The cinematic showdown has been around since time immemorial. We’ve had Batman v Superman. Freddy vs Jason. Godzilla vs King Kong/Mothra/King Ghidorah/etc. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny…okay, not that one. But you get the idea. One badass fights another badass, with (hopefully) awesome results.
And then we have today’s film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It’s appropriate that this is the first Horror Is Universal article of the new year, because we’ve arrived at a landmark moment in the history of these movies. Not only is this the first instance of two monsters from the classic lineup interacting with each other, but it’s also an early example — probably the earliest example — of a cinematic universe.
Shared universes in fiction have been a thing for a long time. Some of the earliest instances in literature date back to the mid-19th century, when authors like Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy created fictional English towns and counties to serve as the settings for all their novels. The concept really started to take its modern form through comic books, where characters had their own individual series which often featured intersecting storylines.
These days, the shared universe has become the dominant form of storytelling in Hollywood. But back in 1943, it hadn’t been attempted yet. The art of combining fan favorites and making a web of narratives hadn’t been perfected the way it would eventually be. In a sense, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a test run.
And how does it fare as a test run? Not great, but the seeds of greatness are there.
The Plot: Four years after the events of The Wolf Man, the deceased Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is resurrected when a pair of graverobbers open his coffin, allowing the full moon to shine on his body. Horrified at how he seemingly cannot die, Larry flees civilization and goes in search of Maleva (Maria Oupenskaya), the Romani woman who helped him during the original film. Maleva thinks that the one person who can fulfill Larry’s death wish is a Dr. Frankenstein (unnamed but heavily implied to be Ludwig from The Ghost of Frankenstein). But when they reach the town where he lives, all they find is the burnt remnants of his sanitarium. Well, that’s not quite all they find. When Larry gets separated from Maleva during the full moon, he stumbles into an icy cavern and finds the frozen body of the Creature (Bela Lugosi), still alive. Larry frees the Creature so it can help him find Dr. Frankenstein’s journal, which he thinks will provide the answer for how to kill himself. They end up being joined in their search by Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa (Ilona Massey) and the curious Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles), who had been treating Larry prior to his escape. The unlikely alliance thinks that Dr. Frankenstein’s machines can be used to give Larry peace and neutralize the threat of the Creature. But if there’s anything we’ve learned so far, it’s that killing a monster is rarely as easy as it looks.
So, how did this all begin? What was the impetus for conducting this grand experiment?
Curt Siodmak wanted to buy a new car. No, really, that’s it.
Well, supposedly it began with George Waggner pitching the title of the film to Siodmak, who responded that he needed a writing job anyway because of the aforementioned new car. Allegedly he was then given two hours to agree to write the script. At first I misread that as “given two hours to write the script,” which would have been hilariously awful and explained a lot of things.
Waggner took on a producer role again, like he had with other Universal Horror films. The director for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was Roy William Neill, who directed a whopping 107 films over the course of his career. A number of those were Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, which were also Universal productions. Neill was also the original director of 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, which became an early success for Alfred Hitchcock. Though Neill’s career largely predated the film noir era, his meticulous use of shadows gives many of his films a proto-noir feel, something that we’ll see on display in this film.
The casting story for the film is rather interesting as well. Originally the studio planned to have Lon Chaney Jr. acting as both the Wolf Man and the Creature. This idea was scrapped because of the technical impossibilities, as the makeup required would have been too physically demanding for a single actor. Bela Lugosi was therefore brought in to play the Creature. Now you’re probably wondering if the casting of Lugosi was meant to indicate that this is the Igor-Creature we saw at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein. This was the idea, and Siodmak even wrote some dialogue for the character that confirmed it. But those scenes were cut before release, so in the final film, Lugosi’s casting is more symbolic than anything. The familiar faces of Ilona Massey, Lionel Atwill and Maria Oupenskaya round out the supporting cast. Patric Knowles played secondary roles throughout Hollywood for years, including Gwen Conliffe’s backup love interest in The Wolf Man (and, more interestingly, he was also an Air Force instructor during the war). We also get a cameo appearance from our old buddy Dwight Frye, one of his last film roles before his death in November 1943.
I’m not sure why this film is called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man when it really ought to be the other way around. It may bill itself as a crossover, and that is technically the case, but its main focus is being a Wolf Man sequel. The Creature doesn’t even enter the story until around the halfway point. And honestly, it’s better off that way. The sections focusing solely on Larry Talbot are when the film is at its strongest, without question.
You may recall how The Mummy’s Tomb did us all a grave insult by casting the talented Lon Chaney Jr. as a silent meat puppet. Well, I’m happy to let you know that this film more than rectifies than error. This is Talbot’s movie through and through, and the script gives Chaney Jr. an astonishing amount to work with. The first act of the film is a moody slow burn, with the mundane gradually giving way to the horrific. We get some strong imagery right off the bat with the creepy Talbot mausoleum, the full moon shining down on Larry’s coffin and his awakening once the moonlight touches his body. It feels reminiscent of Imhotep’s resurrection in The Mummy, though not quite as effective as that scare. After that, the action moves to Cardiff, where Larry is found unconscious in human form and taken to a hospital. This is where Chaney Jr really gets to show his acting skill. Larry doesn’t quite remember how he got to where he is now (which is probably for the best), but he does remember that he’s a killer with a dangerous curse, and he begs the skeptical Dr. Mannering to prevent him from killing again. And once the full moon comes up, we’re reminded that Larry is right to be afraid. The werewolf transformations themselves are more prominently displayed here than they were in Wolf Man, and while the makeup effects are still top-notch, it’s Chaney Jr’s acting that really makes them work. In the first transformation scene, the camera is focused on Larry’s face, and you can see his human fear giving in to a mindless bloodlust as the Wolf Man takes over. And this shot was a series of successive fades likely filmed over several hours! But I think the best part of this section of the film comes a little bit later, when Larry finally realizes that he’s come back from the dead. You might expect a big freak out over this revelation. Well, there’s certainly a freak out, but not an overt one. Instead we get to take in the quiet horror on Larry’s face as the full weight of his curse sinks in, as he repeatedly says to himself “I can’t die…”
Once Larry escapes from the hospital and goes on the run, he goes in search of Maleva, his mentor from the original film. Pairing these two characters together again is probably the wisest choice that this film makes. As soon as Maleva reappears, there’s an instant chemistry and camaraderie between her and Larry. With her own son dead and Larry having lost his father, they quickly start to become each other’s family. Maleva vows to care for Larry as she once did for Bela, and she’s the one who has the idea to go search for Dr. Frankenstein. You get the sense that these characters do genuinely love and care for one another, especially as they set out on their unconventional road trip. It’s sweet, which isn’t something you can often say about these films.
This is the best part of the movie, but unfortunately, it’s short-lived. At about the halfway point, Larry wolfs out and gets separated with Maleva, who is arrested by the suspicious townsfolk. While that’s happening, Larry stumbles into a frozen cave underneath the ruins of Ludwig Frankenstein’s hospital. That’s where he first meets the Creature, and that is the point where things start going wrong for the film.
By 1943, after four films, there wasn’t anything left for Universal to do with this version of the Creature. Ghost of Frankenstein gave the character a pretty definitive death, mentally as well as physically. By choosing to continue on from that film, even in a loose sense, the filmmakers are setting themselves up for failure here.
What I mean by that is, there’s no reason for the Creature in this movie to be the Creature. Larry could have found anything else in that cave, and the plot would be more or less the same. No trace of the character’s original personality remains. He and Larry don’t really interact outside of their big fight at the end: the Creature mostly just follows Larry around and occasionally shows him where to look for things. For a movie called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, there is surprisingly little interaction between the two eponymous characters. There’s no examination of their similarities and differences, no opportunities to bond on even a superficial level. Considering how little thought was put into the story, I know I shouldn’t have expected anything clever like that. But with the film having a pretty decent first act, not to mention obvious strong foundations to work from, I do wish the filmmakers had at least tried in this aspect.
But does the film fall apart completely after the halfway point? I would say no. I think it vacillates between being an okay Wolf Man sequel and an underwhelming Frankenstein sequel. In the former movie, Larry tries to evade the authorities (personified by Dr. Mannering) and deal with his own depression as he looks for a way to end his life. In the latter movie, the Creature causes havoc in his usual fashion as the other characters look for a way to destroy him. It’s essentially a Ghost of Frankenstein retread: you’ve got the risky scientific experiment meant to kill two birds with one stone, the mole within the group who screws everything up, the climactic battle inside Frankenstein’s facility as it collapses. Most of it isn’t done as well as it is in Ghost, and that film wasn’t especially good to begin with.
Meanwhile, Larry’s plotline suffers from a sense of stagnant character development. While the scenes we get with depressed suicidal Larry are pretty good, that’s the only note he has throughout the film. He wants to kill himself, and that goal never changes or gets challenged at any point. The script gives him a few opportunities to be conflicted: Maleva getting captured by the villagers sets up a potential rescue situation where he might use his curse to help someone, and we get hints of a possible romance between him and Elsa Frankenstein. But Maleva gets pushed off into the background, while Elsa is handed off to Dr. Mannering.
I think the fundamental problem with the film lies in the fact that the two plotlines don’t really come together in a satisfying way. They coexist, yes, but it also feels like Larry’s story in this film could exist without the Creature’s story and vice versa. The characters barely interact or influence each other until the very end, when it’s time for the requisite monster battle.
So here’s how it all goes down. Mannering studies Dr. Frankenstein’s notes and learns about a procedure that could kill Larry and the Creature at the same time. Everyone gets set up for the procedure, but when it’s time to actually flip the switch, Mannering has a change of priorities. Turns out the curse of the Frankensteins isn’t restricted to just family members, because Mannering’s desire to see the full power of the Creature overrules his common sense. He restores full power to the Creature, which promptly escapes from its shackles and threatens Elsa. Luckily (or perhaps stupidly), this experiment coincides with the night of a full moon. So Larry wolfs out, attacks the Creature and we get the big fight that we’ve all been waiting for.
And to be honest, I do actually enjoy this fight scene. It has a roughness and intensity that you don’t tend to see in a lot of older films. This may stem from the fact that the fight was largely improvised by the two stuntmen who performed it, Gil Perkins and Eddie Parker. Apparently the director gave them a few basic guidelines — where to start the fight, where to finish and the general tone he wanted — but most of the control was given to the performers themselves. I think that’s pretty cool, and it makes for a more interesting confrontation. The special effects in this scene are great as well, particularly when the dam overlooking the ruins of Frankenstein’s lab blows up and the deluge from the river comes pouring down into the set. It’s an awesome visual.
But does the ending make up for how underwhelming most of the film was up to that point? Eh…sort of? I do wish the film had done more with its lead characters and the interactions (or lack thereof) between them. But at the same time, I’m not sure how much I can fault this film for doing what a lot of “X versus Y” movies traditionally do. The battle itself is the selling point, that’s where the majority of the effort goes and the rest is essentially background noise. And in the almost 70 years since this film’s release, has that really changed?
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a mixed bag. The first act of the film is strong storytelling, and it’s great to see Lon Chaney Jr giving another fantastic performance as Larry Talbot. But the movie starts to fall apart with its awkward reintroduction of Frankenstein’s Creature, who barely interacts with Larry and contributes little to the overall story. Curt Siodmak’s script has strong moments, but it never quite reconciles the two ongoing plotlines with each other. Potentially interesting ideas are ignored and dropped as the film rushes toward its climactic fight scene (which is admittedly impressive). Though this is far from being a classic, I still found it watchable. The acting is mostly strong, as is Roy William Neill’s direction, and some wonderful Gothic visuals are sprinkled throughout the film. I think it does what it set out to do, which is stage an interesting fight scene between two recognizable characters. I just wish it had showed a little more ambition than that. But for a movie that is essentially the first of its kind, as well as the first attempt at setting up a shared cinematic universe, it’s not a bad effort.
Next month is Valentine’s Day, which makes the next film in our series an appropriate one. We’ll be briefly stepping away from our Canonical Six, but I think the detour will be worth it. Who’s up for some Phantastic thrills?