Friday, 3 February 2012

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the first of Universal’s monster rallies, part of a last desperate attempt to flog a dead horse one more time. In spite of the inherent silliness of the idea, it’s a much more entertaining movie than it had any right to be.

It’s supposedly four years after the events described in The Wolf Man, but it seems to take place in an earlier period of history. The Universal monster movies, like the later Hammer gothic films, exist in a kind of imaginary universe of their own so that really doesn’t matter.

Grave robbers have broken into the Talbot family crypt, believing that money and jewels were buried with the body of Larry Talbot. The full moon and the presence of wolfsbane should have given them the clue that this was one grave better left unrobbed but greed gets the better of them, to their cost. The Wolf Man returns to life.

A few days later Larry Talbot wakes up in a Cardiff hospital. His surprise at being alive soon gives way to despair as he realises the awful truth - that he cannot die. Which is unfortunate because all he wants is to die.

He searches for someone who can help him die. He finds the gypsy woman Maleva, the mother of the man who turned him into a werewolf. She can’t help him but she tells him there is a man who might be able to - the famous Dr Frankenstein. He finds Frankenstein’s castle but is again disappointed - the villagers have razed the castle in order to destroy both Dr Frankenstein and his monster. In the vault of the castle he discovers that the villagers’ act of destruction was not as complete as they’d thought. He discovers the monster, encased in ice.

Believing that the monster can tell him where Dr Frankenstein papers are hidden and that these papers contain the secret of life and death that he is seeking he frees the monster. The papers are nowhere to be found.

Larry Talbot is not prepared to give up and finds Dr Frankenstein’s daughter, and eventually he finds the scientist’s diary. He has found another ally in his quest for death, the doctor who treated him in the hospital, Dr Frank Mannering. Dr Mannering restores Frankenstein’s laboratory but the results are not quite what he or Larry Talbot had hoped for.

That the movie works as well as it does is due to the fact that it was made by talented people. Curt Siodmak had written the screenplay for The Wolf Man and although his screenplay for this sequel is not as good it does contain some interesting ideas.

Roy William Neill directed Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movies and the gift for suspense and the moody gothic atmosphere that helped to make those films so hugely successful are present here as well. He was a B-movie director, but a very very good one. George Robinson’s marvelous black-and-white cinematography is another major plus. Plus of course there’s Jack Pierce doing the makeup again. The transformation scenes are better than those in The Wolf Man. All in all this is technically a very fine movie with some great moments. The revelation of the monster behind the ice wall is a highlight.

Lon Chaney Jr once again gives a sensitive and moving performance as the unfortunate Larry Talbot. Patric Knowles as Frank Mannering and Ilona Massey as Dr Frankenstein’s daughter are both good. Lionel Atwill is somewhat wasted as the village’s surprisingly sensible mayor. Making a mad scientist with Lionel Atwill in the cast and then not casting him as the mad scientist is an odd choice but there is a reason for it. Frank Mannering is not a mad scientist as such, just a conscientious doctor whose scientific curiosity tempt him into making bad decisions and Patric Knowles gives the right performance. Dr Mannering has to be young and with the right combination of dedication and youthful lack of judgment.

Bela Lugosi is completely wasted as the monster. This was his last performance for Universal and it’s not difficult to see why he thought that even working for Poverty Row studio Monogram had to be better than being treated the way Universal treated him in the 40s.

This movie is made with a degree of skill that the material doesn’t really deserve but it’s thoroughly enjoyable silliness.

The DVD transfer in the Wolf Man Legacy set is exceptionally good.

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