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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

House of Frankenstein
&
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Universal's certainly taken its time releasing its classic horror films on DVD, and has so far shown a rather spotty attention to detail. Their first series of laserdiscs in the early '90s were a great jump in quality from what we had been used to on old television airings, as well as having nice still photo supplements. The new Frankenstein DVD promised great things: a beautifully restored image, and some famous dialog, recovered at great effort from original soundtrack acetate discs. But even as they kept up with the extras, on picture quality the series dropped off abruptly. Dracula and The Mummy had transfers that were no better than the old laserdiscs, even though both were begging for the kind of restoration afforded Frankenstein. But Universal apparently stopped remastering after that title. One of the titles most deserving of the full treatment, The Bride of Frankenstein in particular had serious cropping and quality problems that made it far worse than the old laser. This presented something of a dilemma for the aficionado, who wanted the excellent David J. Skal docus to be found on these early discs, yet had little use for the films themselves.

The second wave improved considerably, mainly because the films involved, such as Creature From the Black Lagoon, had been transferred later into the 90s and looked much better when encoded on DVD. Now the third wave has arrived, which have later, even better transfers. These are the second-string Universal Horrors, bridging the gap between the 'classic' classics and the early '40s when the studio decided to turn them into semi-serialzed programmers. The word 'media franchise' hadn't yet been invented (it would take Forry Ackerman and the Monster-Mad '60s to do that), but that's what Universal had, sequelling, mix 'n matching monsters as Toho would later do with Godzilla films, and finally stacking them into vaudeville-like monster mash grabbags.

This first disc reviewed (there's quite a stack, believe me) presents two of the later titles, fun movies that are short on sophistication but long on style and fun.


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Universal Home Video
1943 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 74m. /
Starring Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dennis Hoey, Lon Chaney Jr., Dwight Frye
Cinematography George Robinson
Art Directors John Goodman, Martin Obzina
Film Editor Edward Curtiss
Original Music Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Writing credits Curt Siodmak
Produced by George Waggner
Directed by Roy William Neill

Synopsis:

Guilty and weary, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) comes to 'Visaria' under the assumed name Taylor, in hopes of locating Dr. Frankenstein's notebooks. Larry wants to learn the long-dead Doctor's secrets of life and death with the aim of ending his own life: he somehow reasons that his supernatural existence as the lycanthropian 'Wolf Man' can only be terminated through Frankenstein's alchemistic science. In short order he finds Visaria a backward hamlet of burghers and peasants terrified of the castle above them on the hill. He finds no diaries but does uncover the frozen, intact Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi), who needs merely to be pulled from the ice to pop back to life. He also hooks up with a Dr. Manning (Patric Knowles) who wants to take Larry back to the asylum, and Baroness Elsa (Ilona Massey), the original Doctor's granddaughter. She leads Larry to the ruins of the original lab, right to the hidden diary, entitled appropriately, 'The secrets of life and death.' Dr. Manning decides to get the lab going, saying he's going to drain off Larry's 'life energy', but he's also become a little to interested in tinkering with the monster on his own ...

 

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is fast and fun and has some nice thrills. At age twelve we  1 had it placed in the proper monster chronology: Having the monster played by Lugosi was deemed appropriate because Lugosi's memorable Ygor character had just had his brain transplanted into the monster's stapled cranium at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein. We certainly didn't complain about the lack of sense to the proceedings: why an asylum doctor is interested in graduating to Mad Scientist after a 30 second tour of a ruined lab: "We'll just have to plug in a few wires here and there.." Or how Maria Ouspenska's gypsy Maleva got from rural England back to the middle of Bavaria. Maybe it was Mother Love. She certainly embodied the perfect Ma for naughty werewolf Larry to stumble back to every time he needed understanding and forgiveness. Everything about the script was perfunctory, right down to the villager's idle threat to blow up the giant hydroelectric dam as a means of killing four people in a castle! Forget the overkill, what's to stop the floodwaters from washing away Visaria at the same time? Finally, when exactly is this supposed to be taking place? It must be some kind of vague nowhere land, perhaps the same time zone as Universal's Sherlock Holmes series. This movie mixes up period and contemporary details with surreal abandon. The leads dress in a mix between 1943 and traditional, yet there's hydroelectric power. Strictly speaking, if the Baroness is Victor's granddaughter, one would think the date should be 1850 or thereabouts.

The answer is of course that considerations like the above are beside the point. F meets the W M had a taste of something never seen in a Universal monster movie, real action. There are only a couple of fully developed monster scenes, but they are unforgettable fun. Larry runs amok, hopping on cars with feral gusto, and looking better than ever in his Jack Pierce hairyface makeup. With such a short running time, there are too many preliminaries, and the finale happens just as the story gets going.  4 But we're treated to a real knock-down drag 'em out between our favorite monsters, with an apocalyptic finish under a tidal wave.

The billing gives us some idea of the status of monster stars in Hollywood: Lugosi is third billed and Chaney inexplicably sixth. Bela is very impressive as the monster (All accounts say he turned down the original part back in '31) and offers some nice scowls and characteristic twisted-hand gestures with his arms. Chaney is a bit too much as the singleminded & blustering Talbot, far too healthy-looking to come off as suicidal as written, but he's still fun, even when we're reminded of his perfect deadpan sendup of the character just three movies down the path, with Abbott & Costello: "You know, when the Moon is full, I turn into a wolf!" "Yeah, you and a million other guys!" Nobody else makes much of a dent, with Ouspenskaya's atmospheric Gypsy trotted onstage and more or less ignored by cast and script alike. Unforgettable Renfield Dwight Frye has a few lines as a scraggly-looking Vasarian dullard, and buried in the local color (according to the IMDB) are Lance Fuller (Brack in This Island Earth a decade later), Jeff Corey, and Beatrice Roberts!


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man looks fine on DVD, with the same intermittent speckling here and there but mostly sharp-looking. Frequent series cameraman George Robinson's lighting is the best thing in the movie. Many of the setups look great and there's nothing lazy about the look of the film. There are ardent admirers of the mix'n match music cues written mostly by Skinner and Salter, and these sound as if they were cut in yesterday. For extras, there's only a dupey-looking Realart reissue trailer  2 and production notes, which Savant has to admit were informative and fun. Chaney was to play both monster roles originally - didn't know that. The notes nicely document the role of Curt Siodmak as the in-house Universal monster wrangler-writer, coping with the ever-more ridiculous storylines, the kind that Val Lewton managed to sidestep over at RKO. Siodmak is for some reason named but not profiled on the Bios menu selection. And now I need to see a movie called He's My Guy, which reportedly has Joan Davis growling back at Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man on a movie screen showing this feature - after which the Wolf Man whimpers and runs away!

As a sidelight, it was edifying to see one of the menus call the film Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman instead of Wolf Man; I've just spent a few minutes correcting the same error here, at least fifteen times.


House of Frankenstein
Universal Home Video
1944 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 71m.
Starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Elena Verdugo, Sig Ruman ..
Cinematography George Robinson
Art Direction John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina
Film Editor Philip Cahn
Original Music Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner
Writing credits Edward T. Lowe Jr. from a story by Curt Siodmak
Produced by Paul Malvern
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Synopsis:

Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) breaks from Neustadt Prison with the deadly assistance of hunchbacked inmate Daniel (J. Carroll Naish). A couple of murders later, they have disguised themselves as carnival mountebanks. Their display of the skeleton of Dracula, turns out to be the real McCoy, materializing into the Count (John Carradine) when the stake is removed. After the Count fails to return to his coffin before dawn and becomes a skeleton once more, Niemann moves on to Frankenstein's castle, where they find the Doctor's records, the Monster (Glenn Strange) and the 'Wolf Man' Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.). Talbot recounts the events of Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man in an ice cave, and Niemann volunteers to cure him by 'building him a new brain'. Daniel has fallen in love with gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who naturally favors the handsome, if troubled, Talbot. Niemann of course is most interested in reviving the monster instead of curing anyone, which leads to the predictable fiery finale.

House of Frankenstein isn't much of a movie, but is very enjoyable just the same. Extremely fast-paced, it packs what look to be three separate stories into its 70-minute running time, bringing out Frankenstein's monster in one chapter, and Dracula in an almost completely separate one. If television wasn't still a few years away it would be tempting to think that somebody at Universal envisioned breaking the film up into tv episodes.  3 Known as a stuntman and producer of lowbudget westerns, producer Malvern packed the film with enough action and horse-stunts for a two-reel oater: Dracula leaps from a careering carriage like Yakima Canutt.

But it does have Karloff and John Carradine, two actors who never slighted a role just because it was beneath their dignity. Karloff is good, but Carradine makes for an excellent Dracula, the first since Lugosi to do anything with the role, and a welcome contrast to the lumpen Lon Chaney in Son of Dracula. Gaunt and gooney-eyed, Carradine is supported by good effects, especially his invisible man-like reconstitution and his shadow transformation into a bat. I can imagine '40s kids, unaware of the classics from 15 years before, thinking these effects very cool; we loved them on television twenty years later.

This may sound like heresy, but Savant prefers Lon Chaney in this quickie Reader's Digest version, to the original George Waggner movie. Chaney isn't much of an actor and grates, frankly, and here the urgency of his romance and even more urgent demise makes its point without repetitive scenes of remorse: "Last night I killed a man." The added triangle with the hunchbacked Daniel places the supernatural curse of lycanthropy as more desirable than a simple deformity, which must have made real hunchbacks in the audience feel perfectly lousy. By the way, Naish is the equal of his co-actors, and plays his scenes with the shallow gypsy girl for maximum pathos.

After keeping up a frantic pace, House of Frankenstein falters at the windup. The Monster is revived just long enough to meet a mob and drag Karloff to a fiery doom, and all the side stories are wrapped up so fast you can almost see the characters looking at their watches and thinking, "Only four minutes left! I've got to get thrown through a window! (or shot with a silver bullet, etc.) You see trooper Karloff duck his head in a greasy bog and the movie ends about eight seconds later. This beat-the-clock short running time must have charmed wartime theater owners, who made fortunes by grinding out shows around the clock for swingshift war-plant workers with money in their pockets.

If the movie succeeds, it's because of its 'horror lite' approach - all the clichés of a decade of monster movies are rushed into its short running time. With top talent like Karloff and Carradine keeping it going, House of Frankenstein is stylish and efficient, communicating in pulp shorthand. It has no resemblance whatsover to an important horror film ... but it's good fun.

The unnecessary side note this time around ... the glass-ball Universal logo that graces most of these pictures is Savant's favorite studio logo of all time. This is the one that followed the '30s airplane, updating the globe as a shimmering light source, reflecting the letters that orbit it.


House of Frankenstein on DVD looks even better than its co-feature (transferred later, it got higher-tech attention) but gets short shrift in the extras department. The production notes this time around are a single uninformative paragraph, and the cast bios consist of one tidbit each, such as J. Carroll Naish getting hired as a movie actor by donating blood to the head of Fox films.

The trailer amusingly ticks off the 5 monsters packed into this monochrome monster rally, counting Karloff's Mad Scientist (number 4!) and J. Carroll Naish's The Hunchback (number 5!) Of interest is the fact that once you choose between the two titles on the disc, you can't switch to the other without first turning off your DVD player. (Someone please correct me here if I'm wrong.) Since the menu designs for the two shows are dissimilar, maybe the idea to doublebill these lower-tier monster movies was made after individual mastering was done.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Reissue Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 18, 2001


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House of Frankenstein rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Reissue Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: 18, 2001


Footnotes:

1. I'm talking about the schoolyard Famous Monsters corps of faithful fans, here.
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2. what was Realart anyway? A subsidiary of Universal for quickie reissues, or an outside distributor that sublicensed the monster movies the way DVD companies try to do now with the majors when they balk at distributing their own libraries? Either way, they're just more evidence of Universal's lack of enthusiasm for their classic monsters, before their TV revival in the '50s and the monster fan wave of the '60s.
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3. Actually, it's the Dracula episode that looks tacked-on (or designed to be removed).
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4. A symptom of later Hammer films. Just as in some of these Universals, the typical 1960 -1969 Hammer film covers old ground, and sets up familiar situations for the first 75 minutes, and then crams in a conclusion that cuts things off just as interesting things are about to happen! 1964's Evil of Frankenstein actually looks like a Universal film done in the Hammer style.
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