Sunday, October 9, 2016

Monster Mayhem! It's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Bela Lugosi as the Monster.
The surprising popularity of 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein (not one of my faves) left Universal Studios in a quandary. It wanted to make a sequel, but its staff writers felt that the Frankenstein Monster had nowhere to go. Desperation sometimes results in inspiration and thus was born the idea of pairing the Frankenstein Monster with the Wolf Man. It was a clever premise that would extend the Universal monster movies for another decade.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) opens with a splendidly atmospheric scene in which two grave robbers break into the Talbot Family crypt in order to rob the corpse of Larry Talbot. When they open his stone casket, they find Larry's body covered in wolf bane. I don't know about you, but that would have sent me packing in a hurry--especially with a full moon in the night sky. But the inept grave robbers hang around until Larry reaches up and grabs one of them.

Maria Ouspenskaya and Lon Chaney, Jr.
When we next see Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), he is very much alive. He gradually realizes that he survived his "death" four years earlier (depicted in The Wolf Man) and must therefore be immortal. Larry seeks out the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who has heard of a "great doctor" that may be able to help Larry find the peaceful sleep of death.

Larry finds the Monster in ice.
Alas, their journey to Vasaria proves fruitless when they learn that Dr. Frankenstein is dead. When Larry, as the Wolf Man, kills a young village woman, the townspeople pursue the vicious "wolf." As Larry the lyncanthrope evades the angry mob, he falls into a hidden chamber. The next morning, he discovers the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) encased in ice and frees it. With the Monster's help, he tries to find Frankenstein's diaries and--he hopes--the secret to his own death.

It's hard to assess Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man because the Universal brass had the film cut before its release. In Curt Siodmak's original screenplay, the Monster could speak (as he could at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein). In his book The Dead That Walk, Leslie Halliwell includes some of the missing dialogue:

MONSTER: I can't see you. I'm blind, I'm sick. Once I had the strength of a hundred men. If Dr. Frankenstein were alive, he'd give it back to me...so I could live forever.

TALBOT: Do you know what happened?

MONSTER: I fell into the stream when the village people burned the house down. I lost consciousness. When I woke, I was frozen in the ice.

TALBOT: Buried alive. I know, I know...

MONSTER: Dr. Frankenstein created my body to be immortal. His son gave me a new brain, a clever brain. I will rule the world forever if we can find the formula that can give me back my strength. I will never die.

TALBOT: But I want to die. If you wanted to die, what would you do?

MONSTER: I would look for Dr. Frankenstein's diary. He knew the secret of immortality. He knew the secret of death.

This missing scene is a very illuminating one. First, it explains why the Monster walks with his arms outstretched awkwardly (he's blind!). It also clarifies why the Monster can be seen mouthing dialogue silently in the film (he was actually conversing with Larry). Finally, it explains why the creature would so willingly lead Talbot to the secret location of Dr. Frankenstein's papers.

The Monster disrupts the festival.
Without this key scene, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a perplexing film at times. The middle portion also lumbers along awkwardly much like the Monster. Still, there are three marvelous scenes: the aforementioned grave robbing sequence, the Monster's sudden appearance in Vasaria during the Festival of the New Wine, and the climatic fight. Granted, it's clearly a stunt double--not Bela--as the Monster during the big showdown. Also, I can't imagine the Wolf Man surviving this face-off (his strategy seems to consist of climbing up on lab equipment and jumping on the Monster).

Director Roy William Neill was Universal's best "B" movie director and, while his pacing may be off this time, he creates a visually hypnotic world of blacks, grays, and white. The cemetery, with its eternally blowing leaves and whistling winds, is like a gothic painting come to life.

Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man.
Chaney is his usual self as the Wolf Man (and that's not a bad thing). Bela is miscast as the Monster; one can even spot his facial features through the makeup. Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Dennis Hoey, Dwight Frye, and Lionel Atwill make a solid supporting cast. I would've like to have seen more of Maria Ouspenskaya (cinema's best gypsy) and it's too bad Atwill played a mayor and not the one-armed prefect from Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a big hit and spawned two immediate sequels with even more monsters: House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). After a short rest, the Universal monsters returned in the 1950s to face off against their biggest adversaries yet: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

3 comments:

1001: A Film Odyssey is produced, directed and written by Chris, a librarian. said...

Yes, those later Frankenstein sequels seemed to sink in quality with each new feature. I do confess to still having great affection for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Unknown said...

Lugosi was cast for his voice, since the Monster spoke as Igor (his new brain) at the end of "Ghost." Originally Chaney was supposed to play both monsters since he'd done Frank and the Wolf in both previous flicks. This proved impossible so they brought in Bela. The stuntee who doubled for him at the beginning in the ice was Ed Parker (you can see his face under the make-up, his mouth is noticeably narrower than Lugosi's); Gil Perkins put the Big Shoes on for the fight when Parker doubled Chaney.

Bill O said...

Obviously, Lugosi was a desperation move - no other "name" left. He wasn't cast for his voice, since he wasn't first choice. Either he or someone else would've dubbed FrankenChaney,or Lon would've spoken in a gravelly version of his own voice. If the latter, the final effect wouldn't have been as ludicrous as The Monster speaking loquaciously in Bela's voice. That was the real "Springtime for Hitler" moment. But in any case, Ygorstein was just too much for an audience to accept, whether it saw the previous film or not.