Universal Monsters in Review: House of Frankenstein (1944)
I have a bad habit of assuming how movies will turn out. Show me a cast of characters and maybe a movie poster and chances are you’re going to get what you get. With a title like, “House of Frankenstein,” one ought to be able to safely assume the movie is going to be something similar to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and the great insurgence of American vaudeville. Goofy. Slap-stick. Silly. However, that is not the case with House of Frankenstein. The cast was wonderfully selected, with Boris Karloff returning not as the stumbling monster, but as the mad scientist. The story, though not without blemish, is interestingly layered. The pace holds steady, clocking in a traditional 70-80 mins. While Karloff holds your attention whenever he’s on screen, the character who impressed me the most is unknown character actor J. Carrol Naish who played the hunchback Daniel. Yes, he uttered the expected “Yes, Master,” whenever addressing Karloff’s character (Dr. Niemann). But there were other moments, especially concerning love interest Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne) in which he truly shines. This is the second Frankenstein movie in which I found myself more in awe with the hunchback than with the monster. Names have changed, but motives remain the same. The pursuit of life after death, the creation of life, and the improvement of the human form. The latter was played up more with this movie than the others, as both Daniel and Larry Talbot desire new improved bodies, free of their respective so-called flaws. Oh yes, the Wolfman is in this picture, as is Dracula, played by a new actor, John Carradine. I’m not sure why they didn’t just hire Bela Lugosi, who is known to work for cheap. But look at me blabbing on. Before I chase another rabbit, lets see what our special guest has to say about House of Frankenstein.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
horror, fantasy, science fiction
By: Channy Dreadful
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr. (billed as Edward T. Lowe)
Story Writer: Curt Siodmak
Main Cast: Boris Karloff as Doctor Gustav Niemann, J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchbacked assistant, John Carradine as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot (AKA the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster
Detailed plot summary:
may contain minor plot spoilers!
The movie begins on a dark and stormy night in the jail cell of Doctor Niemann and his evil hunchbacked assistant Daniel. Lightning crashes and the wall separating Niemann and Daniel crumbles down and the two men escape from the prison that once contained them. The duo embarks on a journey to search for Doctor Frankenstein’s research so Niemann can also reanimate the dead.
While running through the trees, they arrive on a dirt road and see the travelling horror show owned by the great Professor Lampini stuck in the ditch. Niemann and Daniel help pull him out and request that he take them with him to repay their act of kindness. He reluctantly agrees, and the three men begin their journey.
Lampini tells the men about his most popular attraction, which he claims is the real skeleton of the late great Dracula himself — stake through what-used-to-be-his-heart and all. He then continues on with the folklore of the vampire, and how if anyone ever removes the stake from where it stands Dracula himself will return and will cause havoc throughout the world. Niemann laughs at his accusations and doubts the man’s stories. The carriage comes to a fork in the road and Niemann requests that they go to Reigelberg so they can talk to the burgomaster there – who, unbeknownst to Lampini, was the man who had had Niemann arrested. Lampini argues and said that is not where his next show will be taking place, so with a nod of approval from Niemann Daniel then kills Lampini and the man driving the horse-drawn carriage.
The scene then cuts to Burgomaster Hussman of Reigelberg, his grandson Carl, and his fiancée Rita discussing whether or not to attend the traveling horror show that is set up on display in town for tonight only. With much convincing from Rita, they decide to attend.
Her face lights up upon their arrival and they see many freakshow-esque horrors on display. Niemann, acting as Professor Lampini, arrives on stage and begins introducing the main act, the skeleton of Dracula. The crowd heckles and claims the man to be a fraud, but the burgomaster says to Carl that he recognizes that man from somewhere. Once the show is over and the curtains close, Niemann idly removes the stake from the skeleton’s heart and Dracula begins to reform and appear right before their very eyes. Niemann tells Dracula that if he does what he requests of him he will not stake him, and will have his coffin ready and prepared for him before the dawn of each day for when he returns.
The burgomaster, Carl and Rita all start to walk home when they get picked up by a carriage. Unknowingly by the group, Dracula, who introduces himself as Baron Latos, is also on that same carriage. After some conversation the burgomaster invites Latos to his home for a few drinks. He accepts the invitation, and once they arrive Dracula is left in the room alone with Rita. Rita gazes into his eyes and becomes entranced as she stares upon the ring he’s wearing. Dracula asks the woman what she sees and she claims to see a strange world, a world of people who are dead but are alive. Dracula states that it is the place he just returned from, and Rita says it frightens her and that she is scared of it. He comforts and informs her that if she wears his ring it will drive away her fears. He then slides the ring on to her finger and she begins to see the world as Dracula does and is instantly under his spell. He tells his that he will come for her before down and he bids the burgomaster farewell and leaves his abode.
The burgomaster begins work in his office, and finally comes to the realization as to where he recognizes Lampini from, and that he is actually Dr. Gustav Neiman. He begins to call the authorities as Dracula returns to his home and transforms into a bat. He flies to the burgomaster and begins to kill him and drink his blood.
During the murder of the burgomaster, Rita is upstairs along with Carl and she begins speaking in a very strange way and he begins to get frightened. He then notices that she is wearing a ring that he had not seen her wearing before and recognizes it, coming to the conclusion that it once belonged to Dracula. In a panic, Carl rushes downstairs only to find his grandfather dead with two bite-wounds exposed on his neck. Carl calls the police informing them of what happened. While Carl is talking to the police Rita leaves with Dracula in a horse-drawn carriage. Just as they are leaving, the policemen on horses arrive and chase after them. The carriage crashes as the sun starts to rise. Dracula scrambles to get to his coffin (which had fallen out of the carriage) but does not make it in before his turn back into a skeleton. The ring slides off of Rita’s finger and she is now free from Dracula’s spell.
Niemann and Daniel witness all that happens and leave Dracula behind and continue on their way in search of any and all research that Doctor Frankenstein may have left behind. Eventually the two make it to the village of Frankenstein’s, and discover the ruins that were once his castle. Within the ruins they discover an ice cave, in which they find frozen in solid ice the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Niemann and Daniel build a fire and are able to free the two creatures from the ice. The Wolf Man wakes up and begins to turn into his human form Larry Talbot, who asks the men why they would free him and the monster that lives within.
Niemann offers Talbot help and says that if he can help him find Frankenstein’s research that he will be able to build him a new brain which will be free from the Wolf Man, and that he can live the life he had always wanted. Talbot agrees and the men start searching and tearing down walls and removing bricks until they finally discover a book written by Henry Frankenstein titled “Experiments in Life and Death”.
Now that they have finally found what they were searching for, Niemann, Daniel, Talbot and the monster return back to Niemann’s lab to begin working on the monster and returning him to the world of the living. Talbot begins to panic and requesting that the Doctor begin work on him first, seeing as that evening there will be a full moon. Niemann shoos him off, saying he must work on the monster first, but to begin his work he will first need to find his two nemeses who helped put him in jail, Herr Strauss and Herr Ullman.
With the help of Daniel he finds the men, kidnaps them and takes them back to his lab. He explains that he needs Ullman’s brain for the monster to be able to come back to life and that he wants to put Talbot’s brain into Strauss’s body so that Strauss will be the one who has to carry the curse of the Wolf Man.
Will he succeed? Will Talbot get the life he always dreamed of? What will happen to Niemann and Daniel if the monster is resurrected from the dead? For answers to all of these questions and more you will just have to watch House of Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine’s acting is nothing but of the highest quality as per usual. The group put on an amazing performance, giving you the feel of true classic horror and provided the stepping stones to many horror movies that we see in more recent years.
The reveal of Dracula was well played out, starting with being a skeleton in a horror freak show and having the stake still in his heart. It was dark and mysterious and you are left wondering if the skeleton was just a set up to make Lampini money or if he somehow got his hands on the real skeleton of Count Dracula. His transformation scenes, turning from skeleton to vampire and from vampire to bat as well as bat to vampire, were amazingly done for the time and looked more realistic than many things that I see today. A lot of directors and special effects crew can really take a few pointers and learn how to properly achieve a fun but effective transformation scene by watching this film.
I absolutely loved the death of Dracula in this film. It was dramatic and the setting was brilliant. In a way, the audience kind of feels bad for him because he is trying so hard to crawl to his coffin and make it in before the sun rises, and he gets so close to doing so before the first beam of light hits his skin and all that is left of him is the bones that we see at the very start of the film.
Later in the film, the discovery of the monster and the Wolf Man was done in such a creative and different way that really drew in my attention. It’s definitely possible that this is the logical progression from the events of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), where the monster and Wolf Man get swept in a flood at Frankenstein’s castle, starring the same actors. The hidden ice cave below Frankenstein’s castle in a way was very reminiscent of the Thing (1982) for myself, which did not come out before this film but it is a movie that I have seen long before this one. It was creepy, damp and cold and I was unsure of what to expect. Although it was completely unrealistic or possible, it made for an exciting scene to watch. Keep in mind, this is a monster movie, so how realistic do the locations really have to be as long as they keep the audience interested?
My favourite part of this film is the inclusion of three of the most famous universal monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the monster. It is one of the main reasons why I chose this movie to review in the first place — well, that and Boris Karloff. I have always been a fan of his work and this was one of his movies that I had not had the pleasure of viewing before. All in all, whether we see them come back from the dead or not, it was great seeing all three in this film with different goals and wanting different outcomes for themselves, which only would be made possible by the doctor.
My cons for this film are very minimal and for the most part situational. Although I loved the transformations scenes, there was a time where Dracula turned into a bat and it was very obviously not real and was controlled by strings. I can hardly take any points off due to this seeing the film came out in 1944 and they used all of the technology available to them at the time.
My only other complaint would be the possible universe continuity error being the fact that Boris Karloff plays Doctor Niemann in this film, but in previous Universal Monster movies he plays Frankenstein’s monster. A little bit confusing, but something that you can easily look past seeing as he looks much different in this film then he does playing the monster in Frankenstein (1931.) Glenn Strange has also played the monster in previous films as wells. I am assuming Karloff would have reprised his role as the monster, but the screen time the monster gets in House of Frankenstein is so minimal that it would be a waste of an amazing performance that he could provide.
When Thomas S. Flowers reached out to me and offered me a chance to write a blog post for his website, I was absolutely thrilled. He continued and explained the project to me and sent me a list of movie titles from the Universal Monster series that were still left to choose from. There were a few, including this one, that I still hadn’t seen yet so I did a bit of research and decided to choose this one because of the monsters that were in it. I was not wrong to choose this movie. It was absolutely brilliant from start to finish with hardly a complaint that was relevant to the year that this film came out. The transformation scenes, even nowadays, were brilliantly executed and were even better than a lot of others that we see today in more recent films. Although there were a few minor continuity errors (which is one of the very few reasons I didn’t give a perfect score,) it did not take me out of this film and it was still really enjoyable to watch. Overall I rate this movie a solid 9/10 and recommend that you add this one to your horror movie collection.
Chantel Feszczyn — also known as Channy Dreadful — is one creepy ghoul hailing from a small city in Saskatchewan, Canada. She is a regular podcast voice frequenting on the podcasts, with the first being Dead as Hell Horror Podcast, and as well the likes of The Resurrection of Zombie 7, Land of the Creeps and Whedonverse Podcast. For the last three years she has brought her focus towards written reviews, posting occasionally on her Tumblr blog and recently moving to her new website dreadfulreviews.com — where she posts weekly reviews discussing movies, comic books and horror-themed merchandise.