Monday, August 26, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

Plenty of the later Universal horror movies pack in the monsters, but House of Frankenstein (1944) really outdoes the rest by jamming a whole madhouse of familiar players into its many roles, not only as the headlining creatures but also as supporting characters. The story is so convoluted and episodic that it’s certainly not the chief attraction, but classic horror fans who know their stars will find the parade of performers entertaining in its own way, and Boris Karloff gets a particularly fun role as the devious and obsessive mad doctor whose adventures string together the appearances of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, House of Frankenstein is by no means the best of the Universal horrors, but taken scene by scene and monster by monster it does provide some unique twists on the usual situations.

Karloff plays aspiring Frankenstein successor Dr. Niemann, who escapes from prison along with his hunchbacked assistant, Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). They hitch a ride from a traveling horror show and then murder its owner, Lampini (George Zucco), so that Niemann can assume his identity. Posing as the showman, Niemann resurrects Count Dracula (John Carradine) as an accomplice in his extensive revenge plot against the men who sent him to prison, but the vampire promptly becomes distracted by attractive female prey (Anne Gwynne). Later, in the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle, Niemann finds the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s creature (Glenn Strange) frozen in ice and revives both of them, but he finds werewolf Larry Talbot harder to control than the other monsters. Daniel, meanwhile, becomes enamored of a pretty gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo) and grows jealous of her attention to Talbot.

While Karloff had originally gained fame playing the lumbering monster, he shows in this film that he can just as easily assume the role of the creator, and his Niemann is a fine example of the wild-eyed devotee of transgressive science. There are references to an earlier experiment in which Niemann transplanted a human brain into a dog, so from the start we know that he might actually be crazier than the original Frankenstein or any of his ill-fated heirs. More importantly, Niemann lies to and takes advantage of the dangerous supernatural beings he encounters; this is a man mad enough to play Dracula for a dupe and plot to make a science experiment out of the Wolf Man’s body and brain. He really only cares about Frankenstein’s creature; the rest of the monsters are just convenient means to his nefarious ends. Inevitably, Niemann’s duplicity catches up with him, but it’s ironically the lowly hunchback, tired of being played for a sucker, who raises the hand of vengeance against the scheming doctor.

The rest of the cast keep things interesting in spite of the disjointed plot. John Carradine has a brief but effective run as Count Dracula; his lean physique prefigures that of Christopher Lee even as he retains the aristocratic manners of Lugosi. Lon Chaney, Jr. makes his usual contribution as doomed Larry Talbot, this time with the added interest of a tragic love affair with the spirited gypsy girl. His role as part of a romantic triangle with the girl and the hunchback puts him into the odd position of playing Captain Phoebus in their version of the Victor Hugo tale, although Larry really does seem to return the gypsy’s affection. J. Carrol Naish proves one of the most inspired additions to the collection with his pathetic, jealous Daniel, who commits most of the murders in the film and yet still commands a degree of sympathy from the audience for his unrequited love. The victims and supporting characters are played by a who’s who of favorite actors, including George Zucco, Sig Ruman, Lionel Atwill, Frank Reicher, and Glenn Strange under all the makeup taking Karloff’s place as the creature.

Like most of the Universal monster pictures, House of Frankenstein kills off all of the creatures by the final scene, but House of Dracula (1945) brings them back to life for another round. For a different sort of horror from director Erle C. Kenton, try Island of Lost Souls (1932). Look for the many faces of Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932), the Mr. Wong series, and Bedlam (1946). Lon Chaney, Jr. plays the Wolf Man in several Universal films, beginning with The Wolf Man (1941). Versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish turns up in more than 200 film and television roles, but he earned Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor in Sahara (1943) and A Medal for Benny (1945). He’s hard to recognize under the makeup and feathers, but you’ll also find him playing Chief Sitting Bull in Annie Get Your Gun (1950).