Monday, 10 April 2017
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)
Having been forced by diminishing returns to demote their once-lucrative horror icons to B-movie status, beginning with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Universal now resorted to squeezing the remaining value from them while they could. An unsubtle hint of their increasing desperation could be found in their next sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). Here the studio began the fateful combining of franchises that they hoped would translate into an attractive two-for-one offer at the box-office – come and see two of their great monsters battling it out on screen. Ironically it had the opposite effect, draining credibility in the same way that such bargains can devalue any product’s former prestige.
George Waggner, the producer-director behind the newest gallery addition, The Wolf Man, allegedly bought into a half-joking pitch by its esteemed genre writer Curt Siodmak consisting of just the title. The project was fired up from this glib high-concept alone. Rather than helm it himself, Waggner assigned director Roy William Neill, a cut above the usual hack, whose skill at creating artful film noir visuals was serving him well across several of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series.
To be fair, there is a unique dramatic thread running through this sequel, carried by the return of Lon Chaney’s lupine loser Lawrence Talbot. Whereas Universal’s other marauding creatures hungrily grasp for ongoing life once revived, sometimes turbo-boosted by seething vengeance, his tragedy is a tormented, introspective desire to die quietly away. Although Chaney wasn’t as strong an actor as his namesake father, his most potent quality was a downbeat soulfulness that is perfect for Talbot and gives Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man what substance it has. The dialogue is surprisingly clunky and prosaic for Siodmak’s writing, lacking the wit of his 1933 The Invisible Man or the supernatural resonance of The Wolf Man – but Chaney’s haunted, expressive face compensates.
The story begins in the family vault at Talbot’s homeland of Lanwelly, Wales, the setting for The Wolf Man, which is broken into by two graverobbers looking to filch his corpse of personal valuables years after burial. Upon opening the coffin, they find him perfectly preserved (an ominous sign), and after removing the protective wolfsbane from him, unwittingly also allow the light of the dreaded full moon to invade his rest. As Freddy Jolly (Cyril Deleventi) goes for his ring, Talbot’s risen hand grabs his, causing the vagrant to shriek and his friend to scarper. So much for eternal sleep.
We then move to a bobby on the streets of Cardiff who discovers Talbot’s prostrate body, and has him shipped to Queen’s Hospital where Patric Knowles’ Dr Mannering operates on his fractured skull and is amazed by his fast recovery. Knowles had previously tangled with Chaney in the original film as fiancé to his love interest; here he gets a meatier role gradually drawn into the heart of the plot. His performance has a serene blandness to be sure, yet it contrasts well with Chaney’s aching gloom and the hot-headed vigilantism that will encircle them later.
Added variety of viewpoint is provided nicely by benevolent sceptic Inspector Owen, (Dennis Hoey, who Neill directed as the similar Lestrade in six Sherlock Holmes sequels). A call to Lanwelly makes Talbot’s stated identity suspicious as the station sergeant saw him buried four years ago. Mannering is too sympathetic to agree with Owen that this “poor devil of unsound mind” is an impostor.
Sadly, Larry Talbot does not have the luxury of disbelief. The full moon’s influence pins him to the bed, transforming him under its supernatural glow into the Wolf Man. Dissolve photography layers in Jack Pierce’s celebrated facial prosthetics while Chaney’s eyes dart around in helpless fear. Cut to later that night and an athletic, bestial Talbot bounds through the streets to savage the poor samaritan of a constable who had found his alter ego.
The scenes where Chaney’s character pleads to be held accountable for his uncontrollable monstrosity are largely where Siodmak’s script is at its weakest. The next morning, he vainly tries to convince Mannering and Owen that “There’s a curse upon me. I change into a wolf!” From then on, he reiterates the point with only slight variations across the movie to skirt dangerously close to achieving bad dialogue immortality. There is power though in Talbot’s dawning realisation that no-one normal will believe him, and no-one of normal ability can cure him - “I can’t die” – a turning point that sets him on a death wish quest to find everlasting piece.
Mannering and Owen join forces and head to the Lanwelly vault where they and the local force find the severed-jugular body of Jolly, and hear of the wolf creature that old Sir John Talbot killed. A photo of his son strengthens the evidence that their Mr Talbot may be telling the truth after all. Meanwhile, the intrepid duo learn by ‘phone that their patient wasn’t waiting for vindication, having fled the hospital after biting through his strait-jacket. “With ‘is teeth?” gasps Owen.
Sometimes it takes a little old lady to get the job done. The only person who can help Talbot is elderly gypsy Maleva, (a soothing role reprise by the iconic Maria Ouspenskaya), whose authentic Hungarian gravitas is inevitably beholden to him ever since he was infected by her son Bela (a tiny Bela Lugosi cameo in The Wolf Man). How can she turn down his plaintive “Won’t you show me the way?” They journey by cart-horse, in a sense back in time, to the quaint Ruritanian Vesaria of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), where Maleva hopes the unearthly experiments of Dr Ludwig Frankenstein can be cruel to be kind. However, as one door opens for Talbot, another one is roughly shown to him by Rex Evans’ towering bully of a tavern owner, Vazec. He damns the scientist’s name: “He harboured a monster in his house – a thing created by black magic” – the very qualifications Talbot needs. Alas, the doctor burned to death in the last sequel. Talbot absorbs the bad news into his doomed perspective: “Now I must go on living. There’s no hope for me to die”. Even Maleva is unable to pacify him from running away to cry wolf a second time in the woods.
The awful result of Talbot’s disappearance soon manifests itself when Vazec bears his dead little girl through the town, collecting hordes of frightened folk in his wake. The most vocal of the followers turns spokesman and is a chance to see the last decent screen part for Dwight Frye. He could still pick up cameos in Universal horror films as his career waned, and as Rudi he at least managed to shake off the wild-eyed, hunchbacked (or both) henchmen that had made his name since the 1931 brace of Dracula and Frankenstein. He would sadly die young shortly after one more of those typecast vile serviles in the aforementioned regrettable Dead Men Walk (1943). Here though, his fierce energy was channelled into a slighty saner, high-voltage vigilantism, prefaced by the immortal line when the villagers realise a monster has torn out the child’s throat: “What animals are there around here that can kill people?” - Cue far-off howl.
The mob now storm off in an unusually early man/wolf hunt that traditionally takes place at the climax. The purpose is to enable Talbot to link up with Frankenstein’s own Monster ‘offspring’, entombed in ice beneath the doctor’s mansion. Unfortunately this leads to the most ill-advised casting possible for the imposing, cadaverous hulk: the well-fed, fragile, sixty year-old Bela Lugosi. It was bad enough that he was a wildly inappropriate choice and ‘too old for this shit’ in terms of the physical indignities of any action or the long hours needed in the make-up chair. Worse still was that he had turned down the original director Robert Florey’s conception of the part when the franchise began in 1931 as being a crude mute unbefitting his dignified self-image and rising star trajectory following Dracula. He then had to watch as Boris Karloff’s poetic interpretation shot the unknown Englishman to a fame that (helped by wiser choices) subsequently eclipsed ‘poor Bela’, as he called his friend, for good.
Interestingly, if Lugosi had been offered the seemingly snug fit of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein (1939) instead of Basil Rathbone, we would never have been treated to what I feel remains his most affecting performance. Whereas Lugosi tended towards an imperious auto-pilot many times as his mad scientists, he shows a heart-rending, unexpected vulnerability within Ygor’s crippled soul.
In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi is simply an embarrassment, only marginally better than in The Ape Man - released the same day - because at least as this creature he is barely recognisable under prosthetics, and recurring illness afforded him liberal coverage at times by stunt doubles Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins. It is said to be Perkins playing the Monster’s first close-up when excavated - (it certainly isn’t Lugosi). The most glaring liability in the Monster portrayal is his absurd, straight-armed walk, which may not really be Lugosi’s fault. Apparently this splayed-hand, comedic strut was down to a late decision to remove all suggestion of the Monster’s residual blindness after Ghost, and the inconsistent use of stuntmen would also have jeopardised performance continuity. Post—production also excised filmed sequences of him speaking, which explains Lugosi’s occasional wordless mouthing.
On the lighter side, the second half of the movie introduces the radiant Ilona Massey as Dr Ludwig’s daughter Elsa. A soprano operetta star in real-life, she is the third genuine Hungarian in the cast and will become a vital conscience for the heroes. Talbot seeks her out posing as a land buyer to beg her help in finding her father’s work diary. Another positive influence is a warm change of pace for Lionel Atwill playing the Mayor of Vesaria rather than his standard frosty, maniacal medics. He genially zips around, sporting a curved pipe and bushy moustache attempting to douse the civic fires that will soon break out. As a good host, he invites Elsa and Talbot to stay for the Festival of New Wine - with unforeseen consequences. What should be a pleasant distraction instead only reinforces Talbot’s plight when beaming bass-baritone Adia Kuznetzoff belts out the hearty ‘Song of the New Wine’. The acquired taste of operetta is a busman’s holiday to Massey, but the relentless life-affirmation of the lyrics is excruciating for Talbot (and some horror fans) when they are serenaded with: “And may they live eternally / For life is short and death is long”.
This rare touch of artistry in the script taunts and intensifies the Wolfman’s frustrated drive to find assisted suicide. (Watch Chaney’s startled reaction). “Eternally? I don’t want to live eternally! Why did you say that to me?” he explodes at Kuznetzoff.
From here on, the other strong theme introduced is the conflict between the traditional and the perceived threat of the modern. Mannering arrives, (having tracked Talbot down easily from the trail of carnage across Europe), and is convinced to help his patient by harnessing the technology of Elsa’s father’s diary. Resistance is strongest from the eavesdropping Vasec; not only is he mistrustful of strangers causing havoc in Vesaria again, but he’s a confirmed Luddite in general: “Machines day after day. What does man really need machines for?” The reappearance of the rampaging Monster in the market-place reinforces the old-world fears of the perilous new, and it takes the combined persuasiveness of the Mayor - “Let’s use our brains for once” - and the newcomers to be allowed to re-activate Dr Ludwig’s equipment to drain the energies of both creatures. Suspicious Vazec secretly plots to dynamite the nearby dam and drown the interlopers.
We then relocate to the underground laboratory of Ludwig’s damaged mansion where Ludwig’s playbook convinces Mannering to treat the creatures as walking batteries whose energy polarities can be reversed into extinction. Although he is not a descendant of the Frankenstein blood-line, (making the title cheekily misleading), that old black magic of scientific curiosity corrupts him just the same. Despite Elsa’s better judgement, an internal switch is thrown that sends Mannering’s mind and his subjects’ bodies into berserk megalomania. It could be Henry himself back in 1931’s Frankenstein saying of the Monster: “I’ve got to see it at its full power”!”
The build-up to the promised titanic battle between two Universal icons is nicely paced. The surging electrodes smoke at Lugosi’s neck while the machinery’s rising pitch howls menacingly. Horror fans will enjoy Lugosi’s subtle, malevolent grin as he looks to his new master in evil expectancy. Disappointingly, the release of Monster and Wolfman into paw-to- boot combat happens merely three minutes from the end. There is just time for a few mouth-watering attacks before Vazec’s explosives destroy the castle above them in a well-realised water torrent – a dam shame.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man marked the sad spiral of Universal’s former potent properties of horror into the crash-landings of House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). And yet the ‘king-of-the-ring’ silliness of these entries was not the end of the story. The studio sifted through the wreckage and found enough glowing embers to retool their gallery of ghouls for a Third Wave - as comedy antagonists opposite Abbott and Costello. It soon became an undignified revival, but a half-life is better than no life at all…