Sunday, December 02, 2007

House of Frankenstein – review

Director: Erle C Kenton

Release date: 1944

Contains spoilers

This was one of the earliest Monster Mash films, and the earliest that brought three of Universal’s staple monsters together. It also marked John Carradine’s first appearance as Count Dracula. Ostensibly the film House of Dracula was a sequel to this and I wanted to look at this before I dug that later film out. Many thanks to Corroding Halo for giving me a loan of the DVD in order that I could write this review.

As the film starts we get a glimpse of a circus-type wagon from a freak show, on its side is emblazoned an advert for the Dracula exhibit it carries. Then we cut to a prison where a certain Doctor Niemann (Boris Karloff) is incarcerated for carrying on with work not dissimilar to that of Baron Frankenstein. A guard opens the cell window and Niemann grabs him by the throat until he hands over some chalk. We discover that Niemann has been imprisoned for fifteen years.

In the cell the walls are covered with formulae and diagrams, the doctor has continued his work – theoretically – whilst imprisoned. In the cell next to him is the hunchback Daniel (J Carrol Naish). Niemann expounds on his ideas for transplanting a human brain into a dog and speaks highly of Frankenstein’s work – though he believes the Baron cut too high up the spinal cord when retrieving brains. Daniel wants a new body, which Niemann confirms he could supply if he had Frankenstein’s notebooks. A storm rages and the lightning conveniently manages to cause a large portion of the prison to collapse. Niemann and Daniel escape.

They come across the freak show, the wagon is stuck in mud, and help it out. In return the owner, Lampini (George Zucco) offers them the warmth and comfort of his living quarters. They have spun a tale of being held by bandits and they discuss the freak show. Lampini is proud of Dracula’s skeleton – something he retrieved himself from the Carpathians, putting earth into the coffin so that the Count could rest on native soil. The skeleton has a stake in it and if it should be removed… well we know what will happen. Niemann is interested in going to a few places, all of which Lampini is not (immediately) heading to. Niemann has Daniel kill the showman and his driver and they assume their identities.

The first stop is the village of Reigelberg, where a man involved in his incarceration, Hussman (Sig Ruman), is burgomaster. Actually visiting the burgomaster are his grandson Karl (Peter Coe) and Karl’s wife Rita (Anne Gwynne). She persuades the burgomaster and inspector Arnz (Lionel Atwell) to visit the show. Niemann, as Lampini, is quite the showman – though Hussman seems to recognise him, but can’t place him. As the curtains fall Niemann pulls the stake and Dracula reforms. Niemann gives him a pledge, kill Hussman and he will serve the vampire.

Now, as Dracula only appears in the first part of the movie we may as well look at his full appearance. The Inspector has left his friends when a coach pulls up, in which Dracula is sat, he offers a false name and offers the Hussmans a lift and then offers to buy them wine at the inn. The burgomaster insists that they go to his home instead. When we next see them the burgomaster is asleep and Karl is going for more wine.

Rita is fascinated by Dracula’s ring which he puts on her finger, making her enthralled to his will. He then takes his leave and Rita goes to bed. The burgomaster has an epiphany and realises who Niemann really is but Dracula enters the room, transforms into a bat and attacks him. This was shown in animated silhouette, probably wise given the propensity for crap bats.

Upstairs Karl has realised that Rita is acting odd, sees the ring and recognises the Dracula crest. He goes downstairs and finds his Grandfather dead so calls the inspector but when he returns upstairs Rita has gone. He sees her with the Count, in the garden, and gives chase but they get into a carriage. He follows on foot until the inspector arrives with horses and they give proper chase.

As Dracula nears Niemann, the doctor and Daniel shoot off in the caravan. The police are still chasing and so Daniel tosses Dracula’s coffin onto the road. Dracula looses control, unhitches his horses and crashes the carriage. The sun is rising and he tries to return to his coffin to no avail. The end of Dracula.

As for Niemann, he goes on to Frankenstein village, finds the frozen bodies of Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) and the wolfman, who when thawed awakens as Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr). He elicits Larry’s help in finding Frankenstein’s notes, with promises of a cure for lycanthropy, and then it is off to his old estate.

The journey allows Larry to act endlessly tortured and a gypsy girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), to fall for him. Unfortunately Daniel loves her and is jealous of Larry. Niemann is more bothered about getting more revenge – this involves a convoluted brain swapping plan. An inevitable showdown, complete with angry village mob, is the order of the day.

Storywise this is weak in places. To a degree the splitting of the Dracula and the Monster/wolfman segments doesn’t help and Niemann, whilst wonderfully amoral, comes up with a revenge plan all too convoluted. It is the acting in this that is a wonder to behold. On the downside, Carradine is functional as Dracula and Chaney is much too tortured as Talbot. Poor old Glenn Strange has very little to do until the last five minutes of the film.

However Karloff is wonderful as the amoral Niemann but the star of the show is Naish as Daniel, pouring pathos into every scene he is in. Monster Mash films often fall a little flat but this one was raised by the acting of these two. I should also mention that, however weirdly convoluted the story got, the direction kept the pace of this rocketing along. 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

I truly like this charmingly cozy 1940´s monster mash from Universal, especially the vampire segment, while more ambitious Val Lewton films seem so dull and talky.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Christine, hi...

I have to say that the Val Lewton produced Isle of the Dead is one of my favourite all time films (vampire or otherwise) but sometimes you just need a good old monster mash

The T said...

I just love Universal monster-mashes. But I've never been a fan of Universal's Draculas. So I enjoy this kind of movie more for the stories and the imaginary non-determined Europe of gypsies and torch-carrying mobs...

I feel this movie is too split in two. It is almost like two movies. Karloff makes this film.

Carradine as Dracula? He has the height, and the body figure (thin). But that hat......

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T, as you will be able to tell I am the oher way around (ie I prefer Universal's Dracula to the monster mashes)
You are right, Karloff is brilliant in this but the movie of two parts detracts from the film as a whole imho