Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine / Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Onslow Stevens
Having discovered that two monsters made for good box office with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Universal Pictures reasoned that movies featuring every monster—and quasi-monster—they could stuff in would do better still. The resulting films—known to fans as “monster rallies”—managed to incorporate the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), Dracula (John Carradine), the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), along with a mad doctor (Karloff in the first, Onslow Stevens in the second) and a hunchback (J. Carroll Naish in the first, Jane Adams in the second). They’d originally planned to toss in the Mummy, too, but abandoned that notion, which was probably just as well. The two films, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), were, if nothing else, an improvement on Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In fact, House of Dracula—the final serious entry in the classic Universal horrors—was actually one of the studio’s more interesting 1940s efforts. House of Frankenstein has the advantage of having Boris Karloff, but the downside of having J. Carroll Naish—not to mention no clear idea how to bring its monsters together. It plays more like a Dracula short that’s been hooked to a Wolf Man short hooked to a Frankenstein short, but it does have its moments. House of Dracula is better integrated, and altogether more atmospheric and effective—with a terrific performance from Onslow Stevens as a sympathetic medico whose blood becomes tainted with the blood of Dracula. Great movies? No, but they’re a lot of fun and an OK end to the studio’s glory days.
The smartest thing Universal did was send Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man director Roy William Neill back to his Sherlock Holmes films (at which he was good), and brought back Erle C. Kenton from Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Kenton brings some real zip to the proceedings—maybe a little too much sometimes—and more atmosphere than he brought to the strangely high-key lighting of Ghost. Getting Edward T. Lowe to write the scripts instead of Curt Siodmak was also a big help, though he was stuck with Siodmak’s storyline for House of Frankenstein, which likely accounts for its non-integrated narrative. That said, most of the individual components are nicely scripted.
House of Frankenstein—choppy though it is—has its pleasures, not the least of which is its Hans J. Salter score. It also has a terrific little role for George Zucco as Prof. Bruno Lampini, who gets killed off far too early. But it does have Karloff. It’s not Karloff at his best, but neither is it Karloff at his walk-through-it worst. Instead, what we get here is Karloff in his rarely seen over-the-top mode. The only other real intance of this I can think of is in The Invisible Ray (1936)—where it contrasted nicely with Bela Lugosi’s unusually restrained performance. This is similar, but once you get past howlers like “Now, will you give me my chalk” in the dialogue, it becomes one of Karloff’s nastiest and least sympathetic characters.
Of course, there are downsides besides the clunky structure. There’s the inevitable guff with Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot wanting to die—something that was already old in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But far worse than that was the even whinier J. Carrol Naish as Karloff’s hunchback assistant. He actually makes Chaney seem almost bearable. Almost. This is also the film where the Frankenstein Monster becomes little more than a prop. As in the previous film, he’s frozen—along with Larry in the ice cavern beneath the Frankenstein castle. Unlike the previous film, a quick defrosting doesn’t bring him to, so he spends all but the last scenes of the picture comatose.
Now that said, the old boy has his uses. No sooner does he get revived than he pitches Naish out the window—a finer display of monster perspicacity I cannot imagine. (If Naish’s scream sounds familiar that’s probably because it’s Karloff’s old scream from Son of Frankenstein.) Of course, it’s only a matter of a few seconds before he gets spooked by some torch-bearing villagers and promptly wanders—with Karloff in tow—into some convenient quicksand, never to be seen again. At least till the sequel.
House of Dracula is a distinct improvement in almost every way—despite the fact that it has even less budget. As noted, the structure is tighter, but there’s a trade-off there, since there’s never even any attempt at an explanation of just how Dracula and Larry Talbot have come back from their seemingly pretty final deaths in the last film. They’re just there—there being the home of Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens), a benevolent scientificgenius who might be able to cure them, though, of course, Larry would be just as good with being finally, completely, and irreversibly dead. To say that he’s on the easily pleased side would be an understatement, but by this point it’s hard not to side with his morbid notions.
The only monster whose presence is explained is the Frankenstein Monster, who—somewhat absurdly—has floated on an underground flow of mud to a cave undeneath Edelman’s castle. (This, of course, is from the studio that has mummies disappear in a New England swamp and resurface in the Louisiana bayous. Possibly they misunderstood the idea of continental drift.) But at least all the boys are in a central location. The Monster, alas, is even more a thing of shreds and patches this round, only coming to for a spot of last minute mayhem, followed by a fiery death that, to the trained eye, looks suspiciously like the ending of Ghost of Frankenstein, because that’s what it is. He actually gets more action in the film’s enticing dream sequence where the crazed Edelman sends him forth on a rampage that looks a lot more interesting than anything the movie actually delivers.
Shortcomings aside, it’s interesting to see the monster sheanigans put on a more or less scientific basis. OK, so it’s not entirely clear why Dracula—desiring a cure—decides to contaminate his would-be benefactor’s blood and turn the kindly Dr. Edelman into a kind of Jekyll and Hyde mad scientist vampire. I guess it’s because he has the hots for Edelman’s nuse, Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll), though that makes him a kind of cheesy king of the vampires. Regardless of all that, the scene where Dracula hypnotically seduces Miliza while she plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is one of the best things in 1940s horror—even if it a reworking of a scene from Dracula’s Daughter (1936), which is much more intense.
The whole Wolf Man angle is much more interesting this round, even if it’s light on mayhem. That was probably somewhat dictated by the production code, since it was impossible to give old Larry a happy ending if he killed anyone. (Those killings in earlier movies apparently don’t matter.) But the limitations were in part the result of WWII making it impossible to import the yak hair used for the make-up, so the werewolfery had to be held to a minimum. But the big improvement lies in Larry becoming less of a gloomy Gus as a werewolf looking at the prospect of being cured from his curse. At least here he manages to keep the dreariness of the character at bay for most of the picture
There’s no denying that House of Dracula has flaws all its own, but it’s hardly the worst thing Universal brought out in the 1940s—and it’s blessed with the kind of simple studio artistry that would very soon be a thing of the past.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula on Thursday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.