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Friday, August 25, 2017

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) -- Movie Review by Porfle

I love FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (Universal, 1943) because Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Wolf Man is my favorite monster, and this is the best Wolf Man movie ever, at least in that you get to see a lot of him, his story is interesting, and there are some great transformation scenes. Also because you get two awesome Frankenstein Monsters for the price of one--Bela Lugosi and Gil Perkins--combined to make one great tag-team performance that somehow comes together.

Bela, as many will know, was getting on in years when finally given the role of the Monster after famously refusing it in 1931.  To be fair, the part probably wasn't all that much as originally conceived, before director James Whale entered the picture with his imaginative revisions.

By the time Bela finally donned the makeup over a decade later, he had Karloff's definitive interpretation to live up to as well as the fact that his distinctive features seemed oddly ill-suited for the role.

Most damaging to his performance, however, was the fact that the script originally specified that the Monster be both blind and capable of speech, a result of Bela's "Ygor" character having his brain transplanted into the Monster's skull in the previous film, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. 

While this would seem a logical development, the subsequent excision of all references in the film to the Monster's blindness rendered Lugosi's stumbling, groping movements extremely awkward-looking.  The missing dialogue (the story goes that Bela's voice coming out of the Monster sounded unintentionally funny) also resulted in shots in which the Monster's lips moved soundlessly.

By now pushing sixty, Bela was happy to turn over the role's more strenuous "acting" requirements to stuntman Gil Perkins, who not only went mano-a-mano with the Wolf Man in the final scenes but also withstood being packed into that wall of ice where he's first discovered and then freed by Lawrence Talbot (Chaney). 

Oddly, the burly Perkins looked so impressive in the Monster's makeup that it's a closeup of him we first see in the ice, and a stunning one at that.  So much so that one might wonder why he wasn't given the role in the subsequent films that featured fellow actor/stuntman Glenn Strange instead.

But aside from my affection for Bela and his ill-fated turn as the Monster, it's my love for the Wolf Man that most warms my heart toward this film.  For, indeed, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is more a sequel to the 1941 classic THE WOLF MAN than anything else, and a terrific one at that. 

It begins with that famous scene of two graverobbers invading Lawrence Talbot's crypt and getting much more than they bargained for, exposing his dormant body to the rays of the full moon and releasing the Wolf Man into the wild once again.

Talbot subsequently ends up in a hospital under the care of Dr. Mannering (Patrick Knowles, who played a different character in THE WOLF MAN), during which the full moon rises again and we get to see the first (and perhaps best) actual close-up transformation scene from man to wolf, done in a series of meticulous lap-dissolves featuring gradually increasing werewolf makeup in an exhaustive process that took all day and was an ordeal for all involved, especially Chaney.

Leaving the hospital--with a concerned Dr. Mannering on his heels--Talbot seeks help from the gypsy woman, Maleva (venerable actress Maria Ouspenskaya), who once cared for her own lycanthropic son Bela (played by Lugosi in THE WOLF MAN) before he passed his terrible curse on to Talbot and was then killed by him.  Together they travel to the village of Vasaria, where Maleva is sure Dr. Frankenstein (that is, the original Dr. Frankenstein's son Ludwig) will be able to help Talbot. 

When they arrive, they discover that Dr. Frankenstein is dead and his castle (into which the mental institution of the previous film seems to have morphed) is in ruins.  The full moon rises, and Talbot once again becomes the Wolf Man.  With a passel of torch-wielding villagers hot on his heels (including Lionel Atwill as mayor and Dwight Frye in a bit part), he darts into the ruins of Frankenstein's castle and falls through a hole into an underground ice cavern. 

There, after returning to human form, he discovers the Frankenstein Monster (Perkins) frozen in that wall of ice.  How did he get there, after last being seen burning alive in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory?  Hmmm.  I guess he fell through the floor again like he did in the windmill at the end of the first movie. 

Talbot frees the Monster, hoping he can lead him to Dr. Frankenstein's diary and perhaps a way to end his own life of misery.  He then devises a plan to contact Frankenstein's daughter, Elsa (played by Evelyn Ankers in GHOST, but now embodied by bombshell Ilona Massey), to see if she knows the diary's whereabouts.  Talbot persuades Elsa to come to the castle with him, where she shows him a hidden compartment that contains the actual Frankenstein records.

Dr. Mannering shows up and inexplicably agrees to help Talbot in his suicidal endeavor (one of the troubled script's most puzzling elements), restoring Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory and using his records to come up with a way to drain off Talbot's life energies.  Elsa urges him to use the same technology to finish off the Monster as well, to which he agrees. 

Everything builds up to the film's highly-anticipated final confrontation.  As hotheaded villager Vaszec (Rex Evans) plots to blow up the dam overlooking the castle ruins and drown its inhabitants, both the Monster and Lawrence Talbot are strapped to lab tables, ostensibly so that Dr. Mannering can drain them both of their life energies and provide each a merciful death. 

Of course, it doesn't work that way--just at the point of throwing the proper switch, Mannering gets that old "mad doctor" gleam in his eyes (familiar to Universal monster movie fans) and suddenly decides he simply must see the Monster at his full power. 

Bela blinks his eyes as his sight returns, making the Monster more dangerous than he's been since the climax of GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.  The resulting surge of renewed energy gives us his finest closeup in the film, a crazed look of juiced-up triumph that turns into an evil sideways leer as he focuses his attention upon the lovely Elsa (apparently electricity acts as a sort of Viagra for monsters). 

Just at the point where the later films in the series began to fizzle out (Monster breaks straps, galumphs around for a while, blunders into quicksand or fire and conveniently expires), this one switches into high gear. When Elsa hits the wrong switch in an attempt to turn off the machine and the lab is shaken by explosions, with heavy wooden beams falling from the ceiling, a thrill of anticipation fills the air and we just know things are about to get really good.

The Monster bursts his straps and grabs Elsa--it's the only time in Universal's "Frankenstein" series when he'll do the traditional "monster carries girl" move--and the Wolf Man (for the full moon has just risen and Talbot has turned) follows suit soon after, attacking him from behind as Mannering whisks Elsa to safety. 

The fight itself isn't all that imaginatively staged, with the Wolf Man leaping on the Monster from various perches and the Monster throwing him around, with a little old-fashioned wrestling thrown in for good measure.  But it's still an exciting monster rumble designed to delight the fans. The dam blowing up and the raging waters surging downhill toward the castle add to the suspense.

Adding to the eternal confusion as to how many people played the Monster in this film, the shot of him bursting his straps and sullenly lumbering down off the lab table looks for all the world like an insert of actor/stuntman Eddie Parker (who reportedly doubled Chaney as the Wolf Man) in the makeup, as do some of the subsequent shots during the fight. 

This would attest to the notion of the film's final sequence being heavily redone to account for script changes, with the Monster's oversized boots being filled by whomever happened to be available that day.  In some shots he seems to be a poorly made-up Parker; in others, he's unmistakably Perkins.
The interspersed closeups of Bela--growling, sneering, wickedly gleeful--seem to be from the original version of the sequence which featured a talking Monster gloating over his renewed strength and power.  At one point right before the deluge he throws his arms up in a grin of triumph--is this a glimpse of the Monster right after electrical rejuvenation, when the original strap-bursting scene featured a talking, gloating Monster? I believe so, although we'll probably never know for sure.

One thing is sure, however--for pure all-around fun, the Universal horror pictures rarely, if ever, get any better than this.  While more serious critics ponder its many mysteries and hash over its faults, of which there are, admittedly, a few, fans revel in the undiluted monster goodness that is FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.  It's a priceless example of richly-evocative vintage filmmaking that continues to fascinate and find renewed appreciation as time goes by.

Read the in-depth discussion of the film at Classic Horror Film Board

Getting the Story Straight: The Universal "Frankenstein" Series, Part One

Getting the Story Straight: The Universal "Frankenstein" Series, Part Two



Raymond Mierta said...

You make this movie sound as good as it looked through my 8 year old eyes when I first saw it. As I grew older I got more critical of everything and I now see an opportunity missed. It is a great Wolf Man movie and works well as a sequel to the original, but as a Frankenstein movie, much less a pairing between the 2 "monsters" it is severely lacking. Poor script, confusing plot, and most of all using Lugosi to play the monster all contribute to what might have been a really great movie. As it goes. History is what it is. There are no chances to do a remake of this movie and we are left, in my opinion with a what might have been, if only more thought, time and money were used. Its obvious that UNIVERSAL at that time was not aware, and likely nobody else was either that they were not just creating movies to generate revenue, but creating enduring legacies that would last many lifetimes.If they were, hopefully, they would have done a better job with this one.

Gene Phillips said...

Other than many of the aspects already mentioned, I liked that, in a space of a few scenes, Knowles has to convey his character's sudden fascination with the Monster as a scientific breakthrough. Given the simple dialogue he had to work with, I thought he did quite well.