Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
I realize that there are probably people who don’t love the classic Universal monsters, something I find nearly impossible to believe. I do love them, though, even the silly ones that gave up all pretense of being actual stories that dealt with the original source material and became nothing but camp goofiness. That’s certainly the best description of House of Frankenstein, well down into the list of Universal monster films both in terms of when it was made and in terms of its overall quality. There are some solid connections to the movies of the past in terms of cast, but not much else.
House of Frankenstein’s selling point is that there’s not just a single monster here. No, the joy here is to bring in as many monsters as possible. So, in addition to Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), we’ve also got Dracula (John Carradine!), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his most famous role), a mad scientist named Niemann (Boris Karloff), and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). Unfortunately, just as when super hero movies up the ante by adding more villains and end up giving everyone short shrift, the same happens with this many monsters in this case. That’s especially true when the film runs a spare 71 minutes.
Dr. Niemann, a follower of the original Dr. Frankenstein, has spent 15 years in a dungeon for crimes against nature. Essentially, he tried to stick the brain of a man into a dog. When a part of the castle collapses, Niemann escapes with his trusty hunchback Daniel and heads off into the countryside, looking for revenge against the people who imprisoned him. He meets up with a travelling horror show that claims to possess the actual skeleton of Count Dracula. Daniel bumps off the showman and his driver and he and Niemann take their place.
The first stop is step one in Niemann’s revenge. He pulls up to the town where one of his targets, Hussman (Sig Ruman) lives. Confronted with the man, Niemann removes the stake from Dracula’s heart, bringing the Count back to life. They enact revenge on Hussman and Dracula attempts to seduce Hussman’s granddaughter-in-law Rita (Anne Gwynne), but is double-crossed by Niemann as he and Daniel flee. And just like that, Dracula gets caught out in the sun and is out of the movie.
Eventually, our two anti-heroes show up at the town of Frankenstein, where Niemann hopes to find the old doctor’s notes. Inside, he and Daniel find the monster and the Wolf Man frozen in ice. They thaw the two out, and now it’s time for the real fun. Niemann and Daniel have picked up a gypsy girl named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) with whom Daniel has fallen in love. However, Ilonka prefers the non-werewolf version of Larry Talbot. Sparks fly! Niemann makes promises to everyone but follows his own mad, twisted plan! Death comes for pretty much everyone! And then it wraps up without even a coda.
House of Frankenstein’s biggest issue is that it’s completely episodic. Each part of the film feels like its own short without much connection to anything else in the film. We’re promised all of these monsters on the screen together, and we don’t get it at all. Frankenstein’s Monster never really appears at the same time as the Wolf Man, and neither are even in the movie by the time that Dracula has turned to dust. The little weird plot between Dracula and Anne is resolved in the first half hour or so, and she never returns to the movie—it’s like three episodes of a weird television show, the travelling adventures of a doctor and his hunchback.
At the same time, it’s difficult not to find the whole affair kind of charming. It’s so odd and goofy that it’s endearing in its own mad way. It’s loaded with problems and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you love the monsters themselves, it’s hard not to like it. This is despite the fact Frankenstein’s Monster is active for about 5 minutes, all at the end and Dracula is gone immediately.
One of the more interesting things here is the short performance of John Carradine as Dracula. It’s miles away from what Lugosi did in the classic role, but it’s a really interesting take on the Count. Carradine plays the role well, providing a gaunt, austere version that seems more in keeping with Bram Stoker’s original. I’d love to have seen more of him here.
Why to watch House of Frankenstein: Classic monsters in the same movie!
Why not to watch: They aren’t on screen at the same time.