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Friday, February 10, 2012

House of Frankenstein

By 1944, sequel-itis was finally developing in the Frankenstein saga. House of Frankenstein (HoF) was Universal's sixth film in the series. The hand of management and/or marketing departments was more plainly evident. Curt Siodmak provided the kernel of the story. Of course, the title role went to Frankenstein's monster. After that, Universal threw in Dracula and the Wolf Man, again played by Lon Chaney Jr.. Boris Karloff stars, but as the mad scientist, not as the monster. The thinking must have been, that if each would only attract a quarter of their previous audiences, together they might make a whole hit!

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Gustav Niemann. and his hunchback assistant Daniel, are imprisoned in a dungeon for stealing bodies. Lightning strikes the castle, causing some walls to collapse. Niemann and Daniel escape. They kill and assume the identities of a Dr. Lampini who has a traveling sideshow featuring Dracula's skeleton. Niemann wants revenge on one of the men who convicted him. He pulls out the wooden stake. Dracula re-forms. He convinces Dracula to do his bidding in return for protection. Dracula befriends Herr Hussman, his grandson Karl and wife Rita. Once alone, Dracula puts the bite on Hussman and gives a trance-inducing ring to Rita. Karl calls the police who give chase to Dracula and the abducted Rita. Dracula's wagon crashes. The sun comes up and he turns to a skeleton (again?). Rita is saved. The ring drops off. Niemann drives on to Visaria where they meet some gypsies. Daniel falls in love with the pretty dancing gypsy girl, Ilonka. She is whipped by the nasty gypsy leader for not giving up all her coins. Daniel rescues her. Niemann and Daniel search the flood ravaged castle (previous film) looking for Dr. Frankenstein's notebook. They find the frozen bodies of the Wolf Man and the Monster. Niemann builds a fire to thaw them out. The thawed out Wolf Man turns back into Talbot. He shows Niemann where the notebook is hidden. The group drive on to Niemann's old lab. En route, Ilonka starts to like Larry more than Daniel. Jealousy flares. They clean up the lab and Niemann sets about reviving the monster. He plans to give it a better brain and improve on Frankenstein's work. He promised to put Larry's brain in an uncursed body, and put Daniel's brain in an unhunched body. Both grow impatient with Niemann's obsession over the monster. Daniel whips the semi-conscious monster in his rage. Larry turns into the Wolf Man and kills a villager. This results in the usual mob of villagers with torches, looking for the killer. Meanwhile, Ilonka learns of Larry's dark secret. Since she loves him, she makes a silver bullet to end his misery. Larry becomes the Wolf Man and attacks Ilonka. Before she dies, she shoots him. He dies. Daniel finds the dead Ilonka and tries to kill Niemann. The monster revives and throw Daniel out a window. Daniel dies. The torch-toting mob arrive at the castle and chase the monster out into the woods, carrying the hurt Niemann along with him. Setting a brush fire, the mob forces the monster into a quicksand pit where the monster and Niemann sink out of sight. The End.

Sci-fi Connection
Again, only near the end of the film does any hint of "science" factor in. Niemann's lab has many of the same sorts of sparking, buzzing, crackling devices as in previous films. There is fairly cavalier talk of swapping brains and bodies, but other than seeing "megavoltage" applied to the monster, there's not much else.

Saga Connection
The connection to the Frankenstein family is thinner yet. At least the last film (..meets the Wolf Man) featured Elsa, the daughter of Ludwig Frankenstein. Dr. Neimann (Karloff) is the brother of one of Henry's assistants. This previously unknown assistant learned most (but not enough) of Henry's secrets and passed them on to Gustav. Hence Niemann's desire to find Henry's notebook. Having Boris Karloff take the role of the mad scientist was a neat role reversal, since he became famous as the monster.

Cheap Shots -- Universal Pictures was famous for its 1931 classics, Frankenstein and Dracula, almost "owning" the horror genre. Its fortunes waned in the wake of the Laemmie family's loss of control and the new management's conservative leading. By the mid-40s, times were lean at Universal. At this point, Universal is just about to become part of an ill-fated merger that would ultimately yield Universal-International, but not until after yet more lean times. The desperate need for profit was, no doubt, the impetus behind HoF as sequel-cum-mashup. It was a low-risk appeal to an existing audience. Universal's House of Dracula (1945) would be a very similar type of production.

Monster Wrap -- As if anticipating Universal's new management's desire to get out of the monster movie business, the plot of HoF tries to wrap up the story lines of their three big monsters: Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein (monster). The goal seems to have been to kill off all three and be done with them.

Act One: Dracula -- The first half of the film is almost its own, devoted to Dracula (here played by John Carradine). Dr. Niemann is the binder, but the story is typical Dracula. He kills, he entrances a pretty woman, (who has nothing else to do with the plot) and he dies when the sun comes up. An interesting tidbit is how Dracula, who just re-materialized, managed to come up with a big black coach, team of horses, and a driver. Black magic perks, perhaps.

Act Two: Wolf Man -- Most of the second half revolves around resuming Larry Talbot's desire to die and escape his wolf curse. The silver bullet trope is recited. Ilonka, pretty handy as a silversmith and gunsmith, makes a crude silver bullet for her quaint flintlock pistol. The Wolf Man's demise is no surprise.

Act Two and a Half: Notre Dame II -- Interwoven in the other plot lines is a revival of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The mad scientist usually has a hunchbacked assistant, but this one is lovelorn. The lonely hunchback takes a liking to a pretty dancing gypsy girl. She is nice to him, but loves another. Sound familiar?

Act Three: Monster DejaVu -- The last part of the film is stereotypic Frankenstein monster -- here played by Glenn Strange. Once again, he is a mute beast. Once again, he is abused by the hunchback. Once again he rages and kills. Once again, he is pursued by a mob of villagers with torches. Once again, he is presumed to die in the end. But, since a burning windmill, molten sulphur pit, flood or glacier had not killed him. Why would mere quicksand?

Star Watch -- Some bit players to note: Lionel Atwill plays the village inspector again. Michael Mark plays Straus -- one of those Niemann is seeking revenge upon. Mark played Maria's father in the first film, and a town councilor in Son of… and Ghost of… Sig Ruman plays Burgomeister Hussman. He will be the jovial Sergeant Schultz in Stalag 17 in 1953. Elena Verdugo plays the gypsy girl Ilonka. Just 18 at the time, Verdugo would play many TV roles. Her most famous was as Consuelo, assistant to Marcus Welby MD.

Stuck In Time -- Despite some effort in the middle films to bring the saga into the twentieth century, the story seems stuck in time. The people of the village of Frankenstein had automobiles in Son of… In HoF, it is strictly horses, wagons and carriages. It's as if the saga just belonged to the 1800s.

Parallel Universe -- Just a year after HoF, Universal released House of Dracula (HoD) with a very similar formula. In some ways, HoD was weak sequel to HoF in that the monster is found in sand and mud in a cave, with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann. Yet, Dracula (again with John Carradine as "Baron Latos") and Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man: both alive as if the events in HoF had not happened. HoD is like HoF played out in a parallel universe.

Bottom line? HoF has all the hallmarks of a hackneyed sequel, but it took five sequels to get that way. It is the least compelling of the six, but still not a bad movie. The many subplots keep the pace moving. The visuals do a fair job of maintaining the stark and gloomy look of the earlier films. Fans of the first few films will feel at home in the last.

1 comment:

Maurice Mitchell said...

That's a trip. Sad to se how the mighty creature fatures had fallen. Ingenius plot devices though.