Tuesday, 13 September 2016

House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein, released in 1944, was one of Universal’s infamous (but commercially very successful) monster rally movies. Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster all feature in the film although perhaps rather curiously their roles are not actually central. It’s not really a very good movie but it has its moments and it is strangely enjoyable.

It certainly boasts a formidable array of horror icons in its cast - Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carrol Naish.

Dr Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) has been continuing the work of the notorious Dr Frankenstein and as a result he is now rotting in prison. He still dreams of taking up the great work again but it seems unlikely he will ever be able to do so. Then fate intervenes - the prison is struck by lightning which demolishes the wall allowing Niemann and another prisoner, the hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) to escape. 

Now Niemann can go back to his experiments but there are two tasks he must first accomplish - he must find Dr Frankenstein’s notebooks and he must get his revenge on the men whose testimony put him in prison. Then, with Daniel as his faithful assistant, he has a whole series of ambitious experiments to work on.

A chance encounter with a traveling Chamber of Horrors show run by a Professor Lampini (George Zucco) provides Niemann with a very useful opportunity - this traveling show will provide a perfect cover for him, allowing him to travel through the countryside without being recognised or attracting suspicion. Professor Lampini is not happy with this idea but he is quickly disposed of.

One of Lampini’s prized exhibits is the skeleton of Dracula. Of course no-one really believes it is the skeleton of the famous vampire but when Niemann removes the stake from the skeleton he discovers that this is indeed Count Dracula and he’s come back to life. 

Resurrecting vampires is just a distraction for Niemann. He is keen to get back to his laboratory, especially after not only finding Dr Frankenstein’s precious notebooks but also the frozen bodies of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster. Dr Niemann has a particular interest in brain transplants and now he has lots of brains and lots of bodies to play with.

Of course you can’t expect to go around raising the dead and transplanting monster brains without something going wrong. In this case it’s something rather unexpected that goes wrong, the end result of a tragic love triangle between a hunchback, a werewolf and a gypsy girl. It must surely only be a matter of time before the villagers show up with flaming torches and pitch-forks.

The big problem with this movie is that combining so many monsters is an inherently unwieldy idea, especially since none of the monsters really have any logical connection with one another. Edward T. Lowe Jr’s screenplay (based on Curt Siodmak’s story) can’t really resolve this difficulty. The Dracula part of the story ends up being like a short film within a film. The Wolf Man story then takes over with Frankenstein’s Monster only playing a very insignificant part towards the end. In fact the main thrust of the plot is the story of Niemann’s obsession with surpassing Frankenstein’s achievements, combined with the tragic romantic entanglements caused by the arrival of the beautiful gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo).

If the various plot strands never do come together very successfully, and if most of the ideas are very unoriginal, it has to be said that this movie is remarkably well executed. Director Erle C. Kenton maintains a frantic pace and provides plenty of thrills and some surprisingly effective visual touches (the vampire bat murder seen only in silhouette being a notable example). Of course Universal always managed to make even their lesser horror movies look terrific. This movie is no exception. The sets are extremely impressive, especially the ice cave. The monster transformation scenes are mostly well done (the werewolf transformation scene is very very good indeed).

The acting is a bit variable. Karloff’s performance is quite interesting if rather low-key - Niemann seems affable, quietly spoken and even kindly but if someone gets in his way he disposes of them with breathtaking ruthlessness. It’s as if he’s so obsessed by his work that killing is merely a minor irritation. Chaney could have played the Wolf Man in his sleep by this time but he does add his characteristic touches of pathos. Carradine is a very sinister and very effective Dracula. J. Carrol Naish makes Daniel both a chilling cold-blooded killer and a sympathetic victim of love gone wrong. Elena Verdugo gives a spirited performance as the gypsy girl. Atwill and Zucco really only have cameo roles (although Zucco makes the most of his very brief screen time).

The Region 4 DVD is noticeably lacking in extras but the transfer is superb.

House of Frankenstein is disjointed and is little more than a jumble of not very original ideas but it’s so well executed that one can’t help forgiving its faults. And it is consistently entertaining. Recommended.

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