Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Houses of Frankenstein and Dracula

The trailer promised a lot!
House of Frankenstein (1944). The inevitable follow-up to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1942) adds Count Dracula, a mad scientist, and a lovesick, hunchbacked assistant to the mix. The result is a somewhat clunky affair that still has its minor pleasures.

Boris Karloff stars as Dr. Gustav Niemann, a prison inmate obsessed with replicating Henry Frankenstein's life-creating experiments. When a thunderstorm causes the prison walls to crumble, Niemann and his cell mate, the hunchbacked Daniel, escape.

Carradine's Count Dracula.
They take over a traveling circus of horrors that features the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine). During a fit of anger, Niemann unwisely withdraws a wooden stake from the skeleton and revives Dracula. Alas, the legendary vampire chooses the wrong young woman for a tasty snack and doesn't survive the night.

Niemann and Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) continue on to Visaria (known as Vasaria in the previous film), where they discover the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man encased on ice. Naturally, they thaw out the monsters! Niemann promises to cure Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), although his real interest is in restoring the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) to full power.

J. Carrol Naish and Boris Karloff.
The biggest flaw with House of Frankenstein is that the monsters never interact--each one has its own separate storyline. It's like watching three mini-movies connected only by the presence of Niemann and Daniel. Karloff is fun as the mad scientist, but it's a pretty stereotypical role. Naish, on the other hand, turns in a surprisingly effective performance as the physically deformed assistant who loves a gypsy girl that's smitten with Talbot.

Given its "B" movie budget, House of Frankenstein is visually striking at times. That's not totally surprisingly given the pedigrees of cinematographer George Robinson and director Erle C. Kenton. Robinson also lensed the expressionistic Son of Frankenstein, which has been justly praised elsewhere in this blog. As for Kenton, he was a reliable journeyman director for Universal, specializing in Abbott & Costello comedies and "B" horror efforts. However, his resume also includes one of the most original horror films of the 1930s: Island of Lost Souls (1932).

Glenn Strange as the Monster.
House of Dracula (1944). Film critic Leslie Halliwell counts this immediate sequel among his favorite films in his book Halliwell's Hundred. However, there's a caveat: "It is a gem of ineptitude. Its badness lies in its extremely flat handling and in the fact that the writers were not allowed to transfer to the screen the fun they must have had in cooking up its absurd plot."

Chaney as the Wolf  Man.
Certainly, the story is an upgrade over House of Frankenstein with Count Dracula (Carradine) and Larry Talbot arriving at Dr. Edlemann's seaside castle in search of cures. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), a caring man of science, agrees to help them. Unfortunately, Dracula becomes attracted to the nurse Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll) and can't overcome his vampire urges. During a transfusion with Edlemann, the Count reverses the flow of blood so he can remain a vampire. Unfortunately, that turns the scientist into a Jekyll-Hyde mad man.

Prior to this incident, Edlemann rescues Talbot, who has tried to commit suicide by leaping off a cliff. In a cave on the beach, the two men discover the dormant--but still living--Frankenstein Monster. Anyone one else would just leave the Monster there, but then we couldn't have a climax with torch-carrying villagers, could we?

Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edlemann.
I enjoy House of Dracula more than Mr. Halliwell. It's far from a good movie, but there are some original ideas (e.g., the fate of Talbot). Plus, it provides long-time character actor Onslow Stevens with his best role. He's quite entertaining as the staid man of science who transforms into a wild-eyed killer.

House of Dracula would turn out to be the final "serious" film in Universal's original horror film cycle that started with Dracula in 1931. Its monsters would next appear opposite Bud and Lou in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

5 comments:

  1. I get a great kick out of House of Frankenstein, but would watch House of Dracula with a permanently raised eyebrow, if I could master that trick.

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  2. House of Drac severely misunderstood. A reboot of the entire franchise, it removes any trace of the supernatural origins in favor of (pseudo) science. The Drac and Wolfman of the previous films could NOT be "cured". They're the unholy cursed - the living dead. This film is remarkably prescient - rewriting the characters for the scifi '50's.Took the Old Worlde myths out of the equation. AND breaking Uni's own stereotype of the evil, ugly hunchbacked assistant. Awfully progressive for an end-of-the-line cheapie....

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    1. Bill, that's an interesting perspective on HOUSE OF DRACULA and one I never considered. It certainly foreshadows the Creature, Universal's next big monster and one with sci fi origins.

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  3. While no one's going to put either of these films on a "best of Universal" list, they're both pretty enjoyable. I agree that J. Carrol Naish is quite effective in his role. I also think John Carradine makes a pretty solid (if under-used) Dracula. And in House of Frankenstein, we get to see George Zucco and Lionel Atwill in the same film! (though sadly, they don't share any scenes)

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  4. Still like the '31 Dracula best, in all its grainy glory

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