Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monsters and Misfits

When I was seven, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, directed by Roy William Neill) was, like, the ne plus ultra of monster movies, only to be topped by House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. The story and the performances didn't matter. All that mattered was the monster mayhem and when they teamed up, there was more mayhem for the buck. Children are undiscriminating viewers, and if I have any love for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or the other films at the ragged end of the great cycle of Universal horrors, it's because I loved them when I was a child. I wish I could see it through those eyes again. But I can't.

It's been decades since I last saw this film. I remembered bits of it, but I didn't remember it with the intensity that I remember the other Universal horrors. I remembered the dam. I remembered the ice cave. I remembered the blond woman who was a Frankenstein, but not a doctor. But that's about it. The story? No. The performances? Hah, no. What I mainly remember is the way I originally saw the film, projected on a portable movie screen in an elementary school gymnasium. I must have been in the second or third grade, and at the time, our school had movie showings on Saturdays. They had a pretty good selection of 16mm prints of the Universal horrors. I don't remember if they were complete or abridged. I think they were complete, but none of these films is very long. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is only an hour and fifteen minutes, and that's about par for all of them. You'll pardon me if I dwell on these memories, because the reality of the film is kind of sad. You can't go home again, I guess.

The story here picks up several years after The Wolf Man (and, presumably, The Ghost of Frankenstein; I'll come back to that). Two grave robbers break into the Talbot family crypt and release the dormant Lawrence Talbot from his sarcophagus. He's not dead. He can't die. The curse of lycanthropy keeps him alive, poor bastard. He wakes to find himself in a hospital in Cardiff, where a policeman has been killed by some wild animal. His doctor wants to lock him up as a lunatic, but he escapes to Europe to find some way to die. Enlisting the old Gypsy woman, Maleva, he goes in search of Dr. Frankenstein in the hope that he can help him. Instead, he finds the wreckage of Frankenstein's castle and Frankenstein's monster kept preserved in an ice cave beneath it. Meanwhile, he tracks down the last Frankenstein, Baroness Elsa, to find her father's notes, and he is run to ground by his doctor, Dr. Mannering, who still wants to help him. Using Frankenstein's notes, Mannering contrives an operation to undo Talbot's curse and to destroy Frankenstein's creature. But he can't do it. He's too curious. Meanwhile, the villagers are fed up with the monsters and blow the dam above Castle Frankenstein, sending the monsters to a watery grave...

First off, this is an attractive movie. The graveyard at the beginning and the ruins at the end are as evocative as any pieces of unreal estate that Universal ever concocted. Even if the monster movies had become decadent, the art department hadn't gotten the memo. Second, there's a musical number late in the movie that brings the whole thing to a dead stop. I know that audiences expected all kinds of elements to show up in movies back then, but this was a premiere WTF? moment. Third, Bela Lugosi is the worst Frankenstein's monster, ever. I'd like to expand on that last bit. This is kinda sorta a direct sequel to The Ghost of Frankenstein. At the end of that movie, Ygor (Lugosi in the previous two films) has his brain transplanted into the body of the Monster, a trade off granting him Lugosi's voice, but making him blind. Both of these elements were to carry over to the next film in the sequence, but during production, they both got cut, even though the Monster was filmed as if he was blind, giving him that groping, hands-forward gait that is so widely parodied. Further, if you take away Lugosi's voice, there's no point in making him the Monster, because he's totally wrong for the role. The irony of Lugosi playing the Monster here after turning down the original because he would be obscured by make up and have no dialogue is not lost on me, but it's widely commented on elsewhere. The Monster itself has barely ten minutes of screen time in this movie, and big chunks of it are not actually Lugosi. Chaney wanted to play the monster himself in addition to playing Larry Talbot--he played him in The Ghost of Frankenstein, after all--but that was nixed as being too complicated. Probably just as well.

Lon Chaney, Jr. is another problem, because he's awful. The part that's written for him does him no favors, and he comes off as kind of a simpleton, exclaiming "but you must help me!" to complete strangers at regular intervals throughout the movie without explaining exactly why he needs the help to start with. Chaney was capable of good performances--see his first turn as Larry Talbot or his part as Lenny in Of Mice and Men--but this is not one of them.

This wasn't the end of the Universal monsters, but it probably should have been. In comparison to the razor sharp Val Lewton productions that are this film's contemporaries, this seems almost as quaint as it would if it had been a silent movie. The state of the art in horror filmmaking had moved on. Instead, the monsters became parodies. Alas.

Note, I "borrowed" the images for this post from the excellent Classic Movie Monsters blog.

Current tally: 24 films

First time viewings: 22

Around the Web:

The Vicar of VHS takes on Dreamaniac, staring porn star Ashlyn Gere under another name. I used to have a crush on her, so I kinda want to see this. But it's a David De Coteau film, so I also kinda don't.

Dennis Cozarello over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has one of his comprehensive movie quizes up, with a serious Halloween theme. My own answers are in the comments. The incomparably awesome Susie Bright, however, went the extra mile on her own blog, complete with 8x10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows on the backs of each one.

And Dr. AC is back with another update of his progress for charity. I'm going to owe his charity a check at the end of the month...


bookman187 said...

I love the still and also the film. I was three sheets to the wind, the last time I saw it and although it wasn't exactly like seeing it for the first time as a kid, it was pretty close.

Laura said...

Is this the one with Hollywood's take on a jovial gypsy singing that gawdawful, cheesy song to Talbot and Lady Friend? If so, this has one of the best moments ever: when Talbot snaps and yells at the guy. Good call.

I actually found Chaney more tolerable here than in the original Wolfman. There was something more unlikable in that original performance that made me not feel so bad about his lycanthropy; possibly because he's more harried and disillusioned here, I have more sympathy.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Bookman,

Maybe you're onto something. I think I might have had a better time with judicious use of intoxicants.

Hi, Laura,

This is the very film. I wish poor Larry would have turned into a wolf and ripped that guy's throat out. It was awful.

Jenn said...

As much as I love Bela, I'll echo your statement about him him the worst Frankenstein monster ever :)

Enjoying your Challenge posts!

Chris Hewson said...

While I do like shorter movies, it is a shame that it's usually Universal monster movies and Godzilla movies that end up being that short when they should be longer (who wouldn't want Godzilla vs. Megalon half an hour longer?).