Horror Is Universal: “House of Frankenstein” (1944)

If Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the Batman v Superman of this cinematic universe, then House of Frankenstein is its Justice League or The Avengers. Assuming, of course, that those movies had the members of the crossover turn up one at a time, never interact and made sure to kill off each character before having a new one show up.

Good lord, this movie is dreadful.

The Plot: On a dark and stormy night, the mad scientist Dr. Nieman (Boris Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) escape from prison. They manage to evade the authorities by hitching a ride with, and then violently commandeering, a traveling exhibition known as “Dr. Lampini’s Chamber of Horrors.” Nieman (who was apparently locked up for trying to put a human brain in a dog’s body) is determined to return to his former hometown, not only to reclaim his lab and resume his experiments but to enact revenge on those who exposed his crimes. He also wants to find the lost notebook of Dr. Frankenstein, of whom he is a fervent devotee. What follows is an odyssey in which Nieman and Daniel cross paths with several of the classic Universal monsters: they accidentally resurrect Count Dracula (John Carradine), form an alliance with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) and restore life to Frankenstein’s Creature (Glenn Strange). Along the way, Daniel’s desire to be normal gets stronger when he falls in love with a Romani girl named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), only to realize that she is more interested in Talbot. Dr. Neiman claims that he has a plan to cure both Daniel and Talbot, but not until he gets his own revenge. Will the mad doctor’s manipulation and unkept promises push Daniel past his breaking point?

In all but the worst examples of Universal Horror, one thing I feel confident saying is that the films we look at are fueled in some part by passion and enthusiasm, even if it’s in small measure. I don’t think you can say that about House of Frankenstein. Like The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Ghost, this feels like another instance where nobody in front of the camera or behind it gave a shit. In fact, I have primary evidence to support the assertion that no one gave a shit. Curt Siodmak, who wrote the story, later said that “The idea was to put all the horror characters into one picture…I didn’t write the script. I never saw the picture.” If that’s not a damning statement, I don’t know what is. Boris Karloff was reportedly not pleased with his role in the film. Another actor, Anne Gwynne, asked to be released from her contract with Universal after doing this movie. Clearly no one had any pretensions of making another classic.

Talk about Universal doing a monster crossover first began in 1943 with the announcement of a film called Chamber of Horrors. The cast list was a stunning lineup of talent: Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and George Zucco, among others. There would also be quite a few monsters. The Invisible Man, the Mummy, and the eponymous character of Universal’s 1943 film The Mad Ghoul were all set to make appearances, presumably in addition to the Big Three of Dracula, the Creature and Wolf Man. Unfortunately, Chamber of Horrors eventually evolved into House of Frankenstein. Officially the project was shelved and House is a different attempt at making a crossover. But since the traveling exhibition which figures so prominently in House‘s plot is called the Chamber of Horrors, I’m guessing that there is some connection between the two films. Or maybe it’s just an in-joke, I don’t know.

Erle C. Kenton, who directed The Ghost of Frankenstein, returned to take charge of this installment. The screenwriter was Edward T. Lowe, who did have some previous experience with horror films: he wrote Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as a 1933 non-Universal film called The Vampire Bat. Out of the impressive cast list boasted by Chamber of Horrors, only a few names have survived. We do have Karloff and Chaney Jr, the former making his first major Universal Horror appearance since 1939. Other familiar faces are John Carradine, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill, the latter two having only cameos. Now who are our new cast members? J. Carrol Naish had over 200 film credits over the course of his career and was a Golden Globe winner as well as a two-time Oscar nominee. Elena Verdugo did several films but had more success as a TV actress in the 60s and 70s. Glenn Strange is also worth noting as the fourth actor to play Frankenstein’s Creature, as well as the last actor to play him during the Classic Era of Universal Horror. Discovered by Jack Pierce while doing another project, Strange was coached in the role by Karloff himself. It’s a pity he has such little screen time, but we’ll get to that.

How do I even describe this? Okay. If you are a younger person like me, then you may remember how back in the 90s and 2000s (mainly the latter), Disney would make these direct-to-video movie sequels that were just recycled episodes of failed television projects. The structure was simple: three unconnected stories tied together with a loose narrative or framing device. Why do I bring this up? Because that is what House of Frankenstein kind of feels like. While there is technically a single ongoing narrative, that narrative is divided into strict sections which are basically three stories shoved together. Well, two stories and a brief Frankenstein vignette.

It takes a while for the viewer to truly realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. The first 20-ish minutes of this film are not good by any means, but they do appear to be setting up the type of film that you have been promised. Nieman and Daniel break out of prison (through barely any effort of their own, I might add), happen to run across the traveling horror exhibition and kill all the workers so they can take the wagon for themselves. The goal of returning to Nieman’s lab and finding Frankenstein’s notebook is firmly established. “Right,” you think, “so they’re going to go on this journey and pick up monsters along the way and add them to the exhibition.” That’s a reasonable assumption to make: the exhibition is a fun way to tie all the characters together, and Dracula is already there — or rather, the remains of him are. The big centerpiece of the Chamber of Horrors is a coffin holding what is allegedly Dracula’s skeleton, complete with a stake through the ribs. Should the stake ever be pulled out, Nieman claims to his audience, the vampire would return to life.

The resurrection of Dracula is where we start running into real problems. First off, Nieman just rips the stake out of the skeleton for no good reason. Karloff plays the moment as though Nieman himself isn’t aware of why he does it, or that he does it at all. While he’s alone after the show, he just sort of casually pulls out the stake and starts to walk away. Then there’s a beat where he stops and looks down at the stake as though suddenly realizing that it’s in his hands, then he turns around to see Dracula’s body rematerializing around his bones.

Is this Dracula the original or the one from Son? It’s not clear. What is clear is that he’s a total wimp. Within a minute or so of coming back to life, he is getting bullied by Nieman and sent out to attack Nieman’s enemies for him. The next 10 to 15 minutes of the film is basically a speedrun of a Dracula movie. Dracula runs into a pair of awful sitcom newlyweds, seduces the wife in thirty seconds, turns into a bat and kills a guy before going back to kidnap the wife. This is not completely devoid of merit: Carradine makes an okay Dracula despite having little to work with, and his bat transformation is done in shadow as a neat little animation.

But alas, all good things — though “good” is a strong word here — must come to an end. Eventually Dracula ends up in a three-way carriage chase, with himself and his victim in one coach, the pursuing authorities in another coach and Nieman in front with his wagon. And the whole time I was thinking “How is the movie going to get Dracula out of this?”

It doesn’t. He crashes, he gets roasted by the sunrise and goes back to being a skeleton. And then no one ever mentions this section of the movie again. Moving on.

So what almost certainly happened here is that Universal executives wanted another monster team-up movie after Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but they didn’t really care how the creative team got it done, or what they did with the characters after introducing them. As long as a bunch of monsters were technically in the same film, names could be slapped on a poster to entice audiences. And because the creative team was also not invested in this concept, they were also content to do the bare minimum required. The result is not really a crossover movie and more like a series of episodes, hence my direct-to-video Disney comparison earlier. Each monster gets their own little mini-movie, essentially. And they are punishing to watch.

After Dracula is forgotten, the film moves on to basically being a remake of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, minus the Frankenstein. Nieman and Daniel travel to the destroyed laboratory from that film in search of Henry Frankenstein’s notebook, just like last time. And also just like last time, they discover the bodies of Larry Talbot and the Creature trapped in the ice caves under the lab. But the Creature can’t be fully revived and remains comatose, so the focus for the next half of the film is solely on Larry. And let me tell you, not even Lon Chaney Jr can do much with the awful dialogue that he’s given here. Larry just shows up, briefly explains who he is and what the last movie was about and then spends the rest of his screentime moping. The character is not interesting or charismatic at all here. He mostly just comes off as obnoxious. And that’s a problem, because the resolution of the Wolf Man plot in this movie relies on Ilonka falling in love with Larry and you don’t buy that infatuation at all.

I need to talk a bit more about Ilonka, so let me backtrack here. I mentioned that the screenwriter of this movie also wrote Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though I decided not to include that film in this series, it does usually get folded into the Universal Horror canon. And House of Frankenstein does adapt Hunchback to a great extent. In fact, I would argue that it devotes more time to being a Hunchback adaptation than it does to any of the other monsters. Daniel is introduced as a stand-in for Fritz or Igor, but his actual story is more like Quasimodo’s: manipulated by his “master,” becoming obsessed with a Romani girl and ultimately losing her to another man. Ilonka is just here to perform the Esmeralda role in this pantomime, and the film is pretty blatant about that. There is zero reason given for her to tag along with Daniel and Nieman in the first place: they basically kidnap her, and she shows no anger or angst about it. The only facet of her character is her romantic interest in the men around her. It’s awful, lazy writing.

Meanwhile, this movie is still not done being baffling garbage. We’re still in full Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man mode, with the characters refurbishing Nieman’s old laboratory and prepping for a magical operation that’s supposed to fix everyone’s problems all at once. Daniel wants to not be deformed, Larry wants to not be alive and the Creature is still out cold. But here is where things start to get even more messy. Nieman kidnaps two of the people who helped get him arrested, and he says he’s going to…take one guy’s brain and give it to Larry, and then give Larry’s brain to the first guy so he’ll be a werewolf? And then swap out the second guy’s brain with the Creature’s brain so the second guy will just…be stupid? This is only here because we need a trigger for the angry villagers to come after Nieman in the end, but it’s done in such a convoluted way. And then Nieman never mentions them again after he takes their brains out, rendering this whole scene pointless.

Meanwhile, Daniel tries to convince Ilonka to abandon Larry by telling her that Larry is a werewolf. The film does this by badly reciting Curt Siodmak’s Wolf Man poem and then pointing at a hexagon and telling me it’s a pentagram. It’s exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. Because Ilonka has no personality to speak of, she is horrified at this for about two minutes and then doesn’t seem fazed by it. Larry is fed up with waiting around for Dr. Nieman to kill him, so he asks Ilonka to do it. They spout off some new exposition about how apparently a werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet fired by someone who loves them, and then — just so this movie can prove that it thinks you’re an idiot — they play the exposition lines again not even half a minute later as Ilonka forges the silver bullet.

Ilonka then tries to shoot Larry before he transforms but can’t bring herself to do it in time. One thing I will give this movie is that the transformation effects and Wolf Man makeup still look decent, even if they’re only onscreen for a short time. We need to start wrapping the movie up, so Larry wolfs out just long enough to fatally wound Ilonka and then get shot by her. They both die, and that’s the end of this movie’s Wolf Man storyline. Larry will be back next time because his life sucks.

With only a few minutes to spare, the movie rushes to its half-formed conclusion. Nieman resurrects the Creature, but then Daniel (who is distraught over Ilonka’s death) seemingly kills Nieman before getting killed by the Creature. But wait! Nieman is not quite dead yet! He lives just long enough to get picked up by the Creature and dragged away from the angry mob that is suddenly here. And then, because the movie can’t think of a better method to kill these characters off, Nieman and the Creature fall into a random pit of quicksand and die. The End.

I know that I just fell into the trap of merely summarizing this movie rather than truly analyzing it. But I’m struggling for analytical things to say about House of Frankenstein. There’s little you can do besides point out the glaring flaws. It’s not as bad as something like The Mummy’s Tomb because things do happen in this film (even if all the plot points are wholly lifted from other Universal Horror films). But the lack of effort on all fronts — writing, directing, acting, etc. — is just astounding. The narrative is threadbare. The dialogue is hopelessly wooden. The characters are one-dimensional figures who change their behavior and motivates to suit the needs of the plot. It’s just an awful mess where you can’t quite tell what is genuine incompetence and what is just apathy. When you reach the end of the film, you can’t shake the feeling that nothing you just saw truly mattered. And that is perhaps the worst emotion that the ending of any story can evoke in you. Unintentionally, anyway.

House of Frankenstein is a bitter disappointment of a film. Promising an ensemble cast and the meeting of Universal’s classic horror characters, it gives the audience neither of those things. The filmmakers don’t really know what to do with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature and the Wolf Man, so each one is reduced to playing out their past storylines individually. The connecting tissue of Dr. Nieman and Daniel’s story also fails to be compelling. Any moments of entertainment is due to the actor’s charisma and not the work of the script, which doesn’t do anyone any favors. Some of the special effects and stuntwork look pretty good, especially the Wolf Man makeup and a one-shot effect of the characters falling from some laboratory ruins into the ice cave below. But good effects cannot save bad writing, and House of Frankenstein ultimately collapses under the weight of its own bad decisions. There is a difference between having great ambitions and failing miserably and not even trying to make something worthwhile. This is an example of the latter. It is the kind of movie that you consume once out of curiosity for the gimmick, and it doesn’t even do the gimmick that it promises. So what’s the point?

Final Rating

Rating: 1 out of 5.

It’s starting to feel like it’s been 1944 forever. And unfortunately, we have one more movie from that year to get through…

UP NEXT: The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

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