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.

A tragic, misunderstood monster

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As it turns out, I could’ve done Frankenstein as my final vintage horror film of October, since what I thought were two 1921 horror films turned out to be horribly mistitled. But since I never immediately take down the Monster template and love Halloween so much, why not save the final film for early November?

Released 21 November 1931, this was the fourth film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. (It was like nails on a chalkboard to see her seriously credited as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” in the opening credits! She published under her own name, not her husband’s name with the title Mrs. in front!) However, the film was more based on a 1927 play by Peggy Webling.

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James Whale directed, and Carl Laemmle, Jr. produced. The film stars Colin Clive as Henry (not Victor) Frankenstein; Mae Clarke (who took the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy) as his fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza; Dwight Frye as hunchbacked assistant Fritz; Edward van Sloan as Dr. Waldman; John Boles as friend Victor Moritz; and, last but not least, Boris Karloff (né William Henry Pratt) as the Monster. I like how there’s a question mark for the Monster’s actor in the opening cast list.

Universal Pictures had lost $2.2 million in revenues in 1930, but was rescued by the runaway hit Dracula in February 1931. Hence, Carl Laemmle, Jr., announced plans for more horror films. He knew a cash cow when he saw one.

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There were five sequels:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (with Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Monster)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (with Béla Lugosi as the Monster)
House of Frankenstein (1944) (with Glenn Strange as the Monster and Karloff as a mad scientist)

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Henry Frankenstein, a young scientist obsessed with the idea of creating life, has holed himself away in his lab in an abandoned watchtower with his assistant Fritz. Towards this most lofty goal, they dig up dead bodies and abscond with various body parts. One of these body parts is a brain Fritz grabs from the lecture hall of Henry’s old medical professor, Dr. Waldman.

Alas, he drops the healthy brain, and unrealizingly takes a criminal’s so-called “abnormal” brain in its place. As a modern viewer, and given the attitudes of the era, I have to wonder just why a criminal’s brain was automatically portrayed as “abnormal.” Was the deceased mentally ill, gay, left-handed, an anarchist? And what exactly was his crime?

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Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth is extremely concerned about what’s going on, and goes to his friend Victor for help. They in turn get Dr. Waldman to come with them to confront Henry about his bizarre behavior and hermitism. The three of them set off, and arrive during a terrible storm. Henry refuses to admit them at first, but finally relents.

Henry tells them to watch as he brings his creation to life. The moment is creeping ever closer, as soon as the strongest lightning strikes. Henry’s creation is moved from an operating table towards an opening near the roof, and when the booming thunder rings out, his ambition is finally realized.

The Monster is a simple, obedient, easy-going creature, until Fritz scares him with a lit torch. Henry and Dr. Waldman mistake his innocent fright for a dangerous attempted attack, and have him chained up. They abandon the Monster to his chains and Fritz’s sadistic torture with the torch.

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The Monster snaps under Fritz’s torture, and lashes out. After he attacks Fritz, he goes after Henry and Dr. Waldman, but they escape, and make plans to have him put down. First, Henry mixes a drug to be injected into the monster as soon as he’s released and tries to attack again. Once the Monster is unconscious, Henry departs for his wedding and leaves Dr. Waldman in charge of the euthanasia.

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The Monster awakes as Dr. Waldman is preparing to dissect him, and isn’t exactly happy. After attacking Dr. Waldman, he goes in search of his creator. Along the way, he has an encounter with a little girl named Maria, a farmer’s daughter. He’s so innocent and gentle, taking a childlike delight in throwing flowers into the water. In fact, he’s a bit too innocent, and doesn’t realize not all things float.

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His next stop is Henry’s house, where he goes after Elizabeth. Victor also brings the news that the Monster has attacked Dr. Waldman and escaped. By the time Elizabeth is found, the Monster has escaped again, and a mob of vigilantes set out on a search party, split three ways.

Henry becomes separated from the others during the search, leading to one final confrontation with the Monster.

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I really enjoyed this film, though at only 71 minutes, it felt a bit rushed and underdeveloped in spots. I wanted to see the Monster wreaking more havoc, and to get more of a window into his psychological and emotional state (i.e., truer to the book than the play). But judged for what it is and not what it’s not, I’d rate it 4.5 stars.

First Frankenstein on Film

To all those observing Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, may you have a marvellous end to the holiday season!

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In honor of the awesome month of October, all but two of my posts this month are Halloween-themed. My Monday, Wednesday, and Friday posts will focus on famous horror films of the silent era with landmark anniversaries this year. We’re starting off with one of the granddaddies of horror film, the 1910 Frankenstein.

For years, this first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel was one of the most famous lost films. (The discussion of why so many films of the silent and early sound era are or were lost is a subject for another post!) Then, in 1963, a 15 March 1910 issue of The Edison Kinetogram surfaced, containing stills and the plot description.

In the early Fifties, Alois F. Dettlaff, a Wisconsin film collector, bought a copy of this film from his mother-in-law, who was also a film collector. He didn’t realize the importance of this film until many years later. The film’s existence was finally revealed in the mid-Seventies. Though it was somewhat deteriorated, it was still in watchable condition.

At only 13 minutes, this isn’t a film with a very detailed, complex, developed storyline, but we shouldn’t expect that from the typical 1910 film. Instead, we should marvel at how amazing it is such an old film is still with us, and how these pioneering filmmakers were able to do so much with the medium in its infancy. They didn’t need 60 or more minutes to tell a complete story. Though my favorite period of the silent era is from about 1921 till the end, I have a special fondness for these early short subjects.

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Perhaps the special effects might seem lame by modern standards, and the horror aspect not so horrific, but once again, we must put ourselves in the shoes of a 1910 viewer. While it’s natural to have our own reactions as modern people in a specific culture, we can’t divorce anything from its historical and cultural context. It’s really unfair to watch a film past a certain age and laugh at it for not being exactly like the films we’re used to.

In this iteration of the film, young Victor Frankenstein heads off to college to study science and learn the secret of creating his own human being. He finally believes he’s found the winning formula, and brings his monster to life. Frankenstein, however, is so repulsed by what he’s wrought, he abandons his creature in disgust.

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Frankenstein returns home to marry his sweetheart Elizabeth, and starts recovering from his horrific shock.  However, his monster has tracked him down, and won’t leave without a fight. During their struggle, the monster sees his reflection in the mirror, and he’s so terrified he runs away. But he just can’t stay away, and returns once more on Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s wedding night.

The monster goes after Elizabeth, who manages to escape. The monster and Frankenstein get in another fight, and the monster leaves the house after overpowering Frankenstein. When the monster returns, he gazes at himself in the mirror and gradually vanishes. Frankenstein presently comes back to the room, and sees his monster’s reflection in the mirror. Finally, the horrific image fades, Frankenstein sees his true image, and he and Elizabeth embrace.

This film was once on the Top 10 Most Wanted Lost Films and Films Lost Forever lists, and yet it was miraculously discovered. These kinds of miracles give me hope for other valuable lost films to someday be found and restored, particularly Theda Bara’s catalogue.