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The Monstert Mashes, Or How Universal Squeezed the Last Buck Out Of It's Classic Monsters
Genius or desperation? You decide...
By the time of the early 1940s, things weren't looking good for the venerable Universal monsters who had so terrified Depression-era audiences the previous decade. Boris Karloff, due to age and a bad back, had given up the role of the Frankenstein Monster and was spending most of his time on Broadway in Arsenic and Old Lace and other works. Bela Lugosi, meanwhile, was already in the midst of his professional descent, where the only leading roles he could get were at Monogram, PRC and other Poverty Row outfits while being reduced to supporting roles at A-list studios (like being billed sixth for his role in The Wolf Man ). And Lon Chaney Jr., the new kid on the horror block, well, he was perfect as tormented lycanthrope Larry Talbot, but when asked to step in for Karloff and Lugosi in, respectively, The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula , the results were, to put it mildly, underwhelming (especially Son of Dracula , where the portly and hammy Chaney as "Anthony Alucard" serves as one of the most gruesome examples of miscasting in film history).
The monsters were suffering in turn. The Gothic horrors that had petrified audiences a mere decade before now seemed quaint and tame when contrasted to the ongoing horrors of WWII. As such, the horror genre as a whole began going into decline during this period (not really to resurge until the late 50s when American International and Hammer Films would lead the Gothic renissance). So Universal, smartly seeing the writing on the wall, threw in the towel on making artistic horror films and focused on the bottom line. And their their solution was both simple and genius. If people would come to see one monster, wouldn't more come to see two? Or even three? So the answer was simple...pit the monsters against each other.
Thus began "The Monster Mash" era. For the next few years, Universal would create cinematic vehicles not much different than the many "Godzilla vs. Monster To Be Named Later" epics churned out in Japan three decades later. Plot didn't really matter much; the only purpose was to get the monsters onscreen, have them interact with each other, maybe fight each other and find cool ways to dispatch them. Despite this cheap attitude, the films that emerged all had their moments and the final one was arguably a classic. And here they are, from beginning to end...
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
The first monster mash served as both a direct sequel to The Wolf Man , which had been released a mere two years earlier (and served as the end of Universal's "classic monster film" era) and the fifth in the ongoing Frankenstein saga. Cursed lycanthrope Larry Talbot (Chaney, of course) is resurrected when some dumbass grave robbers break into his mausoleum on the night of the full moon and allow its rays to revive him. Still afflicted by the curse of the werewolf, Chaney seeks out Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya, also back from the original), the old Gypsy woman, who tells him that only Dr. Frankenstein can help him end his existance for good (yep, you can already see the contrivances in the script). Traveling to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, he discovers the Frankenstein Monster (Lugosi) entombed in ice and frees him. Dr. Frankenstein is dead, but his granddaughter Esla (Ilona Massey) is there along with young Dr. Manning (Patrick Knowles), who's willing to try and honor Larry's request that he destroy the Monster and himself for good. But dumbass Manning can't help but fall prey to ambition and powers up the Monster, leading to a final all-out brawl between it and the Wolf-Man in the crumbling ruins of Castle Frankenstein.
All and all, this a very enjoyable film. It's really more of a Wolf Man film than a Frankenstein film, as Larry Talbot is front and center and Chaney again gives a fine performance as the tortured, longing-for-death lycanthrope, as does Ouspenskaya as the wise Maleva. The film is faced paced and energetic, and the final battle does live up to its billing (at least by 40s standards), with the two classic monsters duking it out in those still impressive Gothic sets. And there's the usual gang of Universal supporting actors, including Knowles, Lionel Atwill as the vengeful town mayor and Dwight Frye (best known as Renfield from Dracula ) in his last credited screen role as a skittish peasant. (Frye tragically died later that year of a heart attack, not long after being signed to a major role in a non-horror flick.)
Let's not mince words, though. The film is no classic. Its low budget shows through in a lot of places, the script (by legendary novelist /screenwriter Curt Sidomak, best known for scripting The Wolf Man and the novel Donovan's Brain ), while not as patchwork as the later monster mashes, still strains to bring the two monsters together and the whole thing has the film of a solid journeyman effort, but no real artistic touch. The biggest problem is Lugosi, at last playing the role he turned down 12 years earlier (which allowed Karloff to take it and become a star). At this time, Lugosi was 60, addicted to morphine and hamped by cuts to the script which eliminated dialogue by the Monster and took away the fact that he'd been rendered blind at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein . As such, Lugosi spends most of the film staggering along with his arms outstretched, looking sad and comical (and due to his age, in much of the film he required a stunt double). It's an unfortunate performance and one of the low points of Lugosi's career (maybe it would have been for the best if he never played the Monster; he was always better suited for the Dr. Frankenstein role, not his creation).
House of Frankenstein (1944)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a big success, so naturally, it didn't take long for Universal to rush another monster mash into theaters a year later. And for this one, they upped the odds, throwing in not only Count Dracula, but a mad scientist and his mad assistant as well (there was also talk of throwing the Mummy, the Mad Ghoul and even the Invisible Man into the mix, when the film was under the alternate title Chamber of Horrors ). To further interest audiences, Universal lured Boris Karloff back to the Frankenstein franchise, though he was too old to play the Monster (they settled for him playing the mad scientist role instead).
The result is no so much one film as an anthology with two seperate halves, united by the travels of nutball scientist Dr. Neimann (Karloff), who idolizes Dr. Frankenstein and yearns to follow in his footsteps, and his hunchback servant Daniel (two-time Oscar nominee J. Carrol Naish). Escaping from prison one night thanks to a conveniently placed lightning bolt, the duo come upon a traveling "Chamber of Horrors" attraction operated by Professor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco) that happens to contain the staked, skeletal remains of Count Dracula (already you can see the plot creaking badly to stay together). The duo kill Lampini, take over his show and resurrect Dracula (John Carradine) by yanking the stake out of his heart. In return for protecting his coffin, Dracula agrees to kill the burgenmeister who sent Neimann to prison. Dracula does the job, but when he tries to abduct the man's granddaughter-in-law, the ungrateful Neimann dumps his coffin, leaving poor Drac to get wiped out by the rays of the sun.
Now that the "Dracula Half" is done, we go on to the "Monster/Wolf Man Half." Traveling to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, Neimann and Daniel find and defrost the Wolf Man (Chaney, duh) and the Monster (now played by Glenn Strange). Neimann enlists Larry Talbot's help by promising him a cure for his lycanthropy, while promising Daniel he'll get him a new and healthy body. However, Neimann is more interested in reviving the Monster and exacting vengeance on two former associates then keeping either promise and soon enough, Talbot goes all werewolf and kills a peasant. Add in Talbot and Daniel fighting each other for the affections of a fetching young Gypsy runaway (Elena Verdugo) and things rapidly go to hell. The Wolf Man gets shot by a sliver bullet, Daniel gets hurled to his death by the Monster and the Monster grabs Neimann, runs from the usual angry mob and both perish in quicksand.
Whew, quite a story. At this point, Universal was clearly starting to lose interest in the series. Box office was a higher priority over continuity and it shows. The low budget is obvious now, as the sets are far less elaborate than before and stock and recycled footage from previous monster epics like Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein are reused. And despite the best efforts of the writers (including Sidomak, who did the story), this still feels like two different films slammed together with only the barest connecting threads.
Thankfully, the cast makes things worthwhile (and what a cast...where else will you get Karloff, Chaney, Carradine, Naish, Zucco and Lionel Atwill together in the same movie?). It's great to see Karloff again and he gives his usual fine performance (using that awesome spooky voice of his to great effect). Chaney's his usual reliable self as the Wolf-Man and Naish actually makes Daniel into a genuinely tragic figure (his pain when the Gypsy girl rejects him due to his misshappen form is palpable). The real disappointment is Carradine, whose Dracula comes off as a real wimp, passively agreeing to be Neimann's stooge and getting killed off by the halfway point. Compared to Lugosi, Carradine pales as Dracula (one wonders why Lugosi wasn't brought back; perhaps because at this time he was playing a Dracula-like vampire in Columbia's Return of the Vampire), even if, with his gaunt frame and mustache, he more resembles Bram Stoker's original concept of the vampire than anyone else. Strange, however, fares well as the Monster, aided by coaching from Karloff in the role (he'd later achieve his greatest fame as Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke).
House of Dracula (1945)
With their lust for box office at the expense of everything else, Universal rushed House of Dracula into theaters a mere year after House of Frankenstein . This one would prove to the be the last of the "serious" monster mashes, due to external events as well as waning audience interest. With the end of WWII and the explosion of the atomic bomb, the next decade would belong to mutation-spawned monstrosities and alien invaders from outer space. Gothic horror was on the wane, not to return to prominence for another 12 years or so and one could arguably say this was "the last hurrah" as far as "serious" Gothic horror was concerned. One wishes, then, that they could have put more effort into this one, because as clunky as the plots for the previous two monster mashes were, they're sheer brilliance compared to this one.
Keeping with the format of House of Frankenstein , we have the same lineup of monsters. Our mad scientist is Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), who actually starts out as a rather respectable and sane chap, though he does have a hunchbacked assistant - but this one is a female hunchback played by Jane Adams (way to go sister, strike a blow for all girl lab assistants everywhere!). However, Edelmann soon gets a couple of unusual new patients when both Count Dracula (Carradine) and the Wolf Man (Chaney), both inexplicably revived following their downfalls in the previous flick (and no explanation is given), arrive seeking cures for their monstrous conditions. The Wolf Man is very sincere, but Drac is only using this as an excuse to get in Edelmann's good graces so he can vamp the doc's fetching lab assistant (Martha O'Driscoll). And in a plot contrivence to end all plot contrivences, the doc and the Wolf Man find the comatose Frankenstein Monster (Strange) in the caverns beneath his cliffside estate (still clutching Neimann's skeleton...yeah, so they sank all the way from Castle Frankenstein to there?!).
Soon enough, Drac drops the facade, attacks Edelmann, infects him with his blood and attempts to abduct the fair maiden. Thwarted by the Wolf Man, he's forced to return to his coffin and Edelmann and the Wolf Man drag him outside to be destroyed by the sun again. But it's too late; Dracula's blood transforms the doc into a Jekyll and Hyde-like madman who rampages through the nearbye village and recharges the Monster for more mischief. Things quickly go to hell, the monstrous Edelmann kills Jane the Hunchback before getting shot by the Wolf Man (who has been successfully cured) and the Monster apparently perishes in a fire that consumes Edelmann's estate, while the Wolf Man escapes with the cutie lab assistant, who's fallen for him (someone please explain to me why in these films, the paunchy, hound dog-like Lon Chaney Jr. gets all these gorgeous women falling at his feet). So someone gets a happy ending this time.
Hooh boy, this one has problems, not the least of which is the lack of screentime for the monsters. Dracula is again killed off around the halfway point, the Monster is comatose until the finale and the Wolf-Man spends most of the film in human form. (This was not their fault; due to WWII induced shortages, Universal makeup master Jack Pierce had all but run out of the yak hairs he used to create the Wolf Man's furry mug.) It falls to Stevens' mad Dr. Edelmann to be the main threat and he's a poor substitute (when he goes all Mr Hyde, he doesn't look monstrous, just in need of a good shave and maybe a pressed suit). The budget is even lower than in House of Frankenstein and stock footage abounds (in the climactic scene, some of the Frankenstein Monster footage is of Chaney's Monster in the similar fiery climax of Ghost of Frankenstein ). The creative exhaustion and lack of interest from anyone is palpable.
However, there are some bright spots. Carradine fares much better as Dracula this time around (he's still no Lugosi), especially in one scene where he hypnotizes O'Driscoll into playing "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano as a prelude to vamping her, only to be driven off by the cross around her neck. Chaney is, or course, reliable as ever as the Wolf Man and Adams is rather sympathetic and likable as the world's prettiest hunchback. Also featurs the last horror film appearance by the venerable Lionel Atwill, playing yet another police inspector (way to stretch there, Lionel). And to the film's credit, it's competently made, fast-paced and never dull. Stil, it would have been a shame to have the monsters end things here, except this was still in store...
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Who would have thought 40s funnymen Bud Abbott and Lou Costello would be the ones to give the classic Universal monsters a worthy swan song? (Of course, the same could be said of Abbott and Costello, whose careers at that point were on a downswing from their Buck Private glory days.) But they did and the result was a big budget classic that rewarded Universal handsomely at the box office, rescuing them (again) from the brink of bankruptcy (not the first time either A&C or the monsters had done that either). Thankfully, the film still holds up today as on of the best horror comedies ever made, full of laughs and giving the monsters the classy curtain call they deserved.
Bumbling baggage clerks Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello), working on the railway in Florida, recieve a couple of large crates intended for a local "House of Horrors" museum. The crates contain the comatose remains of Count Dracula (Lugosi, back in his iconic role for the first time since the original Dracula 17 years earlier) and the Frankenstein Monster (Strange). Big shock, the gruesome twosome revive, scare the crap out of Wilbur and take off. Accused of stealing the crates, Chick and Wilbur manage to elude jail and set out to recover the missing exhibits and clear their names. What they discover instead is that Dracula has enlisted the aide of mad scientist Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) to find a new brain for the Frankenstein Monster. The Count has big plans for the Monster and wants him easy to control; therefore, he wants a "pliable, stupid and utterly obedient brain." So of course, Dr. Mornay has chosen Wilbur's brain.
Clearly, the boys are outmatched. Fortunately, they receive unexpected help in the form of Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man (Chaney), who arrives intending to thwart Dracula's scheme (he's wolfing out again, so I guess the cure in House of Dracula was only temporary). What follows is a madcap and screwball series of events, culminating in Wilbur being captured and about to have his brain removed at Mornay's lab in her cliffside manor overlooking the ocean. Chick and the Wolf Man end up rescuing him, Dr. Mornay gets thrown out the window to her death by the Monster and a battle royale ensues in the halls of Castle Mornay. Dracula and the Wolf Man fight and Drac tries to flee in bat-form, but the Wolf Man grabs him and jumps into the sea, apparently killing them both. Chick and Wilbur manage to flee the Monster, who ends up perishing when the castle is set ablaze (you'd think the Monster by now would know that burning buildings = instant death for him). Thankfully, Chick and Wilbur are now safe...until they encounter the Invisible Man (a brilliant cameo from Vincent Price).
This film is just plain fun. Abbott and Costello are at their best here and the flick contains some of their most classic gags and lines (when the Wolf Man tells them he'll turn into a wolf when the moon is full, Costello famously replies, "Yeah, you and about twenty million other guys"). But the film also gets the key thing right about successful horror comedies; you play the horror straight and the humor comes from the "normal" characters' reactions to them. The monsters are portrayed as genuine and scary threats and Abbott and Costello play off them brilliantly (especially Costello, whether he's getting hypnotized by Dracula or trying to flee the Monster, at one point even sitting in his lap). The result is satisfying for both fans of comedy and fans of horror alike.
For the monsters, this couldn't be a better sendoff. Chaney gets to be the hero in his swan-song as his favorite character, still excellent as the tormented lycanthrope. Strange, in his third and final turn as the Monster, finally gets something do and gets in some good schtick with Abbott and Costello (the Monster even speaks this time around, though he doesn't say anything more than "Yes, master"). And then there's Lugosi, who, despite being noticeably aged and paunchy, steps back into his immortal role without missing a beat. (Hard to believe this was only the second time he played the role on screen; when he's in the role, it seems like he last performed it the day before.) It was his last moment of cinematic glory and his last A-list picture. From here on, it would be a descent into the pits of Z-grade hell, ending up in starring in Ed Wood flicks like Plan 9 From Outer Space . But at least as Dracula, he went out like a champ.
And so did his fellow monsters. They would languish in oblivion until Hammer films and the duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would revive them in the late 50s. But at least with this era, they went out with their heads held high.