Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man. And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?
Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:
Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.
Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.
The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.
The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.
Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.
My rating: 4/5
The Wolf Man has become over the years one of my favorite Universal monsters. Larry Talbot has to be the single most tragic character to ever grace the silver (no pun intended) screen. Curt Siodmak, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man and several other monster movies and even into the 1950s science fiction era. Given the times and his heritage, I wonder if he had more than a few themes in mind for this horror story. The Wolf Man mythos has Greek tragedy written all over. An innocent, somewhat oblivious, man is cursed with lycanthropy, an uncontrollable transformation from man to wolf. He’s as much a victim as he is a monster. There’s a book written by Siodmak, which I have shamefully not read yet, detailing his creation of the Wolf Man. I am curious how the events of Nazism and WWII and being forced to immigrate to the U.S. impacted his perception of freedom and of humanism. But I’ve yarned on long enough. We’ve got a special guest writer today to tell us a bit about this amazing and haunting movie. Shall we see what Mr. X has to say about The Wolf Man?
When the Wolfbane Blooms
By: Jeffery X. Martin
There’s not a whole lot you can say about a 75 year old movie that hasn’t already been said, but The Wolf Man, a movie which has spawned more bastard children than Mick Jagger, remains so vital, so heart-wrenching, that it deserves to be seen by everyone who has grown up with only Landis and Dante’s version of lycanthropy.
George Waggner’s direction is solid and downright artsy in some scenes. His gorgeous shot inside the town church is utterly breathtaking in its contrast and shadowplay. Who needs color? This black and white work is sublime. He also has an almost symbiotic bond with low-lying fog, a standard element of every werewolf picture to follow.
It’s also right and proper to pour some out for Jack Pierce, the pioneering make-up artist who created the werewolf makeup. He also created the original make-up work for the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy. He may not have been well-liked around the studio, but he was responsible for the looks of almost all of what we think of as the “classic” monsters.
But the heart of The Wolf Man is Curt Siodmak. I know… of course, the writer is going to give credit to the writer. Blood sings to blood and all that. The fact is Siodmak, who was sort of the Rod Serling of his time, wrote a rock-solid script. Lon Chaney pulls off the role of Larry Talbot, who really is just a poor lunkhead, with great aplomb.
There’s stuff in this movie you couldn’t get away with now, like how Larry spies on the girl he likes with a telescope. Stalker! But he’s such a schmoe, such an awkward guy, you can’t help but root for him. You want him to take some power for himself and not be such a noodge.
When he finally gets a bit of that power, and becomes a werewolf, he’s shocked at his own behavior. He doesn’t want to own that kind of personal growth. If Larry has a fatal flaw, it isn’t that he becomes a werewolf when the wolfbane blooms and the gypsies come to town. It’s his humanity that makes him a classic tragic character. He realizes that he’s doomed. He always has been. In a world where the attitude is, as Richard Nixon said, “Fuck the doomed,” he’s never going to get what he wants. No sweetheart, no place as a pillar of the community, no joy. The old gypsy woman was right when she said, “Tears run to a predestined place.”
That gorgeous line is true for all of us. We’re all doomed. We’re all Larry Talbot, awkward and weak in some areas. If we really had some crazy power, would we use it the best way we could, or would we just wish it away? The real question The Wolf Man asks is not, “What is it like to be a werewolf?”
The Wolf Man asks all of us, “What does it mean to be human?”
Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.
Have you seen Late Phases? Finally! A new werewolf movie to keep my strange fascination were the lycanthrope myth sated, or for at least the time being. Hopefully maybe soon we’ll see some quality Mummy movies grace the silver screen…doubtful at that one. But we can always hope. Its no secret, I’ve got a special place in my heart for the classic Universal Monsters. I’m not at the age to have grown up watching the films. I found them in my adult years, and its probably better that I did. I don’t think most of the kids in my late phased (pun intended) Gen-X generation would have appreciated the classics…not as much as an adult would. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m sure there are a few out there that could, but overall, it is my opinion that the classics are appreciated more by a more mature audience. My appreciation stems from my studies in history thru film. Looking back at society thru the looking glass of cinema is a fascinating way of deciphering prevalent thoughts and themes and attitudes of the day in which the movie was made. The original Universal classics, as such, can be both an entertaining as hell movie and a look into the concerns of the past. Werewolf movies are one of my favorite forms of metaphor. Much how I gravitate toward Romero-esk zombie tales, likewise, I gravitate toward the tradition of werewolf created by Curt Siodmak. Curt wrote the original Universal tale, The Wolf Man (1941) and portrayed the bipedal beast as more of a Greek tragedy, where the monster is also the victim, having no control over his inner demon, per say. Late Phases seems to keep to this tradition whilst also moving the mythos a step farther.
Quick fire synopsis:
Ambrose McKinley; a fiercely independent, yet blind Vietnam War veteran and his seeing eye dog are moved into a retirement community at the edge of a forest. Willful and adamant that he can live on his own, he and his son Will are clearly not on the best of terms. He meets three neighbor women; Gloria, Anna and Victoria, who; while at first admiring Ambrose, are quickly put off by his rough attitude toward them. He meets his neighbor Delores, who shares the duplex with him. That night, during a full moon, something breaks into Delores’ kitchen and brutally slashes her to death. Ambrose hears the commotion and is also attacked by a massive werewolf. His dog comes to his defense as Ambrose struggles to find his gun, he manages to deter the creature, but his dog is mortally wounded. The next day, the police find him cradling his dog, and despite the destruction and his claims of the attack, it is shrugged off as a home invasion. With no one to believe his tale, Ambrose quickly works at preparing for the next full moon and soon discovers the threat is not from outside, but rather from inside this seemingly quiet retiree community.
The Meaning of it All…
And there you go. Plenty of symbolism to keep even the most jaded film graduate student satisfied, while also giving us horror nerds another allegorical tale to place on the shelf of werewolf lore. Ambrose verses the werewolf is an obvious story about how old bones can find purpose and keeps to the Curt Siodmak tradition…with one step farther. The monster here, while struggling at first, in the end accepts his plight and goes about turning other would-be victims into beasts themselves. Religion and faith find their way into the story too, as the priest, Father Roger is summed and cast way and ultimately killed (oops, SPOILERS!). There is also a redemption story between Ambrose and his son, Will. The movie has plenty of heart and even some humor to balance the drama and terror. But is it entertaining?
Where’s the Popcorn…?
Late Phases was very entertaining. There are certainly some bumps in the road. While the use of practical effects should be applauded, there were a few moments where the effects came across as silly. And I’m mostly talking about the werewolf costume. The transformation scenes are respectable, though does not overshadow Rick Baker’s fantastic work in An American Werewolf in London. I’d say, the transformation effects here were more close to Rob Bottin’s work in The Howling. Other then the effects, the pace was steady. There was an absence of exposition, which I found refreshing. Ambrose, played by Nick Damici, was fantastic. I love seeing crusty veteran movies, especially in horror flicks as it is something I tend to gravitate toward in my own writings. If you haven’t seen Late Phases yet, it’s still on Netflix. Make it a night. Pop some popcorn and enjoy a rather fury tale of a blind Vietnam veteran verses the monotony of retirement.
My Review: 3.5/5