Saturday, October 1, 2016

Film Review: Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man

"Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's a monster mash in the Universal horror film "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943).

You wouldn't think a movie called "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" could possibly be a good movie. The title sounds like the punchline to a bad joke. My own memories played tricks on me. I have seen this movie three times in my life. The first time was as a young boy with my father. It scared me greatly (I didn't like horror movies as a child and scared easily). The second time I saw it was a few years ago. I wasn't scared by the movie but I remember having the impression I found it all rather boring. Watching the movie again I don't find it boring or scary yet I'm reluctant to criticize the movie too harshly.

"Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is unique in the cannon of horror films released by Universal Pictures. This is the first time the studio took two of its great monster characters and featured them in the same movie. It would become a formula Universal would continue to use, later adding Dracula to the mix.

The movie was released two years after the original "Wolf Man" (1941) was made and works primarily as a sequel to that film with Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his role as Larry Talbot, a man who was bitten by a werewolf and now whenever the moon is full transforms into a beast himself. We discover fours years have passed since the first movie and Talbot has died. The movie begins with grave robbers sneaking into a cemetery to steal from Talbot's grave. Legend has it Talbot was buried with money and wears a gold ring. However, when the grave robbers open Talbot's casket, he is awaken, since the moon is full and kills one of the men. Talbot escapes the cemetery and is found sleeping on the street, bleeding.

Taken to a hospital Talbot ends up in the care of Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Talbot prevails upon the doctor to call the police and confesses to killing a man, revealing to the doctor that he is in fact a werewolf. The doctor however believes Talbot to be a mental patient. Feeling misunderstood and isolated, Talbot escapes the hospital to look for a old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya), whose son was a werewolf and bite Talbot. He believes she will have answers for him and can inform him how he can kill himself, so he may know peace through death. Unfortunately the woman is not able to help him but insist she knows a doctor who can and together they travel.

The doctor the woman had in mind was Dr. Frankenstein, whom it is discovered has died along with a monster he created. Discouraged Talbot decides he must find Dr. Frankenstein's notes, so he may find out Dr. Frankenstein's secrets of life and death. In doing so Talbot finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi) and meets Dr. Frankenstein's granddaughter, Elsa (the beautiful Hungarian actress Ilona Massey).

By the time "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" was made Universal lost interest in its horror movies. As a result these movies were downgraded to "B" movies and made on "B" movie production values. Sadly it shows, though again, it is not entirely bad. The original "Frankenstein" (1931) was visually inspired by German Expressionism and the original "Wolf Man" had hints of film noir. "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) had a Gothic, minimalist design. "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" lacks any inspirational production design. The movie doesn't even do much to create atmosphere. At RKO producer Val Lewton was also making "B" horror movies but those movies dripped with atmosphere, since they didn't have a budget for special effects, and so they would play around with lighting and shadows, different camera angles. "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is a "dark" movie and every scene looks the same, nothing visually is done to create suspense or horror.

There are some good moments though like when the grave robbers discover Talbot is still alive. After the robbers remove some wolfsbane buried with Talbot, he comes to life and we see his hand reach out and grab one of the robber's arm. The viewer knows the fate of the man as the robber pleads to his friend to help him.

I also like a sequence with the villagers celebrating a wine festival as we see a group of musicians and a singer (Adia Kuznetzoff, whom Laurel & Hardy fans will remember from "Swiss Miss" (1938) where he played a mean chef) perform an old folk song about life and death, which upsets Talbot and is when Elsa discovers what is wrong with him.

And finally the transformation sequences with Talbot turning into the wolf are very well done. It is still effective all these years later. Just as good as in the original movie.

Still there are too many things the movie does wrong to fully recommend it even though I have a slight fondness for it. The most obvious complaint would be the delayed confrontation between Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. In its current form the movie runs 73 minutes. Frankenstein does not battle the Wolf Man until the final few minutes of the movie. Additionally the movie ends a bit abruptly for my taste and I feel there is no resolution for many of the characters.

Some characters are poorly defined or not defined at all. Ms. Massey for example is not given much to work with. She is not seen until approximately 40 minutes into the movie and even then her dialogue and involvement is limited. Her only purpose in the movie it would seem is to look pretty, which I can report she accomplishes. The Dr. Mannering character starts off nicely and late into the movie, after reading Dr. Frankenstein's notes, quickly becomes a "mad doctor" himself and wants to restore the Monster to its full strength. Why? Where did this desire come from? Nothing proceeding this event led to Dr. Mannering slowly becoming invested in Dr. Frankenstein's work. It is merely a quick line of dialogue and poof, he has gone mad.

Of all the characters it is Talbot that is the best defined and the most relatable. The appeal of the movie lies on Mr. Chaney's shoulders. As in the "Wolf Man" Mr. Chaney captures the essence of a man struggling with his fate. It is what makes the Wolf Man the most interesting of all the Universal monsters. Talbot was an innocent man that through a great misfortune evil was thrust upon him. Dracula is the undead. Frankenstein a creation. But Talbot isn't an evil vampire or murderous creation. The character speaks to the duality of man; sinner and saint. The good and evil in us all. I believe Mr. Chaney's performance this time around carries a greater sense of sadness than in the original movie.

The movie's screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak, who also wrote the original "Wolf Man" as well as the classic Val Lewton horror film, "I Walked With  A Zombie" (1943). Much of his career was spent working in the horror genre. Roy William Neill became the fourth director brought into the Frankenstein franchise and spent a good portion of his career directing Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone, who starred in "Son of Frankenstein".

Of all the later monster movies released by Universal, it seems "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" may have been the last effective and best looking one. I consider it superior to "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942) which preceded it as well of "House of Frankenstein" (1944) which proceeded it.

Some tidbits about "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is Bela Lugosi was first considered the play the role of Frankenstein's Monster in the original film but turned the part down since the character did not speak. Eventually Lugosi would play Dracula, a character he played on stage but was not the first choice for the movie role. This time around the Monster was supposed to speak, as he had done in prior movies, however, all of the character's dialogue was removed after shooting. At one point Mr. Chaney was considered to play both the Wolf Man and the Monster but because of the demands of make-up, the idea was scrapped. It has been said because of this movie we first see the Monster walk with his arms stretched out in front of him, in what has become known as "the Frankenstein walk". This was due to the Monster being blind, a result of an operation in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" but since all of the Monster's lines were removed from this movie, the audience doesn't know that, hence why his walk may not make sense to some. Finally you will see actors from other Frankenstein movies appear here. Dwight Frye has a small role as a villager. He was Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, Fritz, in the original movie. Also, Lionel Atwill plays the part of Mayor of the village. He was in "Son of Frankenstein" and "The Ghost of Frankenstein". And Patric Knowles was in "The Wolf Man".

"Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" is a half decent horror film which has some elements of the great horror films made at Universal. Don't think this is a campy film because of its title. Everything is played as serious as it can be with Lon Chaney Jr. coming out looking the best. Worth watching if you are familiar with the Universal monster movies otherwise I'd recommend only watching the original "Frankenstein" and "Wolf Man" and skip this one entirely. You can also see the influence this concept had on comic book movies made today like "Batman v Superman" (2016) and the creation of a Marvel Universe.