Monday, October 3, 2016

Film Review: House of Frankenstein

"House of Frankenstein"  ** (out of ****)

The lights are on but you'd wish no one was home in the Universal Pictures monster movie "House of Frankenstein" (1944).

"House of Frankenstein" was the sixth film in the Frankenstein franchise and an immediate sequel to "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943), which was a sequel to the "Wolf Man" (1941) as well. But, it is hard to say why the movie was made in the first place.

Serious movie lovers often question the existence of sequels. They are rarely better or as good as originals because by their very nature they are retreads of original stories and offer nothing new, usually repeating scenarios. And, on a more cynical note, sequels are often viewed as nothing more then the result of greedy producers and film studios that want to cash in on a popular product and squeeze as much money out of it as they can.

After "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) I firmly believe there was no reason to continue making Frankenstein movies. In fact one could argue there really wasn't any need for any of the sequels. The first "Frankenstein" (1931) told a complete story. Everything felt resolved. To continue to make Frankenstein movies would surely be for the exclusive purpose of cashing in. Universal Pictures would even downgrade these horror movies to their "B" division after "Son of Frankenstein". If Universal lost interest in these movies, why did they think the public would want to see them? I believe by continuing to make these movies they actually hurt the franchise. If you are going to make movies this bad, don't even bother.

Although I didn't recommend it, "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" seems to have been the last somewhat effective movie in the classic Universal horror collection, mostly due in part to the screenwriter taking the story serious and providing the viewer with a strong background of events. This is the ultimate reason why "House of Frankenstein" fails as miserably as it does. No one took the time to tell an effective story. Everything was built on sensationalism. Oh look! We have all the monsters together! There's Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Monster (Glenn Strange, playing the character for the first time) and there is even a part for the man who first played the Monster, Boris Karloff, who walked away from the character after playing it for a third time in "Son of Frankenstein".

The bible tells us the love of money is the root of evil, it is also the root of all bad movies. This time around we meet another mad scientist, Dr. Niemann (Karloff) who has been in prison for 15 years, which is approximately how much time as passed since the events of "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man", which is directly mentioned. One day, during a terrible thunderstorm, Dr. Niemann and another prisoner, a hunchback named Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) escape when lightening strikes the prison. The two men murder a traveling showman with a freak show, who claims to have the skeletal remains of Count Dracula. Dr. Niemann has two agendas, he would like revenge on those who put him in prison and he would like to continue the work of Dr. Frankenstein, by traveling to his home and finding his notes.

Along the way Dr. Niemann and Daniel discover the Wolf Man and Frankenstein frozen in the basement of the Frankenstein mansion. The doctor thaws them out and promises to help cure the Wolf Man by taking his brain and putting it in another man. Meanwhile, he will take the Monster's brain and put it in the Wolf Man, without him knowing. There is also an attempted romantic subplot involving Daniel falling in love with a gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo) a la the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The movie runs approximately 73 minutes. The doctor doesn't meet the Wolf Man and Frankenstein until roughly 40 minutes into the movie. The first 40 minutes has Dr. Niemann use Dracula to kill the man responsible for his imprisonment, Hussman (Sig Ruman). It is a waste of time as Dracula is never seen again and never meets the Wolf Man or Frankenstein. Not to mention Mr. Carradine is terrible in the role of Dracula. Not simply because he is not Bela Lugosi but because he lacks a suave demeanor and is not scary, striking fear in us. Mr. Carradine is almost playing the part for laughs. Plus, because of the budget, his transformation into a bat is equally laughable. However, I am happy to say the Wolf Man's transformation is much better, despite a noticeable error (once we see the final transformation of the Wolf Man you will notice his hands do not have fur on them, yet in the next scene they do).

The Frankenstein Monster is sadly not developed at all, as would be the case in all subsequent Frankenstein movies starting with "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). The character is merely used as a figure of power, adding nothing new to the character's development.

If "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" did anything right, it gave Larry Talbot (Wolf Man) a full background story and took the time to tell it. Mr. Chaney gave a strong performance in that movie and in my opinion carries the movie. In "House of Frankenstein" Talbot is simply an after thought. Some my argue, what more could you possibly say about these characters. My feelings exactly. Why make more movies if you have nothing to add!

And what about the horror? What in "House of Frankenstein" is suppose to scare us? I don't mean because of the age of the movie it is dated and the horror doesn't translate, I mean nothing in this movie attempts to be scary. The movie doesn't create atmosphere. The most original thing it does is show the shadow of Dracula as it kills someone. But there is no suspense created. No feeling of dread. The musical score doesn't give us those high notes we expect in horror films. Nothing is done to scare the audience.

Finally there is the question of the ending. It ends too abruptly. Nothing feels resolved. I felt the same way after watching "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man". Was this done to keep thing ambiguous so another movie could be made?

The script was written by Edward T. Lowe, who wrote the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) with Lon Chaney, "The Vampire Bat" (1933), which also had a character named Dr. Niemann and another monster get-together bash "House of Dracula" (1945). The director was Erle C. Kenton, who interesting enough had a career directing comedies and horror movies. He directed a few Abbott & Costello comedies as well as "House of Dracula", "The Ghost of Frankenstein" and "Island of Lost Souls" (1932).

I suppose there was some potential for "House of Frankenstein" but that would have required better production values, a better cinematographer, interesting use of lighting, a better musical score, better actors (Carradine has to go) and a better script. The basic idea on paper may have sound interesting but the concept wasn't fully developed. Instead what we are left with is a dismal horror film which never should have been made in the first place.