Director: Erle C. Kenton
Writer: Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr.
Boris Karloff: Dr. Gustav Niemann
Lon Chaney Jr.: Lawrence Talbot
John Carradine: Dracula
Anne Gwynne: Rita Hussman
Peter Coe: Karl Hussman
Lionel Atwill: Insp. Arnz
George Zucco: Prof. Bruno Lampini
Elena Verdugo: Ilonka
Sig Ruman: Burgomeister Hussman
Glenn Strange: Frankenstein Monster
J. Carrol Naish: Daniel
The Universal Monster Cycle began with groundbreaking films such as Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Featuring excellent, stylized performances and mise en scène, they created the definitive look for horror movies in Hollywood's Golden Age. They’re also about something more than horror; The Bride of Frankenstein, in particular, holds up to repeated viewings and thematic considerations.
After the early achievements, the series experienced sequel entropy. The middle films were enjoyable, though not on a level with their predecessors. Universal would finally submit their iconic creatures to outright comedy with Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948). Before doing so, however, the series embarrassed itself with two films that might have worked better as comedies, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). The first of those has the look of the old classics, but its acting, pacing, and budget recalls a period serial. And while the film promises an all-star monster rally featuring three of Universal's classic characters, it does not permit them to interact
Boris Karloff returns, not as the monster (he’d abandoned that role after Son of Frankenstein), but as Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist imprisoned for his experiments, which involved such ethically dubious practices as body-snatching and murder. He has continued to keep his brain sharpened for the 15 years of his imprisonment, teaching the hunchbacked criminal Daniel, who occupies the adjacent cell.
The foul duo encounter a remarkable streak of luck, as a stroke of lightning damages the prison and frees them both. Shortly thereafter, they run into Professor Lampini, who runs a travelling Chamber of Horrors. His star attraction is the bones of Count Dracula, recovered from his castle in Transylvania. Since the series was never big on continuity, we can politely ignore that (a)Dracula was reduced to dust in the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, (b) his corpse was then put on a funeral pyre in Dracula's Daughter, and (c)he later died in New Orleans in Son of Dracula. In any case, Niemann and Daniel dispose of Lampini and his assistant and take their identities. Niemann swears revenge against the men who put him away; Daniel takes the Ygor role because the mad doctor has promised to fix his crooked body.
While posing as Lampini in a small village where one of his accusers now holds the position of burgomeister, Niemann accidentally brings Dracula back. How does the scientist accomplish this amazing feat? Does he chant some dark incantation? Does he make a deal with some roving Mephistopheles?
No, he yanks the stake from the skeleton's ribcage, and Dracula materializes, complete with evening wear. Thus restored, the dapper bloodsucker makes a deal with Niemann to kill the Burgomeister, and to that end, he hooks up with his family for an evening nightcap. Despite Dracula's notorious 1931 line, he does indeed drink wine, and then returns to kill the sleeping old man, aided by a poorly-animated bat-transformation. The vampire also takes a shine to the burgomeister's daughter-in-law. He uses his ring to hypnotize her, possibly the first time that Dracula’s ring receives special powers of its own. All of this leads to a horse-and-carriage chase scene during which the Count, despite his folkloric inability to cross water on his own power, drives his carriage across a moving river, and then overturns on a cliff. He dissolves with sunrise, definitively dead until the next film, while Neimann and Daniel escape.
They next head over to the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle to find the doctor's notes. They also happen upon the comatose body of the Monster and the frozen Wolf Man, preserved in an inexplicable underground glacier. Since it takes silver to kill a Universal werewolf, the cursed man revives and resumes his human form (Lawrence Talbot). He, too joins them, because Niemann claims that he can cure lycanthropy. In fact, Niemann plans to perform a “curse transplant,” with one of his other accusers the recipient of Chaney’s full moon fever.
The movie by this point recalls some bizarre parody of The Wizard of Oz. The group also acquires a gypsy girl, who joins, attracts the attention of Daniel, and falls for the Wolf Man. The three thus replay a combination of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Wolf Man, which will end before the Frankenstein Monster gets a chance to do anything. This storyline does, however, feature a passable low-budget transformation scene.
The film’s real thrill for fans of the old horror movies is seeing Karloff as a mad scientist revive his most famous character. Glenn Strange now plays the bolt-necked beast, a pale shadow of its earlier, soulful incarnation. The finale takes place in Niemann's lab, still functional after 15 years. Much goes awry before the obligatory torch-bearing villagers arrive. Characters die, sparks fly, and the Monster lumbers off into quicksand, Karloff in tow, shortly after awakening.
The film’s setting represents a compromise among the different realities of the Universal Monster movies. The earlier Frankenstein movies are set in a kind of alternate universe, a place where Victorian and 1930s fashions mix with German folk costumes, scientists use high-technology but nobody drives a car or calls on a telephone. The villagers light their way through foggy nights with torches, never thinking to turn on a flashlight or even bring a hurricane lantern. In the four decades which must transpire between Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, technology and costumes change not at all. The Dracula and Wolf Man films, however, take place in the real world or, rather, Hollywood’s version thereof.
House of Frankenstein strikes a compromise. We’re in the foggy Teutonic countryside of the Frankenstein films. The village set created for All Quiet on the Western Front gets recycled once more as a series of quaint villages ruled by Burgomeisters. The clothing belongs to the 1940s, but we have no indication that World War II might be unfolding, and at least one expressly American character moves freely about. We have phones and lights, but no motor-cars; people still ride horses and carriages.
The slightly odd setting served the past films well, by creating a world recognizably like our own, and yet different enough that we accept the presence of the supernatural. In House of Frankenstein, it serves as a pleasant distraction; we can count the oddities as we sit through a film which provides few other real thrills, but which nevertheless forms a part of an enduring saga.