A house of horrors meets a heaping helping of horsefeathers

There’s a lot to be said for knowing when to step away from a series or concept. In the case of Universal’s monster franchise, they kept driving that gravy train into the ground with too many sequels and crossovers, instead of creating awesome new monsters and stories.

1944’s House of Frankenstein at least had a consistent, coherent plot, despite being an obvious B movie. House of Dracula is riddled with plotholes, unbelievable reactions, and shamefully poor use of Frankenstein’s Monster.

I would say Universal redeemed itself with the final group appearance of the Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but then they proceeded to run that concept into the ground as well with a total of seven A&C Meet… films.

Dracula (John Carradine) shows up at Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens)’s castle at five in the morning, introducing himself as Baros Latos and begging for a cure for his Vampyrism. Dr. Edelmann, who’s been sleeping fully-clothed in a chair in his office, is amazingly chill about a stranger entering his home at that hour and saying he’s a Vampyre. Maybe that’s a more common occurrence than I thought!

Dr. Edelmann and his nurses, Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) and hunchbacked Nina (Jane Adams), begin work on a possible cure. Nina is very disappointed he’s interrupting his work on curing her hunchback, but he assures her he’ll fix her next.

Dracula’s dirt-lined coffin is moved into the cellar while Dr. Edelmann prepares for the blood transfusions which he believes will turn Dracula into a normal human. (Odd how Dracula never sought a cure in any of his previous movies! Also odd how he managed to come back to life after his demise in the previous film.)

Dr. Edelmann is in the middle of these very important experiments when Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) arrives, desperately begging for a cure for his lycanthropism. He insists he can’t wait for Dr. Edelmann to finish what he’s doing, since a full Moon is coming up. Larry then goes to the prison and begs the cops to put him in a cell for his own safety, a request they fulfill.

That same night, Dr. Edelmann goes to see Larry, after learning where he went, and sees him transmogrifying into the Wolf Man as the full Moon rises. Convinced of the seriousness of his condition, Dr. Edelmann takes him to the castle in the morning.

Dr. Edelmann believes Larry’s lycanthropism isn’t caused by the Moon, but cranial pressure which can be cured with spores from clavaria formosa flowers. This mysterious plant’s spores allegedly reshape bones.

Larry doesn’t want to wait for more spores to be harvested, and jumps off a rocky ledge into the ocean.

Dr. Edelmann goes after Larry, finding him in a cave and transformed again into the Wolf Man. Because it’s such a smart idea to look for a werewolf during a full Moon, and to not have backup in case things get ugly.

Larry attacks him, but turns back into his human form when the Moon disappears behind clouds. As they’re making their way out of the cave, they find Frankenstein’s Monster partly buried in quagmire, and are quite nonchalant about it.

Also with the Monster is the skeleton of Dr. Niemann from the previous film, and Larry doesn’t say anything about their close acquaintance.

Dr. Edelmann takes the Monster into his castle via a tunnel leading to the cellar and starts reanimating him, but is prevailed upon by his nurses to stop. The Monster is too dangerous and powerful to risk yet another reign of terror.

Meanwhile, Dracula is trying to seduce Milizia and turn her into a Vampyre, efforts which are interrupted when Dr. Edelmann tells Dracula he needs another blood transfusion. Strange antibodies were found in his blood.

Nina is on to Dracula’s scheme, and when she tells Dr. Edelmann her suspicions, he prepares a different type of transfusion, one which will destroy Dracula.

Dracula hypnotises Dr. Edelmann and Nina so he can reverse the blood transfusion and turn Dr. Edelmann into a Vampyre. As bad as this film is, it’s notable for the only instance of Dracula turning another man into a Vampyre, albeit not in the usual way so as to avoid homoerotic overtones.

Now the stage is set for an increasingly intense parade of horrors.

House of Dracula was released 7 December 1945 and became a commercial success, though it’s not so highly-rated today.

A monstrous quintet

Premièring in NYC on 15 December 1944 and in L.A. on 22 December, with a general release on 16 February 1945, The House of Frankenstein was the first multi-monster movie. Prior, only two monsters had appeared together. In early drafts, even more Universal monsters were featured—the Invisible Man, the Ape Woman, the Mummy, the Mad Ghoul. Working titles included The Devil’s Brood and Chamber of Horrors.

This film marked the début of Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster. His predecessor, Boris Karloff, is said to have coached him on how to play the role. Karloff’s appearance was to be his last in Universal’s classic horror cycle.

A mad scientist, Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff), was thrown in prison for robbing graveyards in his quest to replicate Dr. Frankenstein’s work in bringing the dead back to life. His hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) is very eager for this project to take place, since he feels it’ll cure his deformity.

After their break from prison during a lightning storm, they run across the travelling Prof. Lampini (George Zucco) and help to push his circus wagons out of the mud. To repay the favor, Lampini invites them into one of the wagons.

This isn’t exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, since Dr. Niemann and Daniel murder Lampini and take over his horror show.

Who should attend the next show but Bürgermeister Hussman (Sig Ruman), the reason Dr. Niemann was thrown in prison! As part of his quest for revenge, Dr. Niemann brings Count Dracula’s skeleton to life and convinces him to do exactly as he’s told.

While Hussman is walking home with his grandson Karl and his new bride Rita (Anne Gwynne), Dracula (John Carradine) pulls up alongside them and offers a ride. The Hussmans also agree to have a drink with him.

It doesn’t take long for Dracula to bring Rita under his spell with a hypnotic ring. That mission accomplished, Dracula assumes his bat form late at night and kills Hussman. It’s too late by the time Karl discovers their guest’s true identity and rushes to his grandfather.

Things go from bad to worse when Rita disappears while Karl is phoning for help. He races after Dracula’s departing carriage, but to not avail. Karl alerts a team of police on horseback, whom he gives chase with.

Rita is recovered after a road accident caused by Daniel throwing Dracula’s coffin into the path of the pursuers. Dracula himself is killed by the sunlight.

Dr. Niemann’s next stop is Castle Frankenstein, which is now in ruins. He and Daniel are ordered by cops to scram, since travelling shows like theirs aren’t allowed.

More trouble immediately follows when Daniel comes to the rescue of a young Romany girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), being whipped and turns the whip on the attacker. Daniel begs Dr. Niemann to take in the injured girl till she recovers. Since the cops also ordered the Romany out, she’s left without any familiar faces.

Ilonka is initially alarmed when she discovers Daniel’s a hunchback, but quickly becomes friendly and accepting again. Daniel’s been kind to her, so it doesn’t matter what he looks like.

While Dr. Niemann and Daniel are prowling around the ruined castle in the middle of the night, Daniel falls through the floor and into a cave. Explorations reveal the frozen bodies of the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), preserved inside ice blocks.

Daniel and Dr. Niemann light a fire to unthaw the bodies. First to be freed is the Wolfman, Larry Talbot, who demands to know why he’s being tortured like this. He can’t bear living with the curse of transforming into a wolf at every full moon.

Dr. Niemann promises to free him from the curse if he helps with reanimating the Monster. This promise is short-lived, since despite Larry and Daniel’s begging, Dr. Niemann refuses to work on anything but reviving the Monster and getting revenge on two other people.

Meanwhile, Larry becomes the Wolfman at the next full moon and kills someone. Daniel tries to tell Ilonka about Larry’s true identity, but she’s too in love with Larry to believe it. She screams at Daniel that she hates him and that he’s ugly, and runs away. Awash in anguish and unrequited love, Daniel begins whipping the Monster’s body.

The locals form a search party to find the werewolf after the body of the Wolfman’s latest victim is discovered. During the search, Larry tells Ilonka the truth about himself, and says Dr. Niemann won’t help him.

Larry confronts Dr. Niemann again while the Monster is being reanimated, and once again is rebuffed.

Everything comes to a head at once when Larry transmogrifies into the Wolfman again, the angry villagers converge on Dr. Niemann’s house, and the Monster is reanimated.

“I saw what I saw when I saw it!”

Released 15 June 1948, A&C Meet Frankenstein was the first of the duo’s seven A&C Meet… pictures. It made over $3 million at the box office, and remains one of their best-known and most popular films.

In London, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) places an urgent call to a Florida railway station’s baggage department, where Wilbur Gray (Lou) and Chick Young (Bud) work. He asks if there are two crates addressed to McDougal House of Horrors, and says under no circumstances are the crates to be delivered until he arrives.

During this phonecall, Talbot transforms into the Wolfman, and rips up his room. Wilbur thinks he’s put his dog on the line, and hangs up in disgust.

McDougal then arrives, demanding his crates. Wilbur doesn’t want to obey him, but McDougal insists. While Wilbur and Chick fetch the crates, he tells Wilbur’s girlfriend Sandra the crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. They’ve been insured for $20,000.

McDougal is furious at Wilbur’s mishandling of the crates, and orders him to take them to his House of Horrors so an insurance agent can inspect them. If Wilbur damages them, he intends to collect that $20,000.

While Wilbur opens the first crate, Chick answers a call from McDougal and assures him everything’s alright. Chick is quite bemused by Wilbur’s fear of the creatures in the House of Horrors, and even more so by Wilbur’s belief that the coffin inside the crate contains the real Dracula.

While Wilbur is reading a card about the legend of Dracula, he hears odd noises. The next time Chick is out, Wilbur sees the coffin opening. Chick thinks Wilbur is being ridiculous and wasting time, since these creepy goings-on only happen when Chick isn’t there.

Conveniently, Dracula (Béla Lugosi) has left his coffin and is lurking in the shadows by the time Chick investigates. Chick laughs while reading the card for the next crate, about Frankenstein’s monster, but Wilbur takes it very seriously.

While they’re opening this crate, Dracula gets back into his coffin. Wilbur is so freaked out to see Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), he bumps into a guillotine and causes a dummy to get beheaded.

The next time Chick is out, Dracula puts Wilbur under his spell, and then brings Frankenstein’s monster to life. By the time McDougal arrives with the insurance man, both monsters are gone. McDougal has Wilbur and Chick arrested.

Dracula compels Frankenstein’s monster to his castle, where we learn Sandra is in cahoots with him. He insists she call him Dr. Lajos, to avoid suspicion.

Dracula doesn’t want to repeat Dr. Frankenstein’s mistake by giving the monster a bad brain. He wants the monster to have no intellect or will of his own, so he’ll bend to his master’s will. Sandra has just the brain in mind—Wilbur’s.

Talbot comes to see Wilbur and Chick, who’ve been bailed out of jail. He’s horrorstruck the crates were delivered before he arrived, and says he’s been tracking Dracula from Europe. Talbot believes Dracula wants to bring Frankenstein’s monster to life.

Talbot demands Wilbur lock him into his room, and not let him out no matter what, since the Moon will soon be full. Of course, Talbot has forgotten his suitcase, and Wilbur helpfully delivers it. He’s changed into the Wolfman by the time Wilbur gets there, but avoids detection the entire time.

In the morning, Wilbur and Chick meet undercover investigator Joan Raymond, who reveals she, not Sandra, paid their bail. Wilbur asks her to be his date to that night’s masquerade ball, to which he’s also taking Sandra.

When Wilbur and Chick unlock Talbot, they find him in a very disheveled state. They laugh off his story about being bitten by a werewolf, but he insists he’s completely serious, and that they have to find the missing monsters.

Sandra is upset Wilbur has come to Dracula’s castle with Chick and Joan, since she wanted him to come alone. While the ladies are changing into their costumes, Talbot calls and warns Wilbur he may be in the house of Dracula. Talbot also wants them to search the place.

Their search yields a lot of extremely creepy, unexpected things, among them the monsters. Yet again, only Wilbur encounters them, and Chick is convinced he’s making things up.

The plot thickens when Dracula meets Wilbur, and Sandra discovers Joan is from the insurance company.

Dracula disappointed me

Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

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Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

4.0.1

We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

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The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

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Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.