Friday, May 5, 2017

Worth Mentioning - All the Screen's Titans of Terror

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello. They're all here.


Boris Karloff walked away from playing Frankenstein's Monster after completing work on 1939's Son of Frankenstein, meaning director Erle C. Kenton didn't get to work with Karloff when he directed that film's sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein. But five years after retiring from being the Monster, Karloff returned to the Frankenstein franchise to play a different role in Kenton's monster mash House of Frankenstein.

Written by Edward T. Lowe from a story by The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man writer Curt Siodmak, House of Frankenstein picks up several years after the events of the Frankenstein / Wolf Man crossover and adds both a mad scientist played by Karloff and Count Dracula into mix. This is essentially a threeway crossover between Universal monsters, but it doesn't really have any connection to 1931's Dracula (or its sequels Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula).

Karloff plays Dr. Gustav Niemann, who dreams of continuing and improving upon Doctor Frankenstein's work but is held back by the fact that he has been locked up in prison for his twisted experiments. He can only tell his theories to his hunchbacked cellmate Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), who would like to get his brain put in a different body. Niemann and Daniel get their chance to take on the world when the prison they're in is damaged by a lightning strike, allowing them to escape.

The convicts hitch a ride with a man called Professor Lampini (George Zucco), who travels from town to town to present his "Chamber of Horrors", a collection of the world's most astounding and creepy things. In Lampini's possession is the skeleton of Count Dracula, which he found staked in the cellar of Dracula's castle in the Carpathian Mountains - which is how you know it's not connected to any of Universal's previous Dracula productions, because Dracula wasn't staked at his castle.

After Niemann and Daniel kill Lampini, Dracula's skeleton is in their possession. Seeking revenge on the Bürgermeister who put him in prison, Niemann pulls the stake from Dracula's heart, reviving him. The mad doctor sends Dracula after his enemy, in exchange promising the Count that he'll keep him safe and always have his coffin ready for him at dawn.

It's a good thing this isn't connected to 1931's Dracula, because Count Dracula is played by John Carradine, and although he is a great and beloved character, there's no way I would buy that he's the same person as Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Lugosi actually came close to reprising the role in this film, but there was a scheduling conflict.

Dracula kills the man Niemann wants dead, but has a bit too much fun on the side, putting the man's granddaughter-in-law under his spell and abducting her, drawing too much attention to himself. When Niemann sees that Dracula is leading the authorities on a high speed horse and carriage chase through the countryside, he bails on the bloodsucker, leaving him to perish in the morning sun. This sequence was a really dumb move on Dracula's part, yet another reason I'm glad this wasn't a previously established version of the character. I didn't like Carradine's Dracula at all when I was younger, but now I can get more enjoyment out of watching him play the character, even if his Dracula is a screw-up.

Dracula is dead again and out of the picture before we get to the Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man stuff, which is a disappointment. At least we still have Niemann around to make the scenario different from what we already saw in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Niemann and Daniel go to what remains of the home of Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein, a location in both The Ghost of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, hoping to find the records of Ludwig's father Dr. Henry Franenstein. Instead they find that the Monster and the Wolf Man were swept into a glacial cavern by the flood at the end of their previous crossover and are now frozen. Hoping to learn Dr. Frankenstein's secrets, the scientist and his assistant thaw the monsters out. The Wolf Man rises quickly, but getting the Monster back on his feet is tougher to do.

Lon Chaney Jr. again plays the human alter ego of the Wolf Man, Lawrence Talbot, who is not happy at all that Niemann has brought him back into his life of misery. Niemann gives him some hope by promising to build a new brain for him. I guess that's a cure for being a werewolf?

Both Ghost and Meets the Wolf Man said Ludwig lived in a town called Vasaria. Niemann is from a town that has the exact same name, except it's spelled differently (Visaria) and is over 152km from Vasaria. That's kind of confusing. But from Vasaria to Visaria they go, and the final segment of the story plays out in the latter. That segment includes Niemann plotting revenge on the other two men responsible for putting him in jail (a revenge that involves swapping the brains of men and monsters), Lawrence continuing to struggle with the curse of lycanthropy, and a love triangle of sorts between Lawrence, Daniel, and Gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who Daniel saved from an abusive man. Daniel loves Ilonka, Ilonka loves Lawrence, and Lawrence just wants to stop being a werewolf. Being a Gypsy, Ilonka knows a thing or two about the werewolf legend.

House of Frankenstein tries to pack a lot of character stuff into its 70 minutes, and the monsters really get short-changed because of it. This is truly Niemann's film, it tells his story, and Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man are just cogs in the wheel. It's an entertaining movie if you take it on its own terms, but it's definitely not the movie you'd expect to see when you put on something that promises to feature all three of those monsters.

I would be a lot more negative about House of Frankenstein if Niemann weren't played by Karloff, but since he is that makes it more difficult to complain about the film focusing on Niemann too much. Karloff is awesome, and he got to carry this one even without putting the Monster makeup back on.

Up to this point in the Frankenstein franchise, the Monster had been played by Karloff three times (in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son), by Lon Chaney Jr. in The Ghost of Frankenstein, and by Bela Lugosi in Meets the Wolf Man. With Karloff and Chaney busy playing other characters and Lugosi not around, another actor was brought in to play the Monster this time. That actor was Glenn Strange, who would play the Monster again in the future, but in this one didn't get to do much. The Monster doesn't even wake up until 62 minutes into the film, just in time for the climax.


House of Frankenstein screenwriter Edward T. Lowe and director Erle C. Kenton returned to craft a sequel to their monster mash collaboration, but somehow couldn't be bothered to have strong continuity with their own film. As the title gives away, the sequel focuses more on the character of Count Dracula (again played by John Carradine) than its predecessor, and rightfully so - Dracula got short-changed in a major way in House of Frankenstein. But we saw Dracula wither away in the sunlight in the previous movie, and here he's in action from the opening scene, with no explanation for how he managed to regain his strength.

Dracula says he is done with this whole bloodsucking undead thing, he wants out. Seeking a cure for his vampirism, he goes to Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), a scientist who has some interesting experiments in the works. Finding a mysterious parasite in the Count's blood, Edlemann speculates that Dracula could be cured with transfusions.

The Count isn't the only monster who has come to Edlemann to be cured. Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. playing the character for the fourth time) is also hoping the doctor will be able to rid him of his curse. Just like Dracula, Lawrence appeared to have died in House of Frankenstein, having been shot with a silver bullet. And yet, like Dracula, he just shows up in this sequel like nothing ever happened.

Edlemann speculates that Lawrence's werewolf transformations could be caused by a combination of his anxiety over the transformations, which get his glands working overtime, and pressure on his brain. Relieving that pressure could stop the transformations, but brain surgery is dangerous. Rather than cut open Lawrence's head, Edlemann would like to use a certain kind of mold to soften his skull so it could then be re-shaped by hand. Problem is, it's going to take a while to grow enough mold.

Eventually a third monster is discovered to be lying dormant in a cave beneath Edlemann's property. That monster is Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), who is found with the skeleton of the Dr. Niemann character from House of Frankenstein. This pair was last seen sinking into a patch of quicksand, which has somehow, years later, dumped them into the cave. At least there's a little continuity going on in here.

Edlemann is tempted to revive the Monster, but it talked out of it by Lawrence and his hunchbacked assistant Nina (Jane Adams). They've got it right, the Monster is too dangerous to have roaming around.

Before Dracula can be cured with the transfusions, he goes back to his evil ways and starts to put Edlemann's other assistant Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll), a woman he has met before, under his spell. This change is such a reversal from how Dracula was acting when he first arrived, one might think that Miliza was the only reason he was there in the first place. Edlemann ends up destroying Dracula and saving Miliza long before the Monster ever wakes up in this film, so again we only get two of three in action at any one time. Neither this film nor House of Frankenstein had all three together.

Unfortunately, Dracula manages to turn Edlemann into an evil creature before his death. Edlemann becomes a sort of human/vampire hybrid; sometimes he's his normal self, then he'll transform into a madman who doesn't have a reflection. It's like a Jekyll and Hyde scenario with a vampiric edge. While in madman mode, Edlemann revives the Monster.

Even though it's a crossover between three of Universal's monster franchise, House of Dracula is a very small film, quite short (67 minutes) and simple. It's clear that not much money was put into this one, with the fact that it takes place almost entirely in one location. Edlemann's castle, being a sign of a lower budget. Like House of Frankenstein, this isn't the movie you want to see when you put it on knowing that it's a film that features Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's Monster. I do find it more enjoyable than House of Frankenstein - even minus the presence of Boris Karloff. This may be just because it has a better structure and doesn't spend half the movie on one of the monsters before moving on to the others.

It is disappointing that the three established monsters it has don't get to share the screen. Once again, Frankenstein's Monster has to wait until the final minutes to get off his slab while the other monsters carry the movie. By the time he's a threat to people, Dracula is dead and Lawrence has been cured by his lycanthropy, so we don't even get to see a Monster vs. the Wolf Man rematch.

Although Lawrence Talbot has been cured by the end of House of Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. would come back to play the character one more time in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a movie I wrote about way back in 2011. In that film, Lawrence is still inflicted with the werewolf curse and following the trail of Count Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster (both back with no explanation), hoping to thwart Dracula's plan to put a new brain into the Monster so he can have complete control over him. The brain chosen to be put in the Monster's head belongs to baggage clerk Wilbur (Lou Costello).

That horror/comedy is actually the most satisfying of all the Universal Monsters crossovers, as the three monsters are perfectly represented in the film and actually get to share the screen in some shots. Glenn Strange gets more to do as Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula is played by Bela Lugosi, finally returning to the role.


The comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had a very brief interaction with an Invisible Man voiced by Vincent Price at the end of 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and while Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man built on the promise of that moment three years later, this movie is in no way connected to Meet Frankenstein, despite having the same writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant (working from a story by Hugh Wedlock Jr. and Howard Snyder). Abbott and Costello even play entirely different characters than they did in that film.

In Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello were baggage clerks Chick and Wilbur. Here they are fledgling private investigators Bud Alexander and Lou Francis, who get wrapped up in a murder mystery involving boxer Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz). Accused of killing his manager, Tommy is on the run and Bud and Lou are at first out to collect the reward for capturing him. However, when Tommy manages to convince them that he's innocent, they team up with the man to try to help him clear his name. They are charging him for this service, of course.

To aid in his efforts to evade the authorities and find the real killer, Tommy want his fiancée's uncle, Gavin Muir as Dr. Philip Gray, to inject him with the invisibility formula he inherited from Dr. John "Jack" Griffin - the lead character from the original Invisible Man film. Gray refuses to turn Tommy invisible until he has figured out how to help him regain visibility - if a person is invisible for too long, they become a "raving maniac with an uncontrollable urge to kill". As Griffin did. Tommy doesn't have time to wait for Gray's reagent, though. He injects himself and becomes the new invisible man.

So we have Abbott and Costello working with an invisible boxer to solve a mystery, getting up to comedic shenanigans along the way. To delve into the boxing world, Lou pretends to be a boxer himself, passing himself off as a 5'5" out of shape champion. He even gets booked for a fight, but luckily has the invisible Tommy in the ring with him to handle the actual fighting.

Mixing the style of Abbott and Costello with Universal's monsters with Meet Frankenstein had been an unexpected move that you might not think would turn out very well, but it did. Having the pair meet up with an Invisible Man is less of an off-the-wall idea, since the Invisible franchise was always switching genres - and there had even been a slapstick comedy movie in the series before, The Invisible Woman. Because of that, this film really feels like just another Invisible sequel, especially since it has some good callbacks to previous installments, like the nod to the first movie and a sequence in which Tommy starts ranting like Jack Griffin while drinking too much alcohol like the Invisible Woman. (Bud and Lou then have to carry him out of the place, which is quite a sight.)

Directed by Charles Lamont, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is a fun comedy that delivers the laughs while also keeping the murder mystery aspect interesting. It's a good Invisible Man movie and a good Abbott and Costello movie.

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