Thursday, January 8, 2009

The House of Frankenstein (USA, 1944)

(Trailer.) Time to forget the artistic vision of James Whale’s first two films in the Universal Frankenstein cycle, to overlook the depth, pathos, wit and creativity that made both Frankenstein (1931/trailer) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935/trailer) such genre transcending masterpieces. By the time Universal gave the green light to The House of Frankenstein (1944), the series had degenerated to a pale shadow of its gothic, melodramatic past—though, unbelievably enough, worse was still to come, in the eventual form of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948/trailer).
In The House of Frankenstein, however, Abbot and Costello are not yet to be seen. Instead, mad Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff), a follower of Dr. Frankenstein, bides his time imprisoned deep in a stone fortress with his hunchbacked prison mate Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), dreaming of revenging himself upon those that put him there. A fortuitous bolt of lightning demolishes the fortress and the good doctor escapes into the raging storm with his new partner. Professor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco) happens upon the two while driving by with his traveling Chamber of Horrors sideshow and, in return for helping them, is killed. After assuming the identity of the professor and his coachman, the two set out for Visaria to continue Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. Along the way they try, with varying levels of success, to kill or harm those who did Dr. Niemann wrong. Amongst the attractions of the Chamber of Horror are the skeletal remains of Count Dracula (John Carradine), whom Dr. Niemann revives by removing the stake. Forced by Dr. Niemann to be an instrument of revenge, the Count fails miserably and dies, but Niemann and Daniel make good their escape. Somewhere along the way they pick up Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), an attractive little hunchback gypsy gal whom Daniel falls in love with, but later, once Niemann has revived frozen the Frankenstein monster and werewolf in Visaria, she only has eyes for the cursed Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.). Love, pain, betrayal and destruction soon follow and everyone dies…. At least until the next sequel.
The House of Frankenstein is collectively the 6th Frankenstein film, the 4th Dracula movie and the 3rd Werewolf entry. Why the scriptwriters decided to leave out the Invisible Man and the Mummy is not easy to understand, for their inclusion could hardly have fit less than that of Dracula. (Actually, according to Gregory William Mank in It's Alive! The Classic Cinema Saga of Frankenstein, the original storyline did include the Mummy.) The whole sequence featuring the famed bloodsucker is so out of place and inconsistent to the rest of the film that it comes across as if fragments of some other aborted film project were added at the last minute to save time and money. The entire fifteen minutes that Dracula spends running after Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne) starts and ends so suddenly that it becomes reminiscent of the first 15 minutes of that trash classic They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963). (That film, you might remember, was cobbled together from two separate projects and, as a result, all characters introduced within the first 15 minutes—including a VW bug driving secret agent—are suddenly killed and replaced by a bunch of new characters.) Carradine’s forgettable interpretation of the Count is also a detriment, as it is so fey that it almost achieves a campy level—“almost” being the key word here.
The mishmash of a script to The House of Frankenstein is credited to Curt Siodmark and Edward T. Lowe. Lowe reunited a year later with director Kenton for the equally abysmal The House of Dracula (trailer) and then — luckily considering how his writing skills were obviously decomposing — ended his decades long career as a second-feature scriptwriter (he had begun his career when movie theaters were still only nickelodeons). Director Kenton, who actually managed to direct one true film classic in his lifetime — Island of Lost Souls (1932/trailer) — continued his production of mostly lousy films into the fifties before carving a nitch on television, which better suited his lack of aesthetics. (Siodmark, on the other hand, is rightfully considered to be one of the greats of fantasy and B movies, and his named has graced many of film of A, B and Z credentials and quality. Born in Dresden in 1902, he began his career taking part in the German classics Menschen am Sonntag (1930) and F.P.1 antwortet nicht (1932) before finally fleeing the Nazis in 1937 alongside his brother Robert Siodmark, a filmmaker of much more upscale, respectful credentials. Curt’s resume as a scriptwriter also includes some definite classics, however, both trashy and not trashy, including The Invisible Man Returns (1940/trailer), The Invisible Woman (1940/trailer), The Wolfman (1941/trailer), I Walked with a Zombie (1943/trailer) and Bride of the Gorilla (1951/trailer).) In any event, The House of Frankenstein makes for good DVD fodder for your 6 year olds on a rainy afternoon. Aside from that, the best thing that can be said about the film is that although it may be worlds away from being one of the best Universal horror entries, whatever it lacks in style, flair, story, suspense or quality, it more than makes up for in laughs. Indeed, despite the massive number of fondly remembered names involved with the project, the movie is so ridiculous and second rate in every way that it becomes hard to believe that the project was ever seen as anything else other than occupational therapy for Universal’s numerous character actors. And what a list of faces grace this movie! Boris Karloff, J.Carol Naish, John Carradine, and Lon Chaney, Jr. all figure substantially in the movie, while Lional Atwill, George Zucco, Philip Van Zandt and the beautiful and once popular (but long forgotten) scream queen Anne Gwynne flit by in what can only be described as extended cameos. (Of course, Glen Strange is also along for the ride for his first turn as the Frankenstein monster, but though his career as background filler — primarily for westerns — was long, he is hardly a truly memorable blast from the past. Likewise, his interpretation of the monster is noteworthy only for its one-sidedness.) As to be expected of a film as bad as this one, The House of Frankenstein went on to eventually inspire a television miniseries of the same name in 1997.

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