House of Frankenstein (1944)
By 1944, the Universal monsters had become too familiar to be truly frightening. The Frankenstein monster alone had already appeared in five films. Universal's solution was to treat their gaggle of ghouls as old friends. The Frankenstein series evolved into an elaborate excuse to paste as many recognizable faces into a single film as possible. The trend began in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but really blossomed into a cornucopia of creatures with House of Frankenstein.
Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff), a devotee of Frankenstein's work, escapes from prison with his hunchbacked assistant, Daniel. The two hijack a traveling spook show and use the cover to resuscitate Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Niemann plots to use the monsters in order to exact revenge on those who jailed him.
The narrative structure of House is fractured; Dracula comes and goes before the other two monsters can show their ugly mugs. It might have been better to drop the vampire's subplot entirely, and expand upon characterizations of the other characters in the latter part of the plot. The attempt to work in an additional monster creates an unnecessarily episodic feel.
The script also has a strange obsession with brain-swapping that mucks up the suspension of disbelief. Dr. Niemann plots so many gray matter switcheroos that I doubt he's really considering the consequences. Put the brain of a hated enemy in the body of the Frankenstein monster? Brilliant. Also, what does he possibly hope to gain by sticking the monster's brain in the body of the Wolf Man? For a mad genius, Niemann has some silly ideas.
Acting, as in most Universal chillers, is first-rate. While the plots may not be the most carefully thought-out, the cast is choice. Classic names abound in the credits. Even those who are relegated to minor roles, like Lionel Atwill, stand out.
Boris Karloff triumphantly returns to the series that made his name, albeit in a vastly different role. He plays Dr. Niemann with a kind of gentleman malevolence, turning to the sinister at all the right moments. We've come to expect great performances from Karloff, and he gives us no less.
John Carradine takes over the role of Dracula from Bela Lugosi (and Chaney, too, technically). His interpretation of the character is more dapper than debonair, but it works. The top hat, however, looks rather silly.
Lon Chaney, Jr. holds the dramatic center of the film as Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man's daytime alter ego. Talbot still yearns to be released from his curse, and Chaney captures every ounce of pathos. It's a shame that he doesn't get enough screen time to advance his character arc beyond "werewolf sucks, wanna die."
The real misfortune, however, is the reduced role of the Frankenstein monster. Here he is little more than a plot device to tie up loose bits of story at the end of the film. Glenn Strange does manage to bring a certain sympathetic air during the four minutes he's active onscreen but it's still a waste of a good monster.
Universal's technical tricks have advanced considerably. Most impressive is Dracula's transformation into a vampire bat. While it's obviously cel animation, it's still damned good looking for its time. Unfortunately, the Wolf Man's transformations suffer, and focus on the feet instead of Lon Chaney's face.
House of Frankenstein diminishes the complexity of some beloved monsters in order to serve a more action-oriented plot. That aside, it's not an unfun ride, and with familiar faces like Karloff and Chaney as companions, it feels downright homey. Running 71 minutes, House is hardly a waste of time for Universal enthusiasts.
No Frankensteins actually appear in this movie, title aside.