House of Frankenstein (Universal 1944)
House of Frankenstein expanded the successful formula of its predecessor, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), sufficiently to include no less than five ‘monsters’. “Monster battles Monster” perfidiously expounded the trailer: it was a weak promise which remained largely unfulfilled, but that is not to say the film was not one of the best in the whole Universal Frankenstein saga.
Sporting Karloff, Chaney, Atwill and Zucco, House of Frankenstein also boasts some superb supporting performances from John Carradine, J Carrol Naish, Peter Coe, Anne Gwynne, Sig Ruman and Elena Verdugo, with probably the most underused and underrated turn coming from Glenn Strange as the Monster, in scenes which, although beautifully expressed under Karloff’s careful coaching, are all too brief and sidelined.
High stakes: Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff) bargains with a newly-revived Count Dracula (John Carradine) in House of Frankenstein (Universal 1944)
The Ghost of Frankenstein’s (1942) Erle C Kenton was seconded to direct, and with Edward T Lowe’s competent screenplay based on an original story by Curt Siodmak, a superb bespoke score by Hans J Salter and slick, polished production, House of Frankenstein towers among the Universal horrors, despite the brickbats hurled at it by the unsympathetic.
House of Frankenstein pushes boundaries that are quietly left alone by its forerunners; there is an unashamed love triangle between Larry Talbot (Chaney), Ilonka (Verdugo) and Daniel (Naish), a shameless vivisection theme surrounding Dr Niemann (Karloff), Ilonka’s revulsion at Daniel’s deformity and the sadistic beating of Ilonka by her gypsy guardian.
Cold shivers: Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff) and hunchback assistant Daniel (J Carrol Naish) discover the Monster (Glenn Strange) preserved in an underground glacial ice cavern in House of Frankenstein (Universal 1944)
Unusually, the film opts for a more episodic approach to its narrative, neatly boxing off the Dracula (Carradine) storyline less than halfway through, with associated cast members being despatched as efficiently as if they too were as susceptible to that fatal sunlight themselves.
The thread is continued via Niemann and Daniel, eventually culminating at the unhinged scientist’s castle where, reneging on promises to both his assistant and the Wolf Man, he focuses all his attention on restoring and reviving the Monster (Strange). Considering that hapless character is the mainstay of Karloff’s ambitions, it is sad to see him sidelined to laying around on a table for most of House of Frankenstein, only to be roused within the last few minutes to partake of the fiery finale as he is forced, bearing Niemann under his arm, into the boggy quicksands surrounding the castle. It’s a lamentable relegation for what was once Universal’s star monster, and must have worn heavily on Karloff’s heart, particularly as his collaboration meant collusion by default.
Temper tantrum: A frustrated Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney) threatens Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff) for focusing on the Monster (Glenn Strange) in House of Frankenstein (Universal 1944)
Kenton’s direction of House of Frankenstein is stylish throughout, and seems to take inspiration from some of the old classic expressionist techniques of the silent Teutonic terrors of the teens and twenties. Strange is often criticised for his performance of the Monster, which is cited as being one of the weakest of the whole line-up, but this is at best ingenuous and at worst, malignantly unfair.
Although Karloff’s mentoring was evident, Kenton’s direction of the Monster as a mindless, brutish thug allows little true expression in the frantic moments of screen time afforded the actor, but careful watching shows clearly that he still manages to pull this off. If one peers through the very different facade, the old master’s mannerisms and gait can be clearly discovered.
Knock, knock: Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) prepares to put the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney) out of his misery in House of Frankenstein (Universal 1944)
With his gigantic stature, sharp looks and eerie foreboding, Strange invests the role with a stark infusion of terror; as Monsters go, this is the most terrifying incarnation of them all. It is the real stuff of kids’ nightmares, and possibly explains why Strange’s image of the creature is almost as enduring as Karloff’s in popular culture.
Lamented by many is the fact that the role of Dracula in House of Frankenstein was not given to Bela Lugosi. While many believe the latter was spitefully overlooked by Universal in favour of the more cadaverous Carradine, the fact is that the studio did desire him to take on the part, but other commitments precluded his acceptance. This seems a shame in retrospect, as Lugosi purists argue that he would have brought even more gravitas to proceedings but, as ever, the film is what it is, and that we have Carradine’s creepily distinctive Count among the annals of classic horror is surely now a bonus rather than a resented substitution.
Bogged down: The Monster (Glenn Strange) and Dr Niemann (Boris Karloff) are forced back into the quicksand in House of Frankenstein (Universal 1944)
Despite the hugely respectable box office dollars House of Frankenstein realised for Universal, and the vast production values and style it exudes, it is clear that the whole stable of the studio’s monsters was running out of steam. The surprisingly good next and, in real terms, final instalment would be House of Dracula a year later, but the right true end was not something either fans or company bosses wanted to contemplate just quite yet.