Boris Karloff Blogathon: Review of House of Frankenstein (1944)
Well, I mentioned on Monday that this week is the Boris Karloff Blogathon over at the awesome blog, Frankensteinia. There are over 100 blogs participating in this event to celebrate Boris Karloff’s 122nd birthday.
This past October, for my Halloween celebration called AWESOME-tober-fest, my theme was Frankenstein and I reviewed the three original Boris Karloff Universal Frankenstein movies; Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. In each of these, Karloff played the role that he made famous, the Frankenstein monster. All were fantastic movies and, to me, earned their status as classics.
However, after Son of Frankenstein, Karloff did not return to the role of the monster in any Universal motion picture. The fourth Frankenstein movie, Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) featured The Wolf Man’s Lon Chaney Jr as the monster. The fifth movie, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1944) had Dracula’s Bela Lugosi in the monster role. Interestingly, Lugosi was originally offered the Frankenstein monster role in Universal’s 1931 movie but turned it down thinking it was beneath him to play a mindless brute. This rebuttal lead the way for Karloff to take over the role. Glenn Strange would then assume the monster role in this movie, House of Frankenstein (1944) as well as Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and House of Dracula (1945).
So, House would be the third Universal Frankenstein movie to not feature Karloff in the role of the monster, but Karloff did return to star in this movie. And this is the movie I decided to review for the Boris Karloff Blogathon.
So, yes, Universal was able to get Karloff to return to the Frankenstein franchise, but not as the monster. Karloff instead plays the mad scientist, Dr Gustav Niemann. It’s also interesting to note that Universal tried to get Bela Lugosi to reprise the role of Dracula for this movie, but the actor had a last minute scheduling conflict and John Carradine was hired as Dracula instead.
The story is somewhat jumbled. it involves a series of set pieces that are loosely tied together by Karloff’s mad doctor and his hunchbacked assistant. Karloff and the hunchback start off the movie in jail. They wind up escaping jail (because a lightning storm destroys the building…?!) but not before Karloff dramatically announces to no one in particular that he is going to continue Dr Frankenstein’s work and give his hunchbacked assistant a beautiful body (odd choice of words, Doc). Oh, and he’s going to get revenge on the guys who put him in jail. This leads the doctor and assistant to a traveling carnival. Karloff kills the carnival owner and assumes his identity and shockingly no one really notices (or cares) about the identity switch. By sheer coincidence, one of the carnival’s horror attractions is the remains of Count Dracula. Karloff revives the Count and orders him to kill one of the men who put him in jail. Dracula does (I don’t know why he follows Karloff’s orders), but is double-crossed by Karloff who steals Dracula’s coffin and strands him outside during sunrise and the Count dies not 30 minutes into the movie. Karloff moves on to the next village where he happens upon the remains of Castle Frankenstein and the bodies of Lawrence Talbot aka The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster preserved in the frozen lake (both monsters drowned in the lake at the end of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man released earlier that year). Karloff revives Talbot, promises him a cure for his lycanthropy if he kills some men, Talbot agrees, wolfs out and starts slaughtering people (Karloff is a very convincing guy). The rag tag group of killers and monsters take on a runaway gypsy who falls in love with Talbot. The hunchback becomes jealous because he falls in love with the gypsy. Towards the end, as the group is pursued by angry villagers (staple of all horror movies), the gypsy woman kills Talbot (again, he’s died like 4 times up to this point) with a silver bullet and is herself accidentally killed. The lonely hunchback blames Karloff for the gypsy’s death. The hunchback tries to kill Karloff but the revived Frankenstein monster kills the hunchback and carries the mad doctor’s dying body into the marshes while chased by the aforementioned villagers. While in the marshes, the Frankenstein monster gets trapped in quicksand and both he and the doctor drown. End scene.
House of Frankenstein was the first of Universal’s “monster rally” movies that cobbled together multiple monsters from the Universal horror stable. This concept would be repeated in The House of Dracula the following year. Universal at this point only cared about maximizing profit from their horror characters and cared little about continuity or story telling. And it shows in this movie. Early drafts of the script included several more monsters like The Mummy and The Invisible Man. I was hoping this would be as fun as Son of Frankenstein but it felt a little rushed and disjointed. Dracula dying so early was disappointing because he doesn’t interact with the other monsters at all. Boris Karloff is fun to watch as the completely insane and over the top Dr Niesmann. Karloff really relishes playing this role and you can tell he had a lot of fun. John Carradine was adequate as Count Dracula, but having Lugosi return would have been ideal. Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man is always fun to watch, he is my favorite monster and I love watching that character. Glenn Strange does a very good job in his first time as the monster, but it helped that he had Karloff himself on set to coach him in the nuances of the character.
Overall, this movie is not great, but it’s fun. The best part is watching Karloff go completely nuts as the mad doctor. Seeing the parade of monsters is the second best part of the movie. I would recommend this to Universal horror fans, but maybe not to the average horror fan. As for re-watchability, I think Son of Frankenstein is my favorite. I could watch Basil Rathbone tear it up in that movie for hours. This is definitely interesting enough to keep you interested for the majority of the movie, but the plot skips and jumps through huge plot holes. So turn your brain off when you watch this movie and prepare to watch pretty much every character in the movie die. But don’t worry, they’ll all be resurrected in a few years for House of Dracula.
Well, I watched a lot of Frankenstein movies this year. I still haven’t seen Ghost of Frankenstein, but I’m not in a huge hurry to see that one. Maybe next Halloween. I think I’m going to take a break from horror movies for a while. I almost burned myself out on them.
Remember, check out Frankensteinia for a lot more stories and pictures celebrating Boris Karloff.
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