After dropping Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man into a predictably brutal double date with 1942’s aptly named Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, it obviously didn’t take Universal Studios long to do some vampire based addition. After all, why stop at mix and matching two classic monsters when you could easily fling another one into the fray at no extra cost – so in what must have been the shortest discussion on record, 1944’s House Of Frankenstein not only let us catch up with the existing monsters after their feral spat, but we also now get Dracula finally entering the fray. However, in an interesting twist, we also get the much ballyhooed return of the legendary Boris Karloff, but not in the role you’d actually expect – the roles of all of the Universal Monsters is essentially a game of musical chairs with a shit load of grease paint – and an curiously off beat plot that, for better or for worse, genuinely doesn’t go the way you’d think.
Legitimate mad scientist and all round sinister bastard Gustav Niemann languishes in jail while openly claiming he’s going to escape to anyone who’ll listen and continues on his plan to continue the life’s work of old acquaintance Dr. Frankenstein who has since become a notorious legend for all of his fricking around with human body parts while sniffing around after the secret of beating death. Escaping with faithful hunchback, Daniel (hardly Igor, is it?), who’s handy talents for throttling people to death allows the two prisoners to bump off a travelling showman and take his place carting around (you ready for this?) the actual skeletal remains of Count Dracula, complete with stake sticking out of it’s rib cage. Taking a detour to gain revenge on the men who put him in prison, Niemann resurrects the vampire and sics him on his enemies as he happily rides off to keep his date with the ruins of Castle Frankenstein as the debonair bloodsucker gets up to his usual tricks as he drains his victims like a keg at a frat party and hypnotises a local noble woman for his nefarious purposes. While the townsfolk scrabble to put an end to the Count’s shenanigans, Niemann gets to his destination after picking up an abused gypsy girl who Daniel has fallen madly in love with and soon after arriving find the Monster and Lawrence Talbot frozen in ice after their last confrontation resulted in them getting swept away thanks to a ruptured dam.
Defrosting the unkillable creatures, Neimann gets to work, but tensions start to arise within this bizarre little community, starting with Daniel becoming insanely jealous with the gypsy girl’s instant attraction to the brooding Talbot, who barely acknowledges this thanks to his continuing obsession with his unique condition – but soon, Neimann’s lies about aiding his comrades with their respective conditions eventually catches up with him with inevitable results.
So, reviewing House Of Frankenstein comes with a few unique challenges, chief of which is deciding whether it’s attempt to string the classic trio of creatures together into one movie is either an act of off beat genius or a supreme act of trolling by a film series that’s always played fast and loose with it’s own continuity.
Simply put, at no point during the movie are any of the three monsters on screen together at any time – Talbot may share a scene or two with the Monster, but never as The Wolf Man and John Carradine’s boney Dracula tastes the back of the hand of of the sun’s morning rays before the other two are even introduced! It’s a truly strange storytelling ploy that would understandably irritate faithful Universal Monsters fans who raced to the cinema to watch this triple threat terror trio have an epic free for all the like of which you had never seen. Well, it was never seen because it never bloody happens and yet after watching the film with mounting amusement at the brass balls it must have taken to keep these creeps separate, I managed to build up a sizable amount of respect for what ends up being a suprisingly original take at material that was in danger of becoming as worn as the Monster’s giant-ass, clumpy shoes.
The film actually casts the true villian, the manipulative Proffesor Neimann, as the main character as we follow him and his lumpy hunched companion Daniel through this flimsily connected universe, bumping into supernatural simps as they go and it’s actually quite fascinating as to how the filmmakers bent over backwards to try and cram in tones and storylines that benefit these horror legends. I mean, it’s not exactly subtle – or even neat – as the different stories are bolted together haphazardly to create a whole as disjointed as Frankenstein’s creation himself. For example, the whole Dracula section includes a supporting cast that doesn’t even carry over to the rest of the film and thus feels like it’s own short Dracula movie that comes to an end after Carradine gets caught out in the open without so much as sunblock or a baseball cap. On the other hand, the introduction of Ilonka, the pleasantly chubby cheeked gypsy girl, gives the movie a strong link to Talbot’s origins and her pledge to help him end it all with a silver bullet gives him his own little corner of the story to work with, but despite getting the least screen time by far, it’s the Monster who actually has the greatest influence on the story due to Neimann being played by the original man who wore the neck bolts and flat head in the first place – the immortal Boris Karloff. Finally getting to play a mad doctor after three stints of playing his tragic creation, Karloff throws himself into the role of a man who is an unmitigated shit, literally lying and scheming to everyone he meets – christ, he even manages to hoodwink Dracula fairly easily, but in the Count’s defence he had just been resurrected…
Watching Karloff interact with new Monster actor Glen Strange is legitimately intriguing and initially feels like the horror movie version of two women turning up to a party wearing the same dress, but the climax where the big, green lug slings the not-so-good doctor under his arm and flees a mob across the quicksand dotted moors is a truly memorable sequence and a sweet handover from arguably the two greatest performers of the character that have ever stomped across the screen.
While I totally understand the opinion that a movie that contains a Monster, a werewolf and a vampire that doesn’t let any of them actually meet is an excruciating tease, I actually found it to be surprisingly engrossing experience precisely because there’s no fight to wait for and instead plays like a random tour through a world where these freaks are going on about their own business until Karloff turns up and screws up all three of their lives beyond repair…