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Universal Monsters in Review: House of Dracula (1945)

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Was there a change in atmosphere with House of Dracula? Maybe this feeling is just me; maybe not, but while screening this latest in Univeral monsters, there seemed to be a different quality of theatrics going on. Both good and bad, perhaps. Mostly good, if you ask me. In its place in history, House of Dracula was released in December of 1945, a little over three months following the end of WWII. As we’ve noted in previous reviews during this series, Universal was not immune to Hollywood’s propaganda, pro-war influence. Many of these classic monster films, starting in 1941 and running thru 1944, there’ve been subtle hints of “invaders,” and an almost puritanical rule of “killing the monster.” Some movies were not so subtle, Invisible Agent (1942) was the most painfully obvious of American propaganda films during this era.  Now, with House of Dracula, I had started watching with this expectation of similarity with the other films. And there were some, but what really struck me as different was a major focus on duality and the understanding of the identity of the monster. Take Dr. Franz Edelmann, a respected member of the community in the setting of House of Dracula. In his attempt to “cure” Dracula, and The Wolfman, he himself turned outwardly monstrous. It begs the question, who is the enemy? The roles for the characters in House of Dracula were equally magnificent, even with the absence of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, replaced in this film by John Carradine. My favorite character by far, I thought, was the hunchbacked nurse, Nina (played by the lovely and native Texan Jane Adams). I felt that her role was pivotal to the sticky plot carried throughout the Hollywood prescribed hour long movie. As it is, I’ve probably chatted long enough. Let’s see what our esteemed guest has to say about House of Dracula.

 

House of Dracula

By: Chad Clark

House of Dracula was released in 1945 and stands as a sort of swan song for the fabled Universal monster franchise. The film is a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein and would be the last time (with the exception of the later Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein) that these iconic monsters would appear together on film.

First of, I would say that the inherent nostalgia of these movies make it hard to not enjoy them on at least some level, even if the film itself might be somewhat flawed. I have always been a big fan of the orchestral scoring used in this era, giving the movies much more of a feel of the theater than I think we get in modern film. And of course, I think that while my modernistic makeup gives me an almost unconscious urge to resist it, movies shot in black and white really have a forlorn beauty to them that I think is absent from our modern .

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To start with what I like about the film, I love the feel of physical spaces, the weight of props and the use of practical special effects. This is not to disparage the art of digital effects but I think that there was a special passion in movies like this where, if you wanted to do something, you had to figure out how to do it. The essential spirit of invention out of necessity I think gives a unique feel to a movie. I think everyone involved becomes very invested in making sure the product is as good as it can be. In modern movies, I often feel like the actor spends the entire film miming movement in front of a green screen so it is refreshing to see actual sets, with real physical objects.

The effects of this film are actually quite good. The effect of Dracula transforming into a bat and vise-versa was done extremely well. Ironically, I found the fairly simple effect of the bat flying to be more awkward and cheesy than the effect of a human transforming into the bat itself. I’m sure that a younger viewer, spoiled by the digital effects of our age would find many of the effects silly but I think that they are used exactly as effects should. Regardless of how seamless and realistic they look, they are simply one tool used to move the story forward. This was a time when movies were about the magic and the story. Sometimes, I think that the movie-making process has been so de-constructed anymore that we have lost sight of that.

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The acting for the most part is decent, with a few stand-out performances. I thought that Onslow Stevens as Dr. Franz Edelmann and Jane Adams as Nina were both very good, with performances that were maybe a little more nuanced and heart-felt than the rest of the cast. Otherwise, this was a movie that felt very safe. I suspect that by this point, everyone knew that this was more about the franchise and that no one’s individual performances were going to make or break the show. You show up and slap on the makeup.

If you love the monsters, there’s a little bit of everything for you here. You’ve got Dracula and the Wolfman. You’ve got some Frankenstein and a mad scientist. There’s even a hunchback, although not quite in the context you might be expecting. And since it’s a Universal Studios driven monster flick, of course there is a huge mob of villagers, poised to chase after someone with torches if they are needed.

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The thing for me and ultimately what I think fails about this movie is that there isn’t really any cohesive or organic reason for all of these monsters to be in the same story. Ostensibly, the premise is built on the notion that both Dracula and the Wolfman are seeking out this scientist for a “cure” for their conditions but that itself is never really explored or explained. To me, it just seemed like a half-hearted attempt to provide a justification for having them both in the movie. And as for the rest of the monsters, it literally feels like we just trip over them on the road down the narrative of the movie.

And for those who love to harp on Hollywood for lacking originality and going back to retread old ideas and lean on old franchises, this ain’t nothing new. Watching House of Dracula, frankly, felt like I was watching two completely separate films. You have the story centered around Dracula and then the story centered around the Wolfman. Because both stories end up sort of competing with one another, I’m left not really caring about either. Ironically, the one character I seem to feel the most invested in is the nurse played by Jane Adams and she probably has the least amount of screen time out of all of them.

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Another irony in placing so many disparate monsters within the film is that, despite the title of the movie, I wouldn’t even categorize this as a Dracula movie. John Carradine is certainly passable as Dracula, but there is no confusing him with the dark, menacing presence of Lugosi.

But that by itself can be taken in stride. What I find more of a letdown is that while Dracula has a few big scenes, ultimately his story is wrapped up so anti-climatically that we are left kind of scratching our heads and wondering why he was there in the first place. It seems to me like we are supposed to be more emotionally invested in Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolfman than anything else. At the very end of the Dracula sub-plot, something does happen which ultimately drives the rest of the movie to its tragic conclusion, but if that was his only purpose for being in the story, it seems like they could have accomplished the same thing without arbitrarily shoe-horning Dracula into the film. Had this been a movie about just trying to “fix” the Wolfman, I think the film would have had much more emotional depth and focus.

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I don’t hate this movie, I just don’t really love it either. As I hinted at before, this just felt like a safe movie to me. It’s entertaining, but it’s also kind of bland. To me, it seemed like Universal was couching on the spectacle of bringing all these monsters together in one film being enough of a draw that they didn’t really need to focus on the rest. Nobody is really going out on a limb with the story or trying to break new ground with anything. This is not a movie that will blow you away or amaze you.

It is, however, a great film to throw into the DVD player, order some pizzas and invite your friends over for movie night.

chadclark

Chad A. Clark is a Midwestern author of horror and science fiction. His artistic roots can be traced back to the golden era of horror literature, Stephen King, and Robert McCammon being large influences. His love for horror began as well in the classic horror franchises of the eighties. He resides in Iowa with his wife and two sons. Clark’s debut novel, Borrowed Time, was published in 2014. His second novel, A Shade for Every Season was released in 2015, and in 2016 Clark published Behind Our Walls, a dark look at the human condition set in a post-apocalyptic world. His latest book, Down the Beaten Path, releases in September 2016. You can keep up with all of Chad Clark’s works by following him on Amazon here.

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Universal Monsters in Review: House of Frankenstein (1944)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pros:

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?

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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.

Cons:

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.

Rating:

9/10

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.

xxx

Channy Dreadful

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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.

 


Soapbox Rant: Or my utter contempt over Universal’s colossal classic monster movie blunder

Why in the seven worlds is Universal opening its vault for the sole purpose of rebooting/rehashing its classic anthology of movie monsters? If you haven’t seen or heard the news yet, let me break it to you. You may want to sit down. Apparently Universal Studios is bringing back everyone’s favorite classic movie monsters, we’re talking Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1941), Dracula (1931), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Mummy (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933). “What’s so terrible about that?”…you may ask. Well…let’s talk about it. According to most of every article I’ve read on the subject, this rehashing has been going around the table for some time. Lots of rumor and speculation has boiled the pot into an absolute frenzy among horror nerds and bloggers, such as myself. But why are we so worked up? More movies is good movies, right? Unfortunately that is not the case. More/new movies does not necessarily mean good, as in quality. In fact, we’re more than likely to get flicks representative of 2004’s (a decade ago, if you can believe that!) telling of Van Helsing (which stared Hugh Jackman, our lovable Wolverine). Which is to say, a boring story with plenty of action. Now, I’m not personally saying Van Helsing was horrible. It was actually a fun watch. A movie you where you could unplug and allow your brain to ooze out the ear. Van Helsing was a popcorn movie, no doubt. But weren’t the original Universal monster movies more than that? Van Helsing may have been fun to watch, with all the flashing lights and bells, but it had no meaning, no purpose. The original films said something about the era in which they were made…God, I hope that doesn’t hold true for the films we’re putting out today! 

Frankenstein had the subtext of a world torn apart by The Great War and reassembled in this new world order. Dracula, for me at least, dealt with xenophobia and blood mixing. Powerful stuff in the 1930’s, perhaps more nowadays if you so happen to turn on the news. The Wolfman was a classic Greek tragedy where beneath the fur and fangs, you saw the terrified glimpse of Hitler’s raise to power in Nazi Germany. Not that the Wolfman was Hitler, but rather Talbot represented European Jewry during a time of mass hysteria and persecution. A power manifested image of how people may have felt to be looked at differently.

Do you see where my concern is coming from? The classics had significant meaning and purpose. What significance or meaning will the reboots bring? Well, as it turns out, Universal is only looking at the dollar signs. With this huge insurgence with cinematic universes being explored with both Marvel and DC, Universal wants to cash in, the only issue is that they do not have anything in their stable, but the classic monsters, to bring back. And to make matters worse, the most recent rumor is that Universal executives want to cut out the horror aspect in the films and turn them into action films instead. This goes back to my Van Helsing comment. This films might end up being fun to watch, something we can unplug our brains to, but it will not have any significance. And the removal of the horror aspect makes no sense to me. The entire essence of the classics are in themselves horror. How is it even possible to do such a thing? Perhaps the executive who mentioned it or started the rumor meant that the films were going to be geared toward horror/action and not just horror in general.

To tell the truth, when I first heard the news that Universal was bringing back the classics, there was some excitement there. The most recent rehash with The Wolfman (2010) was not entirely horrible. It wasn’t the mind numbing action of Van Helsing, thank goodness. The only thing they got wrong on that one was the overuse of CGI. Hairy Hopkins would have been forgivable had the producers/director stuck with practical/traditional effects. Had they called in Rick Baker….damn…it could have been a phenomenal movie!! In my opinion, the acting in the 2010 Wolfman was on par with the 1941 original. And as far as scripts go, they retold the story without ignoring the roots. It really shows how close they came, but ultimately gave up because of poor reviews and revenue. Some may disagree with me on this one. But hey, its just my opinion.

My hope is that all these rumors are just that, rumors. Creating a cinematic universe with the original baddies of horror is not entirely awful. There are many classic crossovers in the vault to compare. The Wolfman meets Frankenstein (1943) is my personal favorite. However, if the new ventures become nothing more than another meaningless Van Helsing rendition, well… in retrospect it’ll be nothing more than another golden opportunity lost in creating something with real, lasting significant.