Thursday, October 8, 2009

31 Days of Halloween (Bonus 2nd Feature!): It's a Monster Smackdown in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Universal Studios dominated the horror film genre. If I had to pick one film most representative of its output, it’d be Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Certainly, Universal made better and more upscale horror films in the 1930s (e.g., Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) and early 1940s (e.g., The Wolf Man), but the majority of its horror harvest consisted of B-films and the best of the bunch was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

The film opens with a rare (for the time) pre-title sequence in which two gravediggers invade the Talbot family crypt in search of riches. When they open Larry Talbot’s grave, they discover a well-preserved corpse covered in wolfbane. This affords one of the poor chaps the opportunity to recite the “even a man who is pure in heart” poem from The Wolf Man. He is barely finished when a hand emerges from the coffin and grabs him. The other gravedigger makes a quick exit, we hear a scream, a dropped lantern starts a fire, and credits roll.

Unfortunately freed from his peaceful “slumber”, werewolf Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr., of course) goes in search of someone who can destroy him…permanently. Leaving a trail of fatal wolf attacks in his wake, he tracks down Maleva the gypsy woman (the always wonderful Maria Ouspenkaya), the mother of the werewolf who bit him. Maleva says she “knows a man who has the power to help him” and so the two of them head for Vasaria in search of Dr. Frankenstein. Alas, the poor doctor is dead…but his monstrous creation is not. Before long, the poor residents of Vasaria find themselves coping with a newly-arrived werewolf as well as the return of the Frankenstein Monster!

The joy of this film is its assembly of familiar trappings and performers. Lionel Atwill, the prefect in Son of Frankenstein, plays the mayor of Vasaria. Dennis Hooey, who was Inspector Lestrade in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, plays essentially the same character here. The horde of angry villagers, a staple in many of the films, goes hunting for the Wolf Man after he kills a young woman. The Monster lumbers into town to spoil a lively Ocktoberfest celebration. And a young doctor, with the best of intentions, can’t resist the urge to see the Frankenstein Monster “at its full power.”

The only major flaw in this enjoyable horror affair is the Monster. Bela Lugosi has taken much criticism for his flat performance, which consists mostly of walking around with stiff arms outstretched awkwardly and growling. To Bela’s defense, the Monster is supposed to be blind, which was explained in a famous excised conversation between the Monster and Talbot (yes, the Monster was supposed to talk!). Even with the blindness explained, I still don’t think Bela could have brought the conviction to the role that Boris Karloff did. But, in all honestly, the Monster is not a fully-realized character in this film—not as he was in the first three Frankenstein films.

The bottom line is that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man has no pretensions of being a classic monster movie. Its goal is to entertain and it certainly achieves that. It was also surprisingly successful and influential. It inspired Universal to assemble even more monsters for House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. And one could say that it provided future filmmakers with the formula for revising a horror franchise—just add another monster, as was done in King Kong vs. GodzillaAlien vs. Predator, and Freddy vs. Jason.


  1. Great piece! I loved watching the Universal monster movies! As you said, the goal of the later Universal movies was to entertain and give horror "junkies" their next fix. Along the way, some pretty good movies came about. Plus, would Mel Brooks have been able make Young Frankenstein or Dracula:Dead and Loving It, without Universal paving the way with its monster spoofs starring Abbott and Costello? Probably not

  2. Excellent post, Rick, as per usual. (Keep that in mind. You've set our expectations high, so if you fall short, you'll disappoint everyone!) The Universal monsters are deserved classics. It makes me wonder if film titles like these were the reason people began calling Frankenstein's monster by the doctor's name. I love that the influence of pitting monsters against one another (at least in the title, if nothing else) has carried over to today, like the titles you mentioned. Why don't movie studios do that with characters of other genres? Like Jason Bourne vs. James Bond, or Wong Fei Hung vs. Fong Sai-yuk.

  3. Rick, i know iam starting to sound like a broken record..i have not seen this film. Although, I have to say, "what a wonderful monster combo". I can't wait to see this film.

  4. Really good article, Rick. I love the Universal monster movies. I pull all of them out every October and have a ball. This one is a favorite, and the original Wolf Man as well. I think I'll watch that tonight!

  5. "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night Can become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the moon is full and bright." I always liked this poem and its legend. Add to it the always believable Maria Ouspenskaya and not one, but two classic movie monsters, and let the fun begin. What a fun post about a Universal treasure, Rick! On a bonus double feature with "Mad Monster Party," no less. Pass the popcorn, please!

  6. Now you won't believe this, then again maybe you will, but I got my first Universal monster fix when I was very young watching "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein". It was neat. Dracula, Frankie, and the wolfman in one film.

    As a young lad, some might say ankle biter or yard ape, I invested a whopping fifty cents for a copy of Famous Monsters Of Filmland. It did a good job of introducing me to the genre without grossing me out, or making me toss my cookies. As I matured (some say it still hasn't happened) the magazine did a rather large piece on slasher films. I stopped reading the magazine then.

    But to get back to this flic I remember reading somewhere that Boris Karloff was afraid of being type cast, and would not reprise the Frankenstein role. This put Universal in a bit of spot, and drafted Bela Lugosi for the part. If you look really closly at the film and some stills from it you'll see Dracula under all that Frankie makeup. It would seem to me Bela was a wee bit too close to the Dracula role. If you ask me it the wrong guy in the wrong role.

  7. Karloff stopped playing the monster after "Son of Frankenstein," the third installment in the series. As a result, the next one, "Ghost of Frankenstein" was a B-picture with a laughable script and Chaney, Jr. apparently wearing a mask in some scenes (like in the courtroom) because he face doesn't move a muscle no matter what. At the end of this one, the monster is blind and gotten a brain transplant using the brain of Ygor, ergo the use of Lugosi's voice for the monster in the next sequel. One thing I can't imagine is Lugosi not playing any part with Karloff's conviction: Lugosi always came to deliver a performance to keep the audience riveted to their seats and if you watch carefully, he was pulling out the stops in this one with originality even in what footage the studio spared from being cut. The way he'd snarl and hiss when upset, the crippled, maimed, wounded feel from being blind and flailing, all of it was weirdly different, more otherworldly and original than either Karloff's or Chaney, Jr.'s earlier interpretations. Had Lugosi wound up playing the part in '31 rather than over a decade later, there's no telling how his performance might have come across working with a director like Whale. But let's face it, Whale cast Karloff instead because Karloff physically resembled Whale and that's what Whale apparently wanted. But even in a comparative piece of dreck like "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman," Lugosi's full performance with dialogue as Ygor, had it not been hacked into more pieces than the monster himself, might have made a believer out of everyone.

    By the way, I think Karloff's best performance by far is in a small role in the original "Scarface."

    And the ideal actor for the role, greater than either Karloff or Lugosi, would have been Lon Chaney, Sr., who died after making only one sound film.