Monday, April 08, 2019

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)

Having recently looked at the likes of House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Return of the Vampire, it only seems natural that we should turn our attention to the original monster rally move: Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.  Truly one of the greatest titles in the history of horror films - it tells you everything you need to know about the movie in just four words - it marked the first time that the studio had harnessed together two of its star monsters in one picture.  Serving as a sequel to both 1941's The Wolfman and 1942's Ghost of Frankenstein, the film maintains a surprising amount of continuity with both of its predecessors.  Of course both of these films had starred Lon Chaney Jr as their title monsters and he was apparently meant to play both roles in this film, aided by stunt doubles and split screen effects.  According to legend, however, by this stage in his career he was usually too drunk to perform by midday, making his playing of two roles involving hours in make-up unfeasible.  Consequently, while Chaney played the monster he had originated, Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, the Frankenstein monster was recast, with Bela Lugosi stepping into the role he had rejected back in 1931.

The casting of Lugosi made a certain amount of sense: at the climax of Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster, played by Chaney, had received the brain of Ygor (played by Lugosi) and ended up speaking with Lugosi's distinctive Hungarian tones.  He had also ended up blind - something not forgotten in this sequel: after being thawed out from his frozen state in the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, Lugosi stumbles around with arms outstretched, trying to feel his way around.  Unfortunately, references to his blindness were cut from the finished film when Universal executives decided that they didn't like the monster's Hungarian accented dialogue and ordered all of his speaking scenes excised.  (Continuity meant that not all of these could be removed, so in a couple of scenes you can see the monster's mouth flapping away as Lugosi speaks, but with his dialogue muted from the soundtrack).  The loss of this explanatory dialogue between Wolfman and monster and the lack of any other references to the monster's blindness result in Lugosi's performance seeming bizarre and ludicrous, undermining the film's attempts at seriousness.

Chaney's Wolfman fares somewhat better, despite having been pretty definitively killed at the end of The Wolfman, he iis accidentally revived when grave robbers break into his tomb in Wales.  Unhappy with the knowledge that permanent death, and therefore release from his curse, has eluded him, Chaney's Talbot breaks out of the hospital in Hollywood Cardiff where he is being treated and sets off for Vasaria, in search of Baron Frankenstein wh, he believes, has the secrets of life and death.  He is helped by Maria Ouspenkaya, once again playing the gypsy mother of Bela the gypsy werewolf from the first film (played by Bela Lugosi) who had bitten Talbot, giving him the curse in the first place.  Interestingly, no explanation is given as to how these two leave the UK and travel half way across Europe during the height of World War Two.  Equally intriguing is the fact that Vasaria (which seems to be somewhere in Hollywood 'Mittel Europe') apparently hasn't been occupied by the Nazis.  They are pursued by Dr Mannering (Patric Knowles), who had been treating Talbot in Cardiff.

Of course, Frankenstein himself is long dead and his sons (played, respectively in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, by Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke) have given up the family business.  Luckily, though, his grand daughter is around, played here by Ilona Massey, (replacing Evelyn Ankers from Ghost).  Inevitably, Dr Mannering becomes too interested in Frankenstein's work and, while supposedly draining off Talbot's energy to give him eternal rest, flips the switch to divert that energy to the monster who has his sight restored (and therefore ceases to stumble around like an idiot), breaks his bonds and tries to carry off Massey.  Chaney inevitablty turns into the Wolfman and almighty fight between the two monsters breaks out before the local villagers decide to blow up the conveniently placed dam, washing away both the ruined castle and the monsters.

Despite the aforementioned studio-imposed cuts rendering much of the film's narratives and one of its central performances incomprehensible, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman remains a surprisingly entertaining film.  Roy William Neill, taking time off from directing Universal's Sherlock Holmes series, succeeds in conjuring up much of the same 'weird' atmosphere he brought to the Rathbone pictures.  It certainly has a somewhat different 'look' to other films in the studio's monster movies and moves at a far less stately pace, packing a lot of plot, action and characters into just under seventy five minutes of running time.  Much of Universal's stock company of supporting actors turn up, including Lionel Atwill as the Burgomeister (he had been an evil scientist in Ghost) and Dwight Frye (who had been in the original Frankenstein, with Karloff) as the villager who dynamites the dam.  Even Inspector Lestrade from the Holmes films wanders in the person of Dennis Hoey.  OK, he's called Inspector Owen (although, like everyone in 'Cardiff', speaks cockney rather than Welsh), but it's the same performance and the same character.

The final conflagration is well staged but ultimately inconclusive as both monsters are swept away before either can prevail.  It is only marred by the fact that it is all too evident that it isn't Lugosi under the monster make up for most of the sequence.  Indeed, for much of the film, it is far too obviously stuntman Eddie Parker doubling for Lugosi (who was in his sixties and in poor health by this time) in the role.  Even the monster's first appearance, when Talbot finds him frozen in the ice beneath the castle, is clearly Parker, not Lugosi.  In the final analysis, whatever its flaws, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman is tremendous fun, with its fevered, at times even delirious atmosphere, threatening to tip over into the surreal, particularly at the action abruptly shifts from drab, blacked out, wartime Cardiff to the fairy-tale like village in Vasaria.  Truly, a schlock classic.



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