Thursday, May 13, 2010

A House Full of Monsters

The classic Universal monster movie cycle began in 1931—the year Dracula and Frankenstein came out. It ended either in 1945 with House of Dracula OR in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It depends on whether you count that final comedy as part of the same continuity or not. I do count it—the monsters are treated with enough respect to warrant its inclusion in the canon.

By my count, there were 21 films in the cycle. Three with vampires; five with mummies; four featuring Dr. Frankenstein’s horrific creation; one with a werewolf; four with an invisible man; and four teaming up either two or three of the above in the same movie. That’s a heck of a lot of monsters. Someday I need to watch them in sequence and get a final body count.

Initially, these movies were very much A-level productions—especially the James Whale-directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Before long, though, they dropped down into B-movie territory.

But being a B-movie from the 1930s/40s is not a bad thing. These are films that often had good quality scripts and fine character actors. In fact, some of the most entertaining films from Hollywood’s Golden Age were the B-movies, more often than not featuring better constructed plots than the big budget fare.

And taking a look at House of Frankenstein (1945) and House of Dracula (1945) gives us proof of this. These were the last two “serious” films in the monster cycle. Both are beautifully photographed (in glorious black-and-white, of course) examples of first-rate storytelling.

Both movies take the three most popular monsters---Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolfman—and drop them into a story together. House of Frankenstein has the added bonus of Boris Karloff playing a mad scientist. Ironic, of course, since Karloff had originated the role of the monster. Karloff’s hunchbacked assistant is played by J. Carrol Naish, one of the era’s finest character actors.

The movie is episodic, involving one sequence featuring Dracula and another featuring the Monster and the Wolfman. Great performances by Karloff, Naish, and Lon Chaney, Jr. (playing Larry Talbot/the Wolfman for the third time) give the movie a strong backbone and the script injects some honest-to-goodness pathos into the tragic dénouement.

House of Dracula features Onslow Stevens as a scientist and devout Christian who tries to find cures for both vampirism and lycanthropy. But he’s double-crossed by Dracula (who was pretending to want a cure so that he could clamp down on the pretty nurse) and ends up with a bloodstream full of vampire parasites. This turns him into a homicidal maniac, but not before he performs a brain operation on Larry Talbot and does apparently cure him. But poor Larry never can fully escape tragedy---as he is left to deal with the now insane doctor at the climax. Dracula get left out in the sun and the Monster gets caught in a burning lab (at least the third time he ends a movie trapped in a burning building).

Stevens is great in this film, exuding intelligence and sincere compassion early in the story before going off the deep end to total whacko-territory later on.

There’s a few continuity glitches in that there’s no explanations how several of the monsters survived their apparent deaths in the previous film—but, hey, these are monsters and several possible explanations come to mind, making these glitches forgivable.

A more serious weakness of both films is that Frankenstein’s Monster doesn’t get to do much more than stumble around a bit before meeting his apparent demise, spending most of both movies in a coma. He’s played by Glenn Strange in both movies and, with some coaching from Karloff, Strange does a good job in the few moments he’s active. It’s a pity he didn’t get to do much more than take long naps.

And, actually, House of Dracula raises one real doubt as to whether Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein should be considered canon. If the Universal Monster cycle ends with House of Dracula, then Larry Talbot is finally cured of his lycanthropy. But if the later comedy is part of the cycle, then the cure was only temporary. Larry Talbot is cursed forever to become a killing beast, unable to even seek the final peace of death.

On the one hand, Larry is played so sympathetically by Lon Chaney Jr. that it’s nice to think he gets a happy ending. On the other hand, A & C is itself a great movie that otherwise deserves to be part of the cycle. And monsters should be tragic, after all. Sorry, Larry, I’m afraid you’re simply stuck with being forever a werewolf.

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