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Monday, December 6, 2010

GETTING THE STORY STRAIGHT: THE UNIVERSAL "FRANKENSTEIN" SERIES (Part Two of Two) by porfle


Here's the intro for Part One:

If you're just a casual viewer of the classic Universal horror films from the 30s and 40s, you might sometimes wonder exactly what's going on in a particular episode of the "Frankenstein" saga.  How come the Monster can talk in one movie, but is mute in the next?  How did he end up in that block of ice?  Why does he suddenly look like Bela Lugosi? 

Let's see if we can't get the story straight, and make as much sense out of things as possible, so that the next time you watch a "Frankenstein" movie, you'll know exactly where it fits in the continuing story of the Monster.  Although there's certainly more nitpicking that can be done with these films, such as various anachronisms, changing locations, and multiple spellings of certain names, we'll be dealing with the basic storylines and more fun-type details here.

And if you already know all of this stuff--well, what the heck, you can read it anyway.

And now, continuing with our recap of Universal's classic "Frankenstein" series with regard to its film-to-film continuity, we set our sights on the final four films...

(Warning: wall-to-wall spoilers ahead!)



FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

In this installment, which is more a sequel to THE WOLF MAN than anything else, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) once again finds himself roaming the earth waiting for those dreaded nights in which the full moon will transform him into a bloodthirsty beast.  He seeks help from the gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who once cared for her own lycanthropic son Bela 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 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, he darts into the ruins of Frankenstein's castle and falls through a hole into an underground ice cavern.  There, after returning to his human form, he discovers the Frankenstein Monster frozen in a wall of ice (with stuntman Gil Perkins in full makeup providing the impressive first closeup).  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. 

Anyway, Talbot has the bright idea that the Monster might be able to lead him to Frankenstein's records, which contain the secrets of life and death and might show him a way to end his miserable existence.  The Monster, now played by Bela Lugosi (which is fitting, since Lugosi's "Ygor" donated his brain to the Monster in the last movie), obligingly leads Talbot to a hidden panel where he believes Frankenstein's diary resides.  But it is empty.  Talbot 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 (Patrick Knowles), who treated an injured Talbot earlier in the film and believes him to be dangerously delusional, inexplicably agrees to help him in his self-destructive endeavors, 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.  But at the crucial moment, Mannering realizes that he can't destroy such a monumental scientific achievement as the Frankenstein Monster, and must see it at its full power. 

With Talbot and the Monster both strapped to tables in the laboratory, Mannering fires up the machinery and fills the Monster with life-giving electricity.  The Monster blinks his eyes--he can see again!  For indeed, in the original script he was blind just as he had been at the end of the previous film, and what's more, he spoke throughout the film in Ygor's voice.  But, as the story goes, the studio executives thought this sounded too gosh-darn funny (especially when they heard Lugosi speaking some of the really bad lines that Curt Siodmak had written for him), so they simply cut all of the Monster's speech, and references to his blindness as well, out of the finished film.  This explains why Lugosi plays the Monster with his arms stiffly outstretched, and why in some scenes his mouth moves even though there are no words coming out of it!  It's also one of the main reasons Lugosi's earnest performance as the Monster has been so unfairly maligned ever since this film premiered. 

But back to the story--the Monster can see again, and he feels unlimited power surging through his body as he breaks the straps and lumbers off of the table to grab the unwilling Elsa (apparently electricity works pretty much like Viagra).  Meanwhile, the full moon has risen again and Talbot has turned into the Wolf Man.  He also breaks free, then performs a flying tackle on the Monster. 

Elsa and Dr. Mannering hightail it out of the castle just as one of the villagers blows up the dam above, sending a raging wall of water down the mountainside while the Wolf Man and the Monster (with stuntmen Gil Perkins and Eddie Parker filling in for the aging Lugosi) take each other on in the monster rumble to end all monster rumbles.  The water hits the castle and destroys it, washing both monsters away as the villagers gape at each other in confusion.  Should they be happy?  Or should they run for their lives as the massive wall of water descends upon their village?



HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

Karloff is back, but this time he plays the evil Dr. Niemann, a maniacal devotee of the late Dr. Frankenstein's scientific endeavors who has no qualms about applying this knowledge to such dubious efforts as transplanting the brain of a man into the head of a dog.  In the opening scenes, Niemann and his hunchbacked minion Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) escape from prison and kill the owner of a traveling horror show (George Zucco), assuming the identities of him and his driver. 

As this film is a multi-monster extravaganza (with the classic monster era fading, Universal was drawing audiences into theaters with the promise of more monsters for their money), they have a brief encounter with Dracula (John Carradine) before arriving at Frankenstein's castle to look for his records.  Venturing into the same underground ice cavern seen in the previous film, they discover the frozen bodies of both the Monster and the Wolf Man, apparently deposited there by the flood waters, and set about thawing them out.  Talbot comes to first, none the worse for wear but a bit cranky after his long nap ("Why have you freed me from the ice that imprisoned the beast that lives within me?" he asks). 

But the Monster is in bad shape and in need of rejuvenation again, which Dr. Niemann is quite willing to provide once they journey to his old laboratory with Talbot and the Monster in tow.  On the way there, they pick up a gypsy girl named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who turns the smitten Daniel into a palpitating bundle of jealousy when she promptly falls in love with Talbot.  Back at the lab, Niemann straps the Monster to a table (where Glenn Strange, the former stuntman and bit player who now plays the role, will spend most of his time in this movie and the next) to prepare him for his electrical "pepper-upper".
 

Talbot grows more and more agitated as the next full moon approaches, impatient for the doctor to help him instead of fiddling around with the Monster.  Ilonka takes pity on him, and plans to shoot him with a silver bullet ("fired by the hand...of one who loves him enough...to understand" she recites gravely) the next time he turns.  In one of the best transformation scenes in any of the Wolf Man films, Talbot once again becomes a hairy, fanged beast and rushes out into the night looking for a jugular vein to bite.  Ilonka follows him and is fatally wounded, but not before she can fire the crucial shot that will end Talbot's misery. 

Daniel is heartbroken when he finds her body, and blames Dr. Niemann for devoting all his attention to the Monster instead of fulfilling his promise to put Daniel's brain into Talbot's healthy body and turn him into a chick-magnet.  He attacks the doctor and breaks his back.  The Monster, grateful to the doctor for restoring his strength, breaks his straps and lunges off of the table, grabbing Daniel and heaving him through a window to his death.  At this point, the omnipresent torch-wielding villagers arrive right on schedule to herd the Monster, carrying the dying Niemann, into a nearby swamp where he stumbles into some quicksand and the two of them sink slowly into oblivion.



 HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

This is the last film in the series and is another monsterfest like the previous one, again featuring the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and Dracula.  Also on hand to make it even more monster-packed are "The Mad Doctor" and "The Hunchback", although Jane Adams as a kindly hunchbacked nurse named Nina isn't exactly my idea of a monster. 

The "Mad Doctor" in question, Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens), is first seen as a respected physician and scientist who is currently working on the creation of a special technique that can heal all sorts of physical maladies without traditional surgery.  But progress is slow, and Nina longs for the day in which the doctor can finally work his magic on her. 

It isn't long before John Carradine's Dracula shows up at the doctor's seaside mansion, this time seeking a cure for his vampirism.  The doctor examines a sample of Dracula's blood under a microscope and discovers that it contains parasites that may cause his craving for blood.  He prescribes a series of transfusions which he hopes will solve the problem.  Of course, Dracula's ever-roving eye is drawn to Dr. Edelman's other nurse, the beautiful Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll), and before you know it he's forgotten that silly notion about being cured and is hard at work luring Miliza over to the dark side. 

Not only that, but during his next blood transfusion he proves what a real first-class jerk he is by reversing the flow and injecting his own blood into Dr. Edelman's veins, which will eventually turn the kindly doctor into a ravening madman (the "Mad Doctor" promised in the film's publicity).  But Dr. Edelman manages to thwart Dracula's plans by dragging his coffin into the light of the rising sun and opening the lid, thus reducing the vampire to skeletal form once again. 

Meanwhile, Larry Talbot (who somehow survived being shot with a silver bullet in the last movie) has also arrived at the mansion hoping for a cure for his particular problem, but he's come at a bad time--the doctor is busy, and it's almost full-moon time again.  He races into town and begs the local police to put him up for the night.  They call upon Dr. Edelman to come and take a look at the "madman" they've got locked up in their cell.  Edelman tries to convince Talbot that his problem is merely psychological, but Talbot effectively proves him wrong by promptly turning into the Wolf Man (in another excellent transformation scene). 

Edelman theorizes that Talbot is so convinced he's a werewolf that it affects him physically, and plans to use his new surgical techniques to attempt a cure.  But the next day a despairing Talbot hurls himself off a cliff next to the mansion and into the sea.  Edelman has himself lowered down the side of the cliff and discovers Talbot in a cave where the sea has deposited him, then almost dies at the Wolf Man's hands before Talbot returns to human form.  Also in the cave is the body of--wouldn't you know it--the Frankenstein Monster.  Somehow, after sinking into that quicksand back in the last movie, he has turned up buried in the muck in this cave beneath Dr. Edelman's house, along with Dr. Niemann's skeleton.  There's a brief line of dialogue that attempts to explain this, but I hardly find it worth repeating. 

Edelman does what anyone else in the circumstances would do--he straps the Monster to a table in his lab, snaps on the old jumper cables, and starts pumping electricity into him.  But Talbot and Nina use some really, really corny dialogue to talk him out of it, and he realizes that, sometimes, dormant monsters are better off left alone.  So he focuses his attention instead on performing Talbot's operation. 

 

That night, Talbot is sitting in his room recuperating, when he looks out the window and sees Dr. Edelman jumping onto a passing horse-drawn wagon.  Edelman, thanks to Dracula's blood, has begun to have spells in which he turns into a maniacal killer.  He murders the driver of the wagon and is chased by the villagers back to the mansion.  When the police arrive, he has reverted back to his normal self and persuades them to search elsewhere for the killer.  But Talbot later confronts him and finds out the truth.  Edelman pleads with Talbot to kill him if he becomes a danger to others again, and wishes only to remain lucid long enough to perform surgery on Nina.

The next night, the full moon rises once again and, after a tense few moments, Talbot realizes that his own operation was a success and he is no longer a werewolf.  But as he and Miliza celebrate, Edelman goes mad and starts recharging the Monster again.  Nina interrupts, so he strangles the poor girl as Talbot rushes in.  Edelman advances with murder in his eyes, and Talbot shoots him.  In a last moment of sanity, Edelman smiles gratefully and falls to the floor, dead. 

Suddenly realizing that all of the other monsters in the movie have either been killed or cured, the Frankenstein Monster breaks his straps and heaves himself wearily off of the table for one last final-reel stomp.  The police arrive and he manages to dispatch a couple of them before clumsily knocking over a tall shelf full of volatile chemicals that burst into flame, which, needless to say, he proceeds to wade around in like an idiot.  Talbot and Miliza escape to live happily ever after, while the last official chapter in the celebrated saga of the Frankenstein Monster concludes with stock footage of Lon Chaney, Jr. stumbling around during the fiery finale of GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN.



ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

I don't consider this to be an official part of the Frankenstein series, but it's worth mentioning just to note what our old friends are up to in this alternate comedy universe.  Somehow, Dracula has come into possession of the Monster (played for the third time by Glenn Strange) and is planning to transplant a different brain into his skull to make him more submissive (which would seem unnecessary, since the Monster follows all of Dracula's orders throughout the movie and calls him "Master"). 

As fate would have it, of course, the brain he plans to use belongs to Lou Costello as the not-so-bright "Wilbur."  Wilbur and his bossy companion, Chick (Bud Abbott), happen to work for the shipping company which receives the crates from Europe containing Dracula and the Monster.  Here, Dracula sets up shop in a castle (in Florida?) where, with the help of the evil Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) posing as Wilbur's girlfriend, he plans to perform the brain transplant.

But Larry Talbot has discovered Dracula's plan and, for some reason, has taken it upon himself to thwart it.  The "cure" given him by Dr. Edelman seems to have worn off--he's still regularly wolfing out (in some fantastic transformation scenes).  Dracula and the Wolf Man finally do battle before the movie is over, and both end up falling from the balcony of the castle into the sea far below, which apparently kills them (not...bloody...likely!) 

After a prolonged slapstick finale--during which Strange racks up more screen time than in the previous two films combined--the Monster chases Bud and Lou onto a dock which is promptly set ablaze, and ends up being roasted alive--again.  But as I said before, as fun as this movie is, I regard it as a fanciful footnote in relation to the rest of the Frankenstein films.  (Read our full review here.)


And there you have it--the Frankenstein story from beginning to end, one film leading into the next (with varying degrees of continuity) in a saga that lasted for seventeen glorious years.  Some of them are among the greatest films ever made, while others are just above-average monster flicks.  But they are all endlessly entertaining classics, and all of them feature the most celebrated character in the history of horror movies--the Frankenstein Monster.

 
(This article, in a somewhat different form, was first posted at Bumscorner.com.)


Buy these films at Amazon.com:
Frankenstein Legacy Collection
Wolf Man Legacy Collection
Dracula Legacy Collection
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4 comments:

Mister Bill said...

Very enjoyable Frankenstein movie article. Especially liked the info on Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman and Bela Lugosi!

porfle said...

Glad you liked it! FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is one of my favorites, too!

Mark Onspaugh said...

Mark – great pair of articles! I remember hearing about Bela getting his lines cut from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, without any explanation as to why the Monster was walking around like he was blind with his mouth moving! I felt sorry for Bela, who was so awesome as Dracula – I really wished he and Karloff could have faced off in their greatest roles! When I was a kid, we called the Monster “Frankenstein,” and it almost seems the studio was encouraging this with FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, as the good doctor never appears. All I know was that I was so excited that two of my favorite monsters were in one movie – and that scene with Larry Talbot finding the Monster in the ice was seared into my brain – it’s seminal image for me. As far as the many incarnations of the Monster, no one could match the pathos and depth Karloff brought to Frankenstein’s creation – plus, he could wear Jack Pierce’s stunning makeup and still look gaunt, like the reanimated corpse(s) he was supposed to be… and it didn’t hurt having a master director like Whale directing him! I’m wondering what you thought of FRANKENSTEIN 1970, which I saw around 1964 on Chiller – I remember how disappointed I was when they revealed the Monster did not have his iconic look, but had been made in the image of the elder Karloff – bah! One last thing: I always wished that Universal’s unholy trio of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man could have faced off (individually and then collectively) against THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON! Wow!

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks for the great comments! It would've been awesome indeed to see Karloff and Lugosi could've teamed up as Frank and Drac. The Universal monster movies were such an integral part of my childhood. As for FRANKENSTEIN 1970, I first saw it on TV as a small child and it made a big impression on me as well, which it still does. Thanks again for reading and commenting!