We all know the story of Frankenstein. It’s pretty commonplace in the modern cinematic vernacular. However, the original Frankenstein film franchise is something that most people are probably unfamiliar with. Yeah, sure there’s a doctor and he makes a monster and it gets chased by angry villagers.
However, there are aspects of the films that very few people remember. Do you remember Ygor being a man who survived the hangman’s noose and manipulated the monster in to killing the jury that wrongfully convicted him of the crime? Do you recall Boris Karloff appearing as a mad scientist instead of the monster? Did you know that Igor eventually had his brain transplanted into the body of the monster, but due to an incompatibility in blood types went blind?
Most people don’t remember those bits of the franchise. Unlike most people, I love them. I love how weird and kooky the Frankenstein feature film franchise got. The fact, as previously mentioned, that Boris Karloff came back to play a mad scientist and that Bella Lugosi switched from playing Ygor to The Monster is amazing, to me. I mean, it makes a weird kind of sense, to me. The fact that Igor, who was originally played by Lugosi, had his brain transferred into the Monster’s body, played by Lon Chaney Jr, in one film, and then in the next because of the transplant the monster is played by Lugosi seems almost obvious when viewed with a childlike sense of innocence. It works. It’s simple and straightforward and it works.
Let’s take a step backward for a second.
For those who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Frankenstein films lets establish a bit of background. The initial film, based of Mary Shelley’s novel, was released in 1931. It was directed beautifully by the master craftsman James Whale. Next, Whale and company returned in 1935 to produce what would go on to become the crown jewel in the Universal horror experiment, The Bride of Frankenstein. In 1939, Universal released the final big budget installment in the franchise, The Son of Frankenstein starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. In 1942, the studio decided to release The Ghost of Frankenstein starring Lon Chaney Jr as the Monster and Bela Lugosi reprising his role of Ygor. In 1943, Universal, because they were running out of viable options for the franchise, pulled the equivalent of Alien Vs. Predator. They threw the Wolf Man and Frankenstein in the ring together in the hopes of making some money off of i.p. bashing. It didn’t work so well. The final Frankenstein film was entitled the House of Frankenstein and was released in 1944. Like Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man it too was a money-grabbing attempt.
The film follows Dr. Gustav Neimann, played by Boris Karloff, in his attempts to retrieve the journals of Dr Frankenstein and continue his work. The film also features Jon Carradine as a strangely effeminate Count Dracula, Glenn Strange as the Monster and Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man.
From the get-go this film feels weak and lacks the mystery and atmosphere that the previous films utilized so masterfully. Granted, we’re looking at a franchise on its last legs, but still. House of Frankenstein also introduces another hunchbacked assistant, Daniel, played by J. Carrol Narrish. Daniel is Neimann’s faithful assistant and friend. Daniel also believes that Neimann will be able to make him a new body through the wonders of Frankensteinian science. The best, or worst depending on your expectations, part of the movie is the fact that the Monster is incapacitated for the majority of the movie.
Neimann and Daniel, after escaping from prison, make their way to the flooded ruins of Castle Frankenstein where they discover the Wolf Man and the Monster frozen in blocks of ice, due to the events of the previous films. Neimann thaws them out and promises the Wolf Man that he will cure his cures if he will assist them in their work. Now we have Neimann, Daniel, a gypsy girl that Daniel is in love with, and the Wolf Man all working together as one happy family. Where’s the Monster? Still in a coma after being thawed. That’s right the Monster is in a catatonic state for the majority of the movie.
The film ends with Neimann reviving the monster only to have both of them be chased by villagers and ultimately drown in quicksand. The Wolf Man is shot with a silver bullet and dies, which is what he’s been trying to do the entire movie. It’s bittersweet ending to the only Universal monster for which empathy is applicable. Well, until the next film, House of Dracula, in which Lon Chaney Jr reprises the role with no mention of the event that transpired within House of Frankenstein.
Sure, the name of the movie is the House of Frankenstein but it should really be called the House of Multiple Intellectual Properties Onscreen Together. That’s really what it is. But for some reason because there are so many characters and so many film icons coming together, I don’t really mind.
Most hardcore Universal monster aficionados don’t enjoy the later films in the franchise but I have to admit they tickle me pink. They operate under a strange otherworldly logic that only a very young person or a very old person can understand. I love the fact that these movies are more concerned with cameos and ‘oh, shit’ moments that continuity. I also love the fact that there seems to have been a revolving door policy when it came to playing the Monster. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange all played the monster over the numerous Universal films that the character appeared in.
Overall, House of Frankenstein my not be the greatest of the Frankenstein but, oddly enough, it is the installment that I have watched the most. From the bizarre structure, to the sorta-killing of Dracula, Wolf Man and the Monster, to the strange return of Boris Karloff this move intrigues me on a level that very few films from this era do. House of Frankenstein is a bouncing ball of wonderful, wrapped in a burrito terrible and sprinkled with black and white goodness.