Sunday, May 2, 2010

House of Frankenstein (1944)

Mad scientist and Frankenstein fanboy Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) has been incarcerated for trying to put a human brain into a dog (or was it the other way round?) and has been in jail for fifteen years now. At least, prison life has brought him the acquaintance of a proper hunchbacked assistant, a certain Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), who'd do just about anything for any cackling madman promising him a new and improved body.

Really bad weather frees the duo from its imprisonment, and shortly thereafter they meet Professor Lampini (George Zucco) and his mobile chamber of horrors. As luck will have it, the good Professor drives around with the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine), just waiting to lose its stake and come back to life again. When Lampini shows to be unsympathetic to a change of his travelling destination to somewhere convenient to Niemann, Daniel strangles the man and his master and he take over the chamber of horrors.

Niemann plans to use Dracula to take his revenge on the people responsible for his imprisonment, and surely, the friendly vampire does kill the first of Niemann's enemies for him. Alas, the poor bloodsucker doesn't survive the following coach chase (don't ask). At least our hero madmen escape.

Niemann's next stop is the beautiful village of Frankenstein, where he hopes to find the research notes of his idol. Before he and Daniel can visit the obligatory castle ruin, Daniel falls for "beautiful gypsy girl" Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who is fastly added to the entourage. I'm sure this will end will.

Later at the castle ruin, Niemann fails at his spot hidden roll, though, and has to employ the help of Larry "The Wolfman" Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who - like Frankenstein's monster - just happens to lie frozen in the ruins of Frankenstein's castle. For a promise of being freed from the werewolf curse, Larry is more than willing to show Niemann what he's looking for.

Afterwards, the merry band - now also including the unconscious monster, for no reason I could fathom - travels to Niemann's home lab, so that Larry can whine a lot and through his awesome power of whining about killing people instead of trying to actually keep himself from doing it, charm Ilonka, Daniel can get jealous and Niemann can plan the big brain switcheroo of '44 - something about putting the monster's brain in Talbot's body and putting Talbot's brain into some anti-climactically caught enemy of Niemann's. Of course, there will come torch-wielding villagers.

House of Frankenstein is the premier example of the late period of Universal Studio's classic monster films, when nobody behind the camera, and certainly nobody from the business side, cared about making watchable films anymore and instead threw any old crap together they thought they could get away with. The order of the day was to cynically milk the last pennies out of franchises none of the involved had ever cared about and an audience the studio obviously loathed.

Viewed from that perspective (and with knowledge of how dreadful most of Universal's genre films of the period were), it is a small wonder House of Frankenstein turned out as entertaining as it is.

The film's entertainment factor certainly has nothing at all to do with the terrible script by Edward T. Lowe Jr. Lowe just randomly throws all Universal horror clichés at the viewer as if the writer had never even heard of words like "character motivation" or "plotting". The script is episodic, sloppy, and makes less sense than the average Dardano Sacchetti script. Obviously, seeing the absence of even the simplest bit of artfulness, concepts like thematic unity between the episodes making up the film are right out. What is most disappointing here, though, is that there is no interaction between the monsters at all; it's strictly one monster after the other. You could think nobody responsible even realized having the monsters interact with each other would be rather fun. Instead, you get a monster meet-up in which the monsters don't meet.

On the plus side, the film is rather energetic and really throws a lot of stuff into little more than an hour of running time, so much of it in fact that some of it just has to be fun, at least for people who like the clichés of classical Universal horror.

I'm not too enamoured of Erle C. Kenton's direction either. Sure, Kenton wasn't the worst of Universal's directors at the time, which is to say that he sometimes accidentally manages to shoot an atmospheric scene, but compare his work here to Val Lewton's contemporary productions at RKO, and you'll see how little thought and care has been put into House of Frankenstein (don't compare the scripts, or you'll want to cry).

Where the people behind the camera don't give a toss, the actors step up to the occasion and do the only thing anyone could do given material like this. They start to chew the scenery with as much melodramatic vigour as possible. Well, at least Karloff and Naish - troopers that they are - do. Carradine doesn't have more than a guest role and just isn't Bela Lugosi (and therefore somewhat boring), while Chaney Jr. is hurt by the script's idiotic assumption that anyone watching will care about his character's plight or the "tragic" love triangle.

Still, having said all that, as a train wreck, House of Frankenstein can be a lot of fun, if a viewer can keep her love for those Universal films which were actually good (or even just passable) at bay. Watching it, I was swinging back and forth between two very different emotions. The first was sadness about what little respect the film showed for some of the early high points of US horror filmmaking that were among its predecessors. The second amusement about the campy excess of it all, something I would have found easier if this hadn't been a Universal film, but something thrown together by enthusiastic but misguided fans of the original films.



Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Not seen this but really enjoyed your review!

houseinrlyeh said...

Thank you!