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.

Meddling anew in things best left alone

Inspired by the success of Son of Frankenstein, Universal decided to create a sequel to The Invisible Man. In March 1939, they began searching for the right screenwriters and director. Finally, they settled on Curt Siodmak and Lester K. Cole as writers, and Joe May as director. Mr. May was a pioneer of German film, and escaped to the U.S. in 1933 after the Nazis came to power.

Though there’d been hints of Boris Karloff or Béla Lugosi playing the lead, Universal wanted an unknown actor, a “young, good-looking contender even though he would remain invisible until the last reel.”

Filming began 13 October 1939 and was supposed to last 27 days, with a budget of $243,750 ($4,564,262.59 today). However, they were behind schedule by the second week, and by November, everyone was working till midnight. There was scant expectation of wrapping on schedule.

Production ended 11 November 1939, followed by a projected few days of post-production for special effects. Once again, they went over, and post-production lasted fifteen days. On the final day, the crew worked till 4:15 AM.

On 12 January 1940, the film was released. It earned $815,000 from national and international profits combined ($15,802,714.29 today).

Below stairs at Radcliffe Manor, several servants anxiously await word about a death row reprieve for Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who’s falsely accused of murdering his brother Michael. Also very worried is Helen Manson (Nan Grey), his fiancée.

After more and more time ticks by without any happy news, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), brother of the first Invisible Man, Jack, goes to see him in prison.

During this tightly-supervised ten-minute visit, Geoffrey mysteriously vanishes into thin air, leaving his clothes behind. With the authorities convinced he’s the real murderer, a manhunt is launched. In the wake of Geoffrey’s disappearing act, Helen also vanishes.

First Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and then Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) come to Frank’s lab, convinced he knows something. Sampson is certain Frank used the invisibility potion on Geoffrey.

Geoffrey meets Helen at the remote home of Ben Jenkins (Forrester Harvey). Helen hopes they can hide out there safely until Frank discovers the antidote, but Geoffrey won’t rest easily till the real killer is found.

Though there’s no one else around for miles, Geoffrey is extremely on-edge from the incessant barking of Ben’s dog. Helen makes Ben chain him up far from the house.

The dog attracts the attention of a cop bicycling through the woods. He’s still barking crazily when the cop arrives at the house. A fight breaks out, with the cop suspecting Ben has visitors and demanding to search the house.

Against Ben’s agitated attempts to block the cop from going upstairs, Geoffrey is discovered. The cop runs back downstairs to phone for help, and is told to not let Geoffrey take off his clothes no matter what.

Geoffrey does just that and escapes out the window before the cop and Ben return.

Geoffrey wastes no time in going to Frank’s lab. Frank has been working busily hard on the antidote, and recently had success with a guinea pig. Now he manages to take a blood sample from Geoffrey, despite his invisibility, to use in the next version.

Geoffrey’s suspicions are triggered when Willie Spears (Alan Napier), the new superintendent of the Radcliffes’ coal mine, visits the lab. Based on what Spears says, Geoffrey has reason to believe Cobb (his cousin) is the real killer. Not wasting a moment, he perches on Spears’s car and stalls it in the woods.

Spears is terrified when Geoffrey makes himself known. First he thinks he drank more than he was aware of, then thinks it’s Satan. Geoffrey chases him through the woods, taunting him and saying there’s no escape.

Fueled by terror, Spears makes a full confession and says Cobb would’ve killed him if he told authorities what really happened. He begs for mercy, and it looks like Geoffrey is satisfied.

Until, that is, Spears is ambushed in his house after packing a suitcase. Geoffrey ties him up and says he’ll be back after settling a score with Cobb.

Now begins a calculated campaign to prove Cobb’s guilt to the authorities and take revenge, all while Frank continues trying to find an antidote before Geoffrey goes mad like Jack.

A new Mummy series begins

Universal knew a good thing when they saw one, which led to all of their classic monsters being made into franchises with many sequels. It didn’t matter if the original actors were absent, though most modern viewers find it hard to picture these iconic horror creatures being played by anyone else.

The Mummy’s Hand, released 20 September 1940, began a rebooted series of four Mummy films. In comparison to the Boris Karloff original, where the titular character spends the majority of the film as a modern Egyptian, this series features a Mummy in full bandaged regalia. He’s also way creepier, particularly with his blacked-out eyes and mouth.

Most reviewers of 1940 weren’t too keen on it, a view which is still shared today. This is an obvious B movie, not timeless, classic cinema. It’s also a widely-held opinion that the Mummy is Universal’s least-loved, most-neglected monster.

Andoheb (George Zucco) goes to the Hill of the Seven Jackals at the behest of the dying High Priest of Karnak. Once he arrives, he hears the tragic story of Kharis, which is quite similar to that of Imhotep in the 1932 original. (In fact, Universal reused footage of Imhotep being mummified alive! Other footage was recycled as well.)

Kharis was in love with the deceased Princess Ananka, so much so he steals tana leaves from her tomb to bring her back to life while he’s guarding her. Predictably, he’s caught in the act. To prevent screaming while he’s mummified alive, his tongue is cut out.

The High Priest tells Andoheb how to keep Kharis semi-living. During a full Moon, Kharis must drink a brew made with three tana leaves. If the tomb is disturbed, a brew of nine leaves will fully reanimate Kharis. You can probably guess why that’s desired!

Brooklyn boys Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford, who’s a dead ringer for Lou Costello) discover a broken vase in the Cairo bazaar in the modern era and pay $75 for it. Steve, an archaeologist, is convinced it’s an authentic Ancient Egyptian relic. Not only that, he believes the hieroglyphics are directions to Ananka’s tomb.

They’re left with almost no money after buying it, so they’re really desperate to get rich by selling it to the Cairo Museum. At first, Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) claims it’s a phony, but later admits it’s indeed authentic. However, he has reservations about an expedition to the tomb.

Andoheb, who also works for the museum, opposes the mission too.

Presently, Steve and Babe convince travelling magician Tim Sullivan, The Great Solvani (character actor Cecil Kellaway), to help with financing their expedition. Since Solvani is a fellow Brooklynite, he readily agrees.

His daughter and assistant Marta (Peggy Moran) feels much differently, particularly since Andoheb visited and told her Steve and Babe are fakes on a wild goose chase. But since Solvani already sank so much money into this mission, there’s no choice but to follow through.

Though they ultimately find Kharis’s tomb, there’s nothing to indicate Ananka is also in the vicinity.

And then Andoheb reanimates Kharis, who proceeds to go on a rampage through the camp and tomb.

A mad surgeon seeks revenge

Released 8 July 1935, The Raven is, as might be expected from the title, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem. But just as with the previous year’s The Black Cat, it has very little to do with the source material. TPTB also once again insulted Béla Lugosi by billing him second to Boris Karloff, despite being the main character. To make it even worse, Lugosi only earned $5,000 for the film vs. Karloff’s $10,000.

At least seven people worked on the script from August 1934–March 1935. To avoid “running the risk of excessive horror,” the Production Code Administration forbade Universal from showing operation scenes, as well as much more horrific makeup for Karloff’s character.

The Netherlands, Ontario, British Columbia, and China were among the places which banned the film. The Raven was the final horror film approved by the British Board of Film Censors.

The Raven was also the last film in Universal’s trilogy of Poe-inspired films, the others being Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat.

Young dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is injured in a horrible car accident, and all her doctors pronounce her too far gone to save. Her dad, Judge Thatcher (Samuel Hinds), and her fiancé Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews), however, refuse to abandon hope, and beg retired Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to operate.

Dr. Vollin has many reservations, and doesn’t think they should fear the natural, inevitable process of death, but finally is compelled into operating.

Jean and Dr. Vollin become close friends after the surgery, and Jean sees him as more of a god than a man. In the course of their friendship, Dr. Vollin tells Jean about his love of Edgar Allan Poe and shows her his macabre collection of torture devices. They’ve become so attached to one another, they want to marry.

Judge Thatcher is none too pleased to learn of their plans, particularly since Jean’s already engaged to another man. Dr. Vollin exchanges harsh words with Judge Thatcher before taking his leave in a huff.

Dr. Vollin sees a perfect window of opportunity for twisted revenge when a fugitive, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), comes to him and begs for surgery to disguise his appearance. No one will nab him for murder, bank robbery, and escaping prison if he looks nothing like his old self.

Dr. Vollin says he’s not a plastic surgeon, but asks Bateman for help in getting revenge on the Thatchers. Bateman refuses, saying he believes his anti-social behaviour is the result of being called ugly his entire life. A brand-new face is the perfect chance to turn over a new leaf.

Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!

Bateman is horrified to see the results of his surgery. The left side of his face is normal, but the right side is utterly deformed. Dr. Vollin cackles maniacally, from his observation post just above the operating room, as Bateman shoots at all the mirrors which emerge from behind curtains. Bateman tries to shoot Dr. Vollin next, but is out of ammo.

Having little choice, Bateman agrees to help Dr. Vollin in getting revenge. Dr. Vollin promises to fix his face if he does this.

Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher are among the guests at a dinner party Dr. Vollin presently throws. When Jean goes to her guestroom to fix her hair, she sees Bateman standing behind her and is terrified. She rushes back downstairs, where Dr. Vollin calmly explains Bateman is his servant, and makes up a story about how his face came to be mutilated. Dr. Vollin also claims it’s natural for doctors to love death and torture.

Judge Thatcher has serious reservations about spending the night in Dr. Vollin’s house, but Jean and Jerry laugh off his fears.

With all the guests retired for the night, Dr. Vollin shows Bateman his dungeon, full of torture instruments from Poe’s work. While Dr. Vollin is lying on a torture slab from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to demonstrate how it works, Bateman throws the switch to manacle his hands and feet and start the swinging pendulum.

Dr. Vollin persuades Bateman to release him by saying Bateman’s face will remain disfigured if he dies.

As a thunderstorm rages, Dr. Vollin intensifies his Poeian plan for revenge, which grows more and more deranged by the minute.

Making a macabre mate for a monster

Bride of Frankenstein, the first sequel to the 1931 classic Frankenstein, premièred 19 April 1935 in Chicago and went into general release the next day. Universal’s horror franchise was at its peak during the 1930s, with big budgets and strong scripts guaranteeing A pictures.

A sequel was in the works since the very successful preview screenings of the 1931 film, though director James Whale was very reticent to revisit the story. When he was finally convinced to take the job, he rejected several scripts from different writers. Finally, the work of William J. Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson was accepted and submitted to the infamous Hays Office for approval in November 1934.

Filming began 2 January 1935, with a budget almost equal to that of the original, $293,750 ($5.48 million in 2020). Shooting was projected to take 36 days, but went ten days over, wrapping on 7 March. Director Whale shut down production for ten days because O.P. Heggie wasn’t available to play the Hermit on schedule.

The final cost was $397,023 ($9.27 million today), over $100,000 ($1.86 million today) over budget. The final edit was finished just days before the première.

BOF earned $2 million by 1943 ($29.6 million now), with a profit margin of $950,000 ($14 million today). By and large, critics highly praised it, a reputation which has remained consistent over the last 85 years.

In 1988, BOF was added to the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it routinely appears on those incessant best-of lists.

Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their buddy Lord Byron are hanging out on a dark and stormy night. When the fellows praise Mary for her novel Frankenstein, she stresses her intention was to impart a moral lesson, not merely to entertain. She also says there’s more of the story yet to be told, since neither monster nor creator perished.

We then shift to the end of the 1931 film, when it looked as though the Monster was burnt alive in a windmill as a mob of angry villagers cheered. This euphoria is quickly dashed when they realise Dr. Henry Frankenstein is also probably burnt to a crisp along with his creation.

Hans, father of Maria (the little girl the Monster accidentally drowned in the first film), wants to see the remains to prove this menace is gone. Towards this end, and against his wife’s wishes and the Burgomeister’s orders, he makes his way to the still-burning windmill.

Curiosity kills the cat when Hans falls through a hole leading to a flooded cavern under the windmill, where the Monster lurks. Both Hans and his wife are killed. The Frankensteins’ servant Minnie (the hilarious Una O’Connor) comes upon the scene next, and flees in terror.

No one believes Minnie when she says the Monster is still very much alive.

Henry (Colin Clive) is taken home, where his fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) realises he’s not dead, just wounded and shocked. After Elizabeth lovingly nurses him back to health, Henry tries to settle down to a quiet, peaceful life, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Henry’s old mentor, visits and suggests Henry continue his experiments with reanimating the dead. Elizabeth has a very bad feeling about this.

Pretorius shows Henry a bunch of miniature people in jars—a king and queen, a ballerina, an archbishop, a mermaid, a devil. There’s a bit of humor when the king escapes his jar to be with the queen, resulting in Pretorius picking him up with tweezers and putting him back in his jar.

Creating a life-sized human is the ultimate goal, and Pretorius suggests they make a mate for the Monster. Pretorius will create the brain, and Henry will collect body parts.

Meanwhile, the Monster saves a shepherdess (Anne Darling) from drowning, and has his kindness repaid by screams. After two hunters wound the Monster, they alert the villagers, and presently an angry mob captures the Monster, takes him to a dungeon, and chains him up.

The Monster manages to escape and flees into the forest, as the mob continues hunting him. At night, he enters the cabin of a blind old hermit playing the violin, and for the very first time makes a friend. For so long, the hermit has been praying for a friend to take away his loneliness. The hermit also teaches him to speak.

Their newfound mutual happiness is short-lived, as very soon two lost hunters arrive and recognise the Monster. They can’t see the pure, kind-hearted creature the hermit does, and provoke him into accidentally burning down the cabin.

While hiding in a crypt, the Monster spies Pretorius and two other guys grave-robbing. After the other two leave, Pretorius tells the Monster about the plan to create a wife.

But will Henry hold up his end of the bargain in bringing this creature to life, and will the two monsters live happily ever after?