When the idea of pairing various Universal Monsters together proved successful with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man the people at Universal Pictures put this formula into high gear and thus the “Monster Rallies” would become both the backbone of the series and also its downfall as the comedy team of Abbott and Costello would eventually drive a stake through the franchise’s heart, but in 1944 things were still looking good so the studio released House of Frankenstein, which paired Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster.
In this sequel, we are introduced to mad scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) who as a self-proclaimed disciple of Dr. Frankenstein found himself sent to prison after being arrested for grave robbery and attempting to continue Frankenstein’s work, which seems pretty typical of scientists in this franchise, but due to a nicely placed bolt of lightning, he escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carroll Naish), for whom he promises to create a new and beautiful body. Soon after escaping, they encounter Professor Lampini (George Zucco) who runs a travelling horror exhibit and has for a key exhibit the skeletal remains of Dracula (John Carradine) they murder the good professor and take over his little carnival of horrors as cover for Niemann’s planned murder/revenge plot against those who sent him to prison.
As luck would have it, a casual removal of the stake from the skeleton reveals that this was, in fact, the remains of the actual Dracula and the Count agrees to aid Niemann in his revenge plot as payment for protecting his coffin during the day, but if Dracula knew anything about Boris Karloff he’d have turned into a bat and headed for the hills at the first opportunity. What is a bit odd here is having Dracula being treated as some kind of attack dog, especially when the Wolf Man is going to show up later, and while John Carradine makes for a nice urbane and sophisticated Count Dracula the fact that he doesn’t look or sound at all like Bela Lugosi has me assuming that Professor Lampini hadn’t actually found the bones of the original Dracula but another vampire simply claiming to be the real deal. Case in point, one of the most famous quotes from Dracula is the line “I don’t drink…wine” but this Dracula seems to be quite fine with drinking fruit of the vine.
Niemann sends the newly revived Count Dracula after Burgomaster Hussman (Sig Ruman), who had put him in prison, but turning into a bat and draining the Burgomaster dry wasn’t enough for Dracula, who uses a magic ring to mesmerize and seduce the Burgomaster’s granddaughter-in-law Rita (Anne Gwynne), which leads to Rita’s disgruntled husband (Peter Coe) and the local gendarmes chasing him through the woods until Niemann spots an armed and angry mob approaching and disposes of Dracula’s coffin out the back of their carnival wagon, leaving the poor vampire to perish in the dawning sunlight. That the world’s most famous vampire is dispatched in such a fashion is a little off-putting, as is the fact that this happens before we’ve even reached the film’s thirty-minute mark, worse is when you realize that this means Dracula will not be around to encounter either Frankenstein’s Monster of the Wolf Man, which is kind of the point of these Monster Rallies.
In what can best be described as “House of Frankenstein Part Two” we find that Niemann and Daniel have moved on to the flooded ruins of Castle Frankenstein in Visaria, where they find the bodies of Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) and Larry “The Wolf Man” Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who had been preserved in the glacier-filled catacombs beneath the castle, and no I don’t know how you can have an ice cavern beneath a European castle, but once thawed we get a Talbot who is so despondent and anxious to be rid of his curse that he foolishly believes that Niemann’s mad science can cure him of his lycanthropy, but only if he helps find Dr. Frankenstein’s journal. We also must contend with Daniel falling in love with Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), a local gypsy woman he hopes will return his love once Niemann has honoured his promise to create for him a new and improved body, one that isn’t so hunchbacked, but Niemann is more interested in reviving the Monster and exacting revenge on two traitorous former associates than he is in keeping promises. Basically, everyone concerned would have been better off going to see The Wizard of Oz instead of waiting around for Niemann, because what follows is a lot of silly brain-swapping and pretty much everyone ends up dead.
• A prison guard insults Dr. Gustav Niemann by calling him a “Would be Frankenstein” which is a little meta as Karloff was made famous for playing Frankenstein’s Monster.
• Lightning was used to bring Frankenstein’s Monster to life in the original film and in this one lightning is responsible for a prison break, the power of God certainly works overtime in these movies.
• Professor Bruno Lampini claims to have acquired the skeleton of Dracula from the cellar of Dracula’s castle in the Carpathian mountains, but as he was staked in the cellar of Carfax Abbey in London one must wonder “How did his skeleton get back home?”
• The idea of Dracula’s remains being used as a sideshow exhibit would later be revisited for Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
• Daniel falling in love with a spirited gypsy girl had me wondering if the film had wandered into “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” territory when I wasn’t looking.
• We get new werewolf lore here, stating that “A werewolf doesn’t just die he must be killed, killed by a silver bullet fired by the hand of one who loves him enough to understand” which are pretty specific requirements and not easily obtained by your average monster hunter.
As fun as it is to watch Boris Karloff in the delicious role of a mad scientist hellbent on revenge the plot of House of Frankenstein is a complete mess and the inclusion of Dracula felt forced and out of place like his plotline had wandered in from another movie, and it’s this collection of disparate elements that keeps the film from having something that even resembles a cohesive story, and while Lon Chaney Jr. continues to nail the sad sack portrayal of the cursed Larry Talbot, like Dracula, he feels kind of shoehorned in and adrift, then there is Glenn Strange as The Monster whose lack of screen time is unable to offset his a clumsy and rather unthreatening presence, that he fights neither Dracula nor the Wolf Man is just criminal. To be fair, there wasn’t much of a fight in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man but at least there was some kind of conflict and that is sorely missing here.
From Frankenstein’s Monster shuffling around like a giant sleepwalking toddler to poor Larry Talbot eating a silver bullet for daring to fall in love with a gypsy, there’s not much character development to hold all these story threads together and while the film does feature a nice score and decent cinematography it failed to deliver on its promise of a full-on monster fight, but I guess that would be in keeping with Dr. Gustav Niemann constant lying to everybody in this picture, because why should we be exempt?
You can check out my other reviews here: Universal Classic Monsters: A Cinematic World of Horror.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
Movie Rank - 6/10
Aside from Boris Karloff as the mad scientist and the always enjoyable Lon Chaney Jr. as the cursed Larry Talbot, there isn’t a lot to recommend from House of Frankenstein as the plot felt like someone was playing a game of Universal Monsters Mad Libs rather than trying to tell a comprehensible story.