those who've wronged him", and neither one of the shorts is all that good. But first, I should probably sketch out the plot of the second half. You know what happens in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Same thing, only this time there's also a homicidally jealous hunchback trying to win a gypsy girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) away from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who once again just wants to die, die, DIE! so that he might be free of this terrible curse &c. And once again the key to curing Larry lies in the journals of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, thus renamed from "Heinrich", which was already changed from "Henry", and the cure still involves a bizarre-ass shell game, this time involving brain-swapping instead of life-energy transference.

The most peculiar thing about House of Frankenstein is that it only had to do one thing to succeed at its massively unambitious goals, and it didn't do it. Dracula, the Frankenstein monster (a thankless role played now by Glenn Strange), and the Wolf Man all had to be onscreen together at the same time, and they aren't - even the monster and the werewolf are never really permitted to interact, since the monster is strapped down to a table until three minutes from the end, by which time Larry has "died" already. And of course, Dracula is dust long before Niemann ever stumbles into that damn ice cave where somehow, Larry (in wolf form) and the monster still live in suspended animation, having survived the flood at the end of Frankenstein Meets...

But let's go ahead and spot Curt Siodmak (who wrote the story) and Edward T. Lowe (a B-action picture vet who wrote the screenplay) that for whatever reason, they needed to scrupulously keep the monsters apart. There's still no reason for House of Frankenstein to be anywhere near this bad. The first bit, a pretty straightforward Dracula story that is doubtlessly the most complex thing the filmmakers could fit into the time they had, almost works, but it suffers massively from that needlessly compressed 30 minutes or so. There's a faintly absurd amount of incident that just keeps happening, boom-boom-boom, without any room for the story to breathe and to build up any sort of atmosphere.

It doesn't help that, in both halves of the film, the writing is so hideously clumsy, particularly the massive infodump included to clue in a viewer who might somehow have stumbled across the film without knowing what a vampire is (though I can't bitch so much about the equally clumsy exposition of the end of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man - the Frankenstein series has cherry-picked plot points from one film to another so arbitrarily that this is just about the only way we can be certain about what the situation is at the start of the middle of House of Frankenstein). It's particularly annoying in the monster/wolf man half, when too much of the movie consists, once again, of Larry Talbot swooning about and complaining that he can't die. You know who else is pretty sad to hear you can't die, Larry? Me. I'll bet I wish you'd just fucking die even more than you do.

There is one and only one point at which the screenplay achieves any kind of creative energy at all, and unfortunately it's very much the "so bad it's good" kind of creativity, but hey, any port in a storm. Niemann's plan for revenge involves moving the brains of the monster, Larry, and his last two victims around in a pattern that makes absolutely no sense at all: the film can't seem to make up its mind whether or not personal identity resides in the brain or the body, so that it's a punishment, on the one hand, to have one's own brain put in the monster, but it is also a punishment to have a lycanthropic brain put in one's own body (and the notion that lycanthropy is a brain disorder is just... unintuitive). The whole affair is a giddy mess, but at least it's enough crazy fun to keep you from wondering when the hell the monster is going start groaning and breaking things.

(Unsurprisingly, continuity is a bloody wreck, both on the Dracula side and the Frankenstein/Wolf Man side, but life's too short to worry about continuity between the Universal monster movies).

Nothing good was ever going to come out of that barbaric screenplay, but it doesn't help matters at all the House of Frankenstein was directed by Erle C. Kenton, last seen poking unimaginatively at The Ghost of Frankenstein, where he proved himself the most visually uncreative director in the whole of the Universal horror family. That film still looks better than House of Frankenstein, which makes no effort to disguise the fact that it's all taking place on soundstages, and has less of the murky shadows and gloom that makes classic Universal horror worth bothering about to begin with. The Dracula half is probably a touch better, but marred by some absolutely god-awful rubber bats and unconvincing transitions from said bats to human (the effects in Son of Dracula were so much better, I can't understand what happened). At any rate, the film is impossible dull-looking, much the least-distinguished film in all three series it belongs to.

The acting is not uniformly bad, for Karloff is fairly delightful as a mad scientist who is (by virtue of being Karloff, unnervingly erudite. Outside of him, though, nobody's all that good. The white-bread supporting characters aren't supposed to be, of course, the monsters are all fairly week this time around: Chaney was clearly just as sick of Larry Talbot as I am, Glenn Strange had about 45 seconds to make any kind of impression, and John Carradine is fairly helpless as the Count; he allegedly fought with the studio over what kind of Dracula to play (he wanted something more like the character in the novel, they wanted something more like Bela Lugosi), and in the end all he does is open his eyes really wide and glower at people from his lanky, lanky frame, while speaking in an accent that isn't exactly Carradine's voice, but isn't really European, either.

It's entirely fair to say that I hate this movie. The B-movie charms of the '40s Universal monster pictures was irregular, to say the least, but at least they're usually good from some fast, goofy fun. Whereas House of Frankenstein is just a chore to sit through. Between the sloppy writing, horrible plot construction, flat look, and above all, its relative dearth of monsters, this is pretty much the worst of all worlds: everything that plagued all but the best Universal horror films, and nothing of what made all but the worst at least semi-bearable.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
DrĂ¡cula (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)

1 comment:

javi75 said...

He has been imprisoned for the shocking and obscene crime of trying to marry a human head to a dog body

I wonder if Tim Burton got this idea for his Mars attacks here.