Craig J. Clark — Jan. 26th 2013
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the earliest known werewolf film, a silent short from 1913 called (creatively enough) The Werewolf, about a Navajo woman who uses her ability to transform into a wolf against the white settlers encroaching upon her people’s lands. Unfortunately, this 18-minute film is considered lost, and little is known about its successor, a French silent feature from 1923 called Le loup-garou. At least 2013 can definitively lay claim to being the 70th anniversary of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which was released on March 5, 1943, and plays to a certain degree like the world’s first example of fanfiction (albeit one perpetrated by Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak).
With its Frankenstein series winding down and the Wolf Man as its new breakout character, Universal decided to combine the two into a film that is more Wolf Man than Frankenstein’s Monster and give it to Roy William Neill (who had just taken over its Sherlock Holmes series) to direct. For starters, the story picks up four years after the events of The Wolf Man, with the cursed Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) being revived when his crypt is disturbed by grave robbers. After reverting back to human form far from home, he’s taken to a hospital where his head wound is treated by kindly doctor Patric Knowles (who had previously played Chaney’s romantic rival in The Wolf Man), who knows nothing of his history or his ability to change out of his hospital pajamas and into his Wolf Man get-up (and back again) when the moon is full.
While Knowles is investigating his puzzling new patient’s identity, Chaney escapes from the hospital and seeks out the old gypsy woman from the first movie (Maria Ouspenskaya) and together they search for Dr. Frankenstein, who is said to hold the secrets of life and death. When they reach the town where he lived, though, they are rebuffed by the townspeople and Chaney is chased by a mob after he transforms under the full moon. Eventually Chaney stumbles upon the monster (now played by Bela Lugosi, a full twelve years after he initially refused the role) frozen in a block of ice in the ruins under Frankenstein’s castle, which makes no sense in light of the ending of 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein (the previous film in that series), but I’m guessing Siodmak wasn’t too concerned about continuity. That also carries over to the casting of Ilona Massey as Elsa Frankenstein, who has a completely different accent than her predecessor did, and the location of the castle at the bottom of a ravine overlooked by a previously unseen dam. (No points for guessing how the castle ends up getting destroyed.)
Eventually Knowles tracks Chaney down and he, Massey and Ouspenskaya team up (with the apparent blessing of town mayor Lionel Atwill) to try to help him end his cursed existence and rid the world of the monster at the same time, but Knowles changes his mind at the last minute and recharges the creature instead, touching off the monster battle royale the audience has been waiting for since the start of the picture. Audiences must have liked what they saw, too, because they were immediately scheduled for a rematch the following year in House of Frankenstein, which introduces a brand new mad scientist played by Boris Karloff, who claims to be the brother of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant and who is obsessed with the idea of transplanting the brain of a man into the body of a dog (and probably vice versa). Locked up for 15 years for his crimes against man and canine, Karloff escapes from prison thanks to a freak thunderstorm and, with the aid of soulful hunchback J. Carrol Naish, who wants Karloff to give him a new body, sets about getting revenge on those who put him away.
Soon after their escape they come by a traveling Chamber of Horrors that houses the skeletal remains of Dracula, who is embodied by John Carradine when the stake is removed from his chest, but he barely merits a walk-on. Karloff then moves on to the village of Frankenstein, where he hopes to find the doctor’s records and where Naish falls head over hump in love with gypsy girl Elena Verdugo, who finds it hard to see past his physical deformity. In the meantime, Karloff thaws out Talbot and the monster (Glenn Strange) when he finds them frozen in the glacial ice cavern beneath Castle Frankenstein’s ruins. (Doesn’t every castle have one?) When first seen Talbot is the Wolf Man, but upon thawing out there is a too-quick dissolve to his human form, whereupon he agrees to help Karloff in exchange for a brain transplant that will rid him of his curse. How this is actually supposed to work is never adequately explained, but it turns out Karloff has lots of brain transplants in mind once they reach their final destination of Visaria, where his laboratory is still standing.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton, who previously helmed The Ghost of Frankenstein, and based on a story by Curt Siodmak, House of Frankenstein may be a little overstocked in the monster department, especially as it represents the convergence of three disparate series, but it’s kind of disappointing that we never see all of them active at the same time. That said, I did like some of the details that went into the Wolf Man’s subplot, like the way he thoughtfully removes his shoes and socks before transforming. (No reason to ruin good footwear.) This is also the first film in history where a lycanthrope is felled by a silver bullet, so that’s one more trope for the pile. It may have taken a few entries, but Universal’s monster series eventually established all the rules that future werewolf films would abide by (or subvert, as the case may be).
Next Up: A visit to Dracula’s pad, plus a meeting of monsters and comedians.