CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: October, 2014

“House of Dracula” (1945)

"House of Dracula" poster

 

When 1945’s House of Dracula debuted into theaters, the writing was on the wall for the future of Universal horror. Not counting the impending Abbott & Costello monster comedies or ’50s sci-fi fare, the studio’s grip on fans of fright flicks had just about completely loosened. Universal’s crypts and cobwebs just weren’t having the same effect on viewers anymore, so after their “more beasts for your buck” gamble paid off with the all-star monster party that was House of Frankenstein, a second fearsome family reunion was quickly commissioned. The result was House of Dracula, a film suffering from most of the same ails as its predecessor, yet what works about it does so to the extent of making it an improvement by default. It still experiences an unreasonable amount of difficulty in creating enough engaging busywork for its characters, but at the very least, its narrative is less meandering than the last one’s. While House of Dracula hasn’t a thing on any of the times its creatures stalked the silver screen in their own solo vehicles, its occasional flashes of cleverness do make for a more tolerable picture.

After terrorizing Transylvania for centuries upon centuries, Count Dracula (John Carradine) is doing the unthinkable: retiring. Apparently, he’s grown weary of all those years of jugular-guzzling, as he wants to be rid of his supernatural curse once and for all. To do so, he calls upon the services of Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a kindly surgeon who cautiously agrees to help out the Count and see if his vampirism truly can be cured. At the same time, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives in search of the good doctor’s aid, as well, hoping to find a way of relieving his habit of transforming into a bloodthirsty werewolf upon each full moon. Having two creatures of the night on his hands is enough trouble for Edelmann, but it’s not long before the fates end up doubling the terror. One of Larry’s outings as the Wolf Man leads to the discovery of Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), with the thought of resurrecting him for science’s sake piquing the doc’s curiosity. Unfortunately, Edelmann is about to find out what it’s like to be a fiend firsthand, as his blood becomes mixed with Dracula’s, warping him into a Mr. Hyde-like cretin with nothing but murder on his mind.

House of Dracula incorporates enough interesting angles into the story to make the multitude of moments when it backs away from doing anything cool with them that much more disappointing. This holds especially true for Dracula, who — despite getting title billing and a heightened presence in the plot — is bestowed with a neat-sounding arc that amounts to precisely zilch. Obviously, the Count has no intention of shedding his otherworldly gifts, but to what end does he maintain the ruse with Edelmann? To get closer to the doc’s fetching assistant (Martha O’Driscoll), which he could’ve done right from the start? Or did he really want to bid his curse adieu after all and just ended up changing his mind? That so simple of a narrative hang-up goes by unaddressed drives you up the damn wall, leaving Dracula with no reason to stick around other than infecting Edelmann and bringing out his dark side. As intriguing of a twist as it is, though, it arrives awfully late in the game and feels as if it might as well have been engineered to leave out the Count wholesale, for how little the story would lose. But stuck in even worse shape is the Frankenstein Monster, who seems frantically written in as a last-minute afterthought and is just there to give the requisite angry villagers something to chase at the end (as if there were no other villains present to assume such duties).

The closest any character comes to making it through House of Dracula as unscathed as possible is our buddy, the Wolf Man. As with House of Frankenstein, Talbot spends most of his screen time as a one-man pity party, although Chaney’s performance really has you believing that this guy has endured so many horrors, death is the only release he has left. I won’t reveal whether or not Edelmann’s experiments free him of his lycanthropic ways, but I will say that the movie is decent enough to give Talbot some sense of closure…at least until the next time Universal felt the need to dust him off for another appearance. Carradine makes the most out of his unwisely truncated role and delivers another fairly stirring interpretation of Dracula, with his craggy looks doing most of the heavy lifting. As Dr. Edelmann, Stevens (Them!) does solid work, playing a saintly man of science and his demented alter ego without having to exaggerate himself too much (just some droopy eyelids and teased hair, and boom, instant convincing nutcase. Fun little character parts are filled by the likes of Universal stalwart Lionel Atwill (playing his umpteenth police inspector) and Skelton Knaggs (as a suspicious townsperson), but the film’s real find is Jane Adams as Nina, a hunchbacked nurse plugged as a monster on the poster but whose incredibly sweet personality makes her anything but.

House of Dracula is closer to what you’d hope to see from a vehicle that gathers some of cinema’s most influential monsters under the same roof, but it’s still not the flick that they deserve. Though the story earns credit for the few novel paths it opts to tread, it still all boils down to diluted depictions of iconic characters whose glory days had long since passed them by. There’s charm within House of Dracula, but most of it remains buried beneath the sound of your own disappointed sighs.

“House of Frankenstein” (1944)

"House of Frankenstein" poster

 

1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man surprised people on multiple levels. For one, it was the first time that Universal acknowledged that some of their famous monsters did indeed inhabit the same world, and furthermore, it had the great fortune of being legitimately good. With just a minor amount of continuity-futzing involved, the picture wove a compelling yarn that made terrific use of its two headlining terrors. As this combination proved to be a success, Universal was inspired to take the team-up concept even further in their next inevitable installment. Enter House of Frankenstein, a flick that arrived the following year, added two additional monsters to the ensemble, and even managed to coax Boris Karloff to join the party. Unfortunately, for as fluid as its predecessor’s narrative turned out to be, this picture has a doozy of a time trying to settle on just what it hopes to accomplish. Playing more like two separate tales stitched together than as one single entity, House of Frankenstein is a mess of a movie, stopping short of disgracing the creatures in its cast but not amounting to anything fans should climb out of their tombs to catch.

To say that Dr. Gustav Niemann (Karloff) is obsessed is like saying the Gill Man enjoys water sports. Long ago, Gustav’s brother assisted the infamous Dr. Frankenstein in his experiments and passed on what secrets he could before his death. But carrying on the tradition of tampering in God’s domain has left the doctor rotting in prison for the last fifteen years — that is, until fate (and a convenient lightning bolt) decrees that he and his hunchbacked helper Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) be freed. After murdering a showman and assuming control of his traveling chamber of horrors, Gustav heads out on a mission to repay those who sent him up the river by unleashing a supernaturally-fueled vengeance upon the land. Firstly, he resurrects the one and only Count Dracula (John Carradine), commanding him to terrorize the family of the burgomaster (Sig Ruman) who wronged him. But the horror is far from over, as Gustav also has his sights set on continuing his brother’s work. Having uncovered the graves of both the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) and the werewolf Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), the fiend now has everything he needs to incite his diabolical scheme to become the maddest scientist the world has ever known.

After regarding its dear monsters with a sense of awe and respect for so long, that Universal really gave them the schlock treatment with House of Frankenstein is a true shame. Maybe the cornier tone was the studio’s way of acknowledging that their tricks weren’t scaring people like they used to, but with threats of brain transplants made so casually here, you’d swear it was a tongue-in-cheek parody the likes of which Abbott and Costello would be cranking out in a matter of years. The whole thing feels so slapdash, which stinks, because with extra effort, these properties could have been wrangled together into a frightful fiesta that’d make them all look good. Instead, House of Frankenstein spends its 70 minutes repeatedly picking up monsters and putting them back, like an indecisive patron at a horror buffet. Nothing compelling comes of anyone’s screen time, which may have something to do with how the movie is cut into two different sections, with no co-mingling creatures between them. Dracula fares the worst of the bunch, as — without spoiling anything — he’s completely gone from the story before it reaches the half-hour mark. Granted, Carradine doesn’t do too bad of a job with the role (using his lanky build to an imposing advantage), but the audience hasn’t a chance to grow accustomed to this new Count before the film has completely disregarded him (not to mention the folks he’s stalked, too).

But if House of Frankenstein does have an anchor to its name, it’s in the form of Karloff’s Gustav. As our main character, his quest for vengeance at least gives us something to come back to whenever the monster action comes up short. The role itself is pretty standard mad scientist stuff (again, one can only swear they’ll swap someone’s skulls so many times before it starts sounding ridiculous), but Karloff is, as always, a consummate professional whose magnetic performance radiates mustache-twirling evil. Veteran character actor Naish also squeezes a surprisingly sympathetic turn out of poor Daniel, who can only stand aside as the gypsy girl he’s crushing on (Elena Verdugo) starts batting her eyes at the tortured Larry Talbot. On that note, Chaney does fine work once again in his signature role as the Wolf Man, although the script does lean a little too heavily on the “woe is me” angle without diving terribly deep. Unfortunately, the Frankenstein Monster ends up in a state nearly as sorry as Dracula’s. This time, it’s perennial bit play Strange who’s been summoned to don the neck bolts and flat top, but while the Monster ends up playing a fairly important part in the story, his simplistic portrayal officially turns what began as one of the most fascinating characters in horror history into a walking, brutish joke.

House of Frankenstein should’ve been a monster fan’s dream come true, but instead, it’s a nightmare of a whole other kind. The mere sight of seeing these characters together on screen for the first time simply isn’t enough incentive to overlook what little they get to do and how unimaginative the circumstances that corralled them into a single plot turned out to be. House of Frankenstein is watchable, but don’t expect it do justice to your favorite stars of the scary screen.

“Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” (1949)

"Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff" poster

 

Bud and Lou faced many a monster in their time, so when the name of the actor playing one of them made its way into the title, that meant things were extra spooky, right? Alas, one shouldn’t get their hopes up for Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff pitting one of the greatest comedy duos of all time against the man who would be Grinch. Karloff is actually just one of an entire group of nogoodniks out to see our two heroes pushing daisies, making this comedic whodunit more along the lines of a who-wouldn’t-do-it. But outside of a misleading title and a story that casts a big name like Boris to the sidelines for so long, the movie still proves to be more madness than method. Not that Abbott and Costello were ever the masters of cinematic craftsmanship in the first place, but Meet the Killer comes across as a haphazardly-assembled production all the same, spoiling what might’ve been a devilishly delightful horror comedy by overcomplicating the plot and ignoring the talent that lies at its disposal.

Murder most foul has been committed at the Lost Caverns resort hotel. A famous criminal attorney has been found dead, the victim of a heinous crime. It just so happens that a number of his associates have converged upon the vacation getaway at the same time, although one poor sap bumbles his way into becoming the number one suspect: bellboy Freddie Phillips (Costello). Having quarreled with the deceased before his demise and discovered the body first, the cops are all but ready to declare him guilty, but house detective Casey Edwards (Abbott) knows better. He’s the only one who believes in Freddie’s innocence and decides to help him sift through all the possible culprits hanging around Lost Caverns. Could this be the handiwork of the hypnotic Swami Talpur (Karloff)? Could the black widow Angela Gordon (Lenore Aubert) added another victim to her collection? Everyone had a motive and the opportunity to do the dirty deed, but Freddie and Casey have little time before whoever sent the attorney to an early grave comes gunning for them next.

Made hot on the heels of Bud and Lou’s first encounter with the Universal Monster All-Stars, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff bears all the marks of a project rushed into production. The movie actually began life as a Bob Hope vehicle, before being reworked into a horror-tinged farce for the golden boys of ’40s comedy. Karloff himself wasn’t hired until mere days before shooting began, after which the marketing campaign shifted gears and played up his presence, even though his screen time doesn’t differ all that much from many other supporting characters. I’m not ragging on the flick for indulging in a bit of hucksterism, but with the plot as is resulting in such a messy state of affairs, the filmmakers would probably have been better off making old Boris the lead villain from the start. It just doesn’t make sense to have a whole ensemble of characters out to kill Freddie and Casey but still keep who bumped off the lawyer a mystery. The intent was to make every suspect look equally guilty, but the story’s whodunit elements are paid so little mind, the movie could’ve announced the murderer’s identity on the outset and lost absolutely nothing. Though — as the case usually is where Bud and Lou are concerned — the wacky hijinks take precedence, inconsistencies like this always find a way to pop up and interrupt any ongoing comedic flow.

Speaking of humor, Meet the Killer has its moments, but overall, it’s not one of Abbott and Costello’s most memorable endeavors. It does, however, present viewers with the rare opportunity to see the boys play more distinct characters than the norm, as opposed to taking on some generic occupation or another. Abbott in particular gets to do a little more than just serve as straight man, but as with the pair’s other horror comedies, Costello’s silly reactions to all the freaky stuff happening around him are the real stars of the film. Lou actually gets a couple standout set pieces here, the best of which has to be the scene where Karloff’s swami tries hypnotizing him into killing himself to no avail. The movie’s charm is enough so that even the most worn-out gags elicit a good-natured groan, although for the most part, the funny business here is no different than what you’d see in the duo’s most mediocre outings. The story also puts the focus almost entirely on Abbott and Costello, which is terrific after seeing them be the sidekicks in their own vehicles so many times. However, outside of Karloff and a scant few others, no other supporting players get around to making an impression, with a romantic subplot forgotten so soon after it’s addressed, you wonder why it needed to be included at all.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is respectable, but it’s not very exciting. You laugh at the corny gags more out of recognition than due to them being legitimately funny, and the story is in too great of shambles for its suspenseful side to truly win you over. It’s not a complete foul-up by a long shot, but in terms of both fun and fear, Meet the Killer unfortunately comes up short.

 

“Son of Dracula” (1943)

"Son of Dracula" poster

 

Universal just had to make poor Lon Chaney Jr. play nearly every monster, didn’t they? Well, with Boris Karloff missing in action for most of the ’40s, the fright factory was in search of a new golden boy. After his starring turn in The Wolf Man became such a hit, it fell upon Chaney to become the face of Universal horror and portray whatever creature he was assigned…whether he was right for the part or not. At the very least, 1943’s Son of Dracula allowed him to shed the layers of make-up that rendered him unrecognizable as the Frankenstein Monster and Kharis the mummy, so that he might appear as (more or less) himself for once. Unfortunately, Chaney’s folksy charm proves to be an ill fit for a character who’s meant to be an exotic charmer, but this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all that’s amiss with this wreck. Son of Dracula‘s intent was to introduce the Count into a then-modern environment, but from how this enterprise turns out, the king of the vampires must have left all his evocative atmosphere and storytelling tact back at Carfax Abbey.

Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) is a dedicated student of the supernatural. She believes wholeheartedly in telepathy, fortunetelling, and all that jazz, but this time, she might have bitten off more than she can chew. While on holiday in Budapest, Katherine made the acquaintance of one Count Alucard (Chaney), a man who harbors the dark secret of being a blood-sucking vampire. Having been tempted with the prospect of eternal life, Katherine forges an unholy alliance with Alucard, having him shipped over to her Louisiana plantation and rule forever as a bride of the damned. Luckily, her odd behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed by her fiancé Frank (Robert Paige) or Henry Brewster (Frank Craven), a doctor who’s among the first to acknowledge that the occult has made its home in his neck of the woods. But as they race to convince the authorities of the danger they’re all in, Katherine’s diabolical plot slowly comes to fruition, with Alucard getting closer and closer to spreading his undead curse across the U.S. of A.

My relationship with the Count’s big-screen depictions has always been weird (I’ve adored about as many features as I’ve despised), but there’s no question that Son of Dracula ranks pretty low on the totem of terror. And yes, Alucard really is the Big D himself, and the fact that the story attempts at all to disguise his identity — despite no character being familiar with Dracula anyway, thus requiring him to travel incognito — is but one of the numerous aggravating things about it. Even the title is a misnomer, since at no point does Alucard present himself as a descendant of the Count in any way at all. But nitpicks aside, Son of Dracula is still a slog of a movie that doesn’t do justice to its atmospheric predecessors. Transylvanian cobwebs have been traded in for Louisiana crypts and swamplands, which might have made for an effective new setting, had the script not been actively working against letting the viewer experience any unease. A good deal of the spooky goings-on actually take place off-screen and are described to us by other characters; it isn’t even that such moments were too pricey to film, since from the sound of it, they might have lent a subtly chilling air to the plot. Mystery is one thing, but to be told what a creepy dude Alucard is without cleverly contrived examples to back it up reeks of storytelling of the cheapest, sloppiest order.

Then again, from how well its star fares at donning the Count’s legendary cape, maybe it was for the best that Son of Dracula keep him hidden in the shadows as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong, Chaney’s done some great, surprisingly heartbreaking work when it comes to horror (look no further than the underrated Man Made Monster for a touching treat), but when called upon to play a suave and evil creation like totally-not-Dracula-you-guys, he’s not even close to convincing. Part of this is because of his performance (he uses a down-home accent, yet everyone refers to him as all foreign and mysterious), and part is due to the script doing a terrible job of making sure he stays a threat. You really don’t see much of Alucard here, with Allbritton’s Katherine emerging as a more villainous presence than he. Katherine is one of the coldest and most conniving characters I’ve ever seen in a Universal genre jaunt, and the way she manipulates everyone around her (the Count included) makes you wish she was headlining her own franchise, rather than being forced to serve as second fiddle to a more noteworthy bloodsucker who barely shows up. The remaining cast members do just fine but are mostly unmemorable, with Paige growing progressively insane, Evelyn Ankers fretting up a storm as Katherine’s sister, and Craven providing a Van Helsing surrogate who hasn’t a thing on the real deal.

My hatred for Son of Dracula has simmered down since I first watched it, but although it strikes me as more boring than offensive now, it’s still weak sauce. Outside of the eerie opening titles, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything about the film that flirts with suspense, be it with the bad guys or the heroes as they try snuffing out the vampiric scourge before it gets a chance to bloom. I’ll give Son of Dracula this, though — while Universal made it through the Frankenstein saga with no major missteps, they brought the prince of darkness here down for the count in just his third outing.

“The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942)

"The Mummy's Tomb" poster

 

When you hear people go on about what lame horror villains mummies make, you can thank flicks like Universal’s Kharis series. 1932’s The Mummy got around this by playing itself as a supernatural romance, wherein Boris Karloff’s Imhotep proved to be a cunning and even sympathetic adversary, rather than a mere shambling ghoul. But the latter is just what the studio delivered when they started work on a new franchise featuring Kharis, an all-new bandaged brute used by a group of high priests to hunt down those treasure seekers who dared defile his grave. Needless to say, these pictures did Universal no favors, as they ended up amongst the least frightening, charming, and — in some cases — comprehensible additions to its genre output. To its credit, 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb is at least a competent movie that even exudes a mild eeriness at times, but that’s just about all the good one can say about it. In the end, it’s still a dreary and mostly uninteresting horror show, one that cuts swaths through characters we don’t care about and boasts an antagonist who hardly has a hint of fright hanging about him.

Thirty years have passed since the horrifying events of The Mummy’s Hand. Archaeologist Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) and his gang managed to snuff out the campaign of terror waged by Andoheb (George Zucco), an Egyptian who sought revenge for the tombs of his ancestors being raided. But as it turns out, not only is Andoheb still alive and kicking, so is Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr), the mummy his people have used to do their dirty work. The high priest has a bone to pick with the Banning bloodline, so he sends his young follower Mehemet (Turhan Bey) on a mission to exterminate the entire clan once and for all. Having traced the Bannings to Massachusetts, Mehemet soon sets up shop and sics Kharis on those poor souls on his master’s to-kill list. As the townsfolk work themselves into a frenzy over this wave of strange murders, Mehemet develops an obsession with Isobel (Elyse Knox), the fiancé of Stephen’s doctor son (John Hubbard). But with the Bannings getting bumped off one by one, will there be any left to save Isobel from a fate much worse than death?

You know you’re in trouble with The Mummy’s Tomb when it abandons its coolest angle — being set within the ancient ruins of Egypt — so that it can transplant the action into Everytown, USA. Don’t expect to do much cowering in terror here, unless you’ve a severe stock footage phobia. Yep, The Mummy’s Tomb is another Universal cheapie that resorts to padding out a good quarter of its running time recapping the movie that came before it. It’s kind of neat to have a sequel that picks up with some of the same characters decades down the road, but that they’re so easily dispatched to make room for an ensemble of veritable cardboard cutouts is a spirit-breaker, to say the least. While nobody’s performance is especially awful, our heroes aren’t memorable on even the most basic level. Be it our romantic leads or the cranky old sheriff (Cliff Clark), it’s hard to pick out a single soul here that’s brimming with any shred of charisma or personality. The closest we get is Bey as Mehemet, who does a decent job of keeping up ominous appearances with his exotic looks and ability to recite his hammy dialogue with a stone face. Even still, his role as a bad guy doesn’t extend much beyond standing on the sidelines and employing Kharis as his own personal hitmonster.

Speaking of our devil du jour, The Mummy’s Tomb really falls apart when it comes to supplying a fearsome force of nature. Without the back story he received in the previous film, Kharis is relegated to nothing more than a hulking beast shuffling his way from victim to victim. Jack Pierce’s make-up design (which Chaney particularly despised having to don) is okay, but it hasn’t a thing on Karloff’s look or, for that matter, Tom Tyler’s get-up from The Mummy’s Hand. Lord knows Chaney is buried under so much rubber and adhesive that being able to exhibit any emotion whatsoever is simply out of the question. There’s one cool shot where you see Kharis’ lone visible eye giving a thousand-yard stare as he creeps up on some poor sap, but outside of that, virtually anyone could’ve slapped on the costume, for all the good it did Universal to tout Chaney in the role. In the end, he amounts to an incredibly boring monster who requires you to curb-stomp your sense of disbelief if you’re to buy him getting the jump on his targets while moving at the pace of a molasses avalanche. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Kharis for being more physically fit than other movie mummies, what with him hauling around ladies and ascending garden trellises without a bandage torn or a bone crushed into dust.

The Mummy’s Tomb is harmless, but I’ve still no affection for it or any of the other Kharis movies. The mythology isn’t evocative, the characters are as stock as they come, and the atmosphere is all but nonexistent. It definitely has a leg up on the two woeful sequels that followed it, but The Mummy’s Tomb is still one of least entrancing Universal horror outings I’ve ever seen.

“The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942)

"The Ghost of Frankenstein" poster

 

Decades of parodies have made Frankenstein’s Monster a lumbering oaf in the public eye, but it wasn’t always so. Universal’s original, James Whale-directed pictures carried serious dramatic heft, and while 1939’s Son of Frankenstein didn’t quite reach their masterpiece status, the presence of Boris Karloff undoubtedly lent a sense of pathos to the production. But if you could single out a flick as the one that set the grand-daddy of movie monsters on the path of becoming the joke so many know him as today, it’s this franchise’s fourth installment. The Ghost of Frankenstein features the big undead lummox as what folks have spent years making fun of him for being: a bumbling beast devoid of personality, arms forever outstretched in zombielike fashion. Given that the movie was released as the studio devoted less financial resources to its horror unit, that gravitas got the heave-ho in favor of just having the thing ready to be slapped on the screen was to be expected. Don’t get me wrong, since The Ghost of Frankenstein is a perfectly enjoyable watch that boasts some fine acting and quality production design, but after the brilliant one-two-three punch that preceded it, it’s a little disheartening to find this series go from creating genre gold to whipping up a quickie creature feature.

Those angry villagers that assemble at the end of every Frankie flick are through messing around. They’re fed up with the pall that the scientist’s name has cast over their town, and as our story begins, they’re already blowing his ancestral castle to bits. Unfortunately, doing so has freed the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) from his prison, and a still-living Ygor (Bela Lugosi) is there to spirit him off to the countryside before they find more trouble. But years of slumber have weakened the boltnecked one, so to return him to full strength, Ygor decides to seek out Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), the original Dr. Frankenstein’s second son. Ludwig has put his father’s horrible legacy behind him and started a new life of healing the insane, but when these two gruesome guests come knocking on his door, all of that is about to change. Under threat of harm coming to his daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers), Ludwig has no choice but to comply with Ygor’s demands of replenishing the Monster’s power…unaware of the hunchbacked fiend’s nefarious scheme to put his brain in the creature’s towering body.

The Ghost of Frankenstein is like a family reunion for nearly every Universal horror trope you can imagine. Mad scientists with buzzing machinery? Check. Unimportant romantic subplot? Check. A setting of indeterminately European origin? Check. For classic monster movie fans, it all amounts to a very inviting atmosphere, and at just over an hour’s length, the picture proves to be a quick, fun, spooky little experience. The story is essentially a rehash of Son of Frankenstein‘s plot, with yet another descendant of the original doctor being tempted to follow in his immortality-seeking footsteps. The stakes don’t feel as vital in this film as they were in its immediate predecessor, but they’re addressed with enough seriousness to draw you in all the same. As opposed to being stock motivation for some uninteresting villain, the notion of the Frankenstein bloodline being cursed with turning to the dark side of scientific progress still has some weight to it here. Hardwicke’s performance helps sell this angle in a big way, as he starts off the story wanting absolutely nothing to do with the Monster…until he’s compelled to meddle by his father’s spirit (so yeah, there’s a literal ghost of Frankenstein in this thing). It’s a silly reason for Ludwig to make the switch, but Hardwicke’s acting helps you empathize with him as he uses this opportunity to do some good and correct his family’s wrongs.

Still, for as often as The Ghost of Frankenstein‘s clichés are endearing, they don’t make for a horror show that really sticks with you. The movie really exists in the moment — as you’re watching it, it’s a blast, but come the ending title card, the details of what you just saw start to get fuzzy pretty fast. The story isn’t particularly inept, but as previously mentioned, it’s all been recycled from ideas that were executed more memorably before. As wickedly entertaining as Lugosi is to watch as Ygor here, even his acting and characterization pales to the truly sinister presence he maintained in Son. But worse off yet is poor Chaney, who doesn’t even come close to making an impression as the Monster. It’s not through his doing — he’s just the guy in the make-up — but the screenplay gives him nothing to do outside of squinting at everything and lumbering about. He’s completely lacking in the humanity that made Karloff’s interpretation so tragic and involving, and while this film tries rectifying that by having the Monster strike up a friendship with a little girl (Janet Ann Gallow), it’s a subplot that’s soon discarded after its unnecessarily disturbing intent is revealed. The remaining actors are given equally bland material to work with, although their performances are no worse for the wear. Ankers and Ralph Bellamy make a likable romantic pair, and Lionel Atwill does what he can to elevate his role as Ludwig’s mentor, who’s driven by jealousy to help carry out Ygor’s fiendish plot.

For a minor entry in Universal’s pantheon of ghouls and creatures of the night, The Ghost of Frankenstein is a fairly good time. It doesn’t pick your brain or tug your heartstrings as its predecessors did, but if you’re simply searching for a festival of exploding models, laboratories laden with elaborate gizmos, and mobs fleeing from unstoppable monsters, you could do a lot worse. Though a little more on the cheesy side than one would like it to be, The Ghost of Frankenstein musters enough dignity to do its franchise proud.

“The Invisible Man Returns” (1940)

"The Invisible Man Returns" poster

 

Invisibility is one of those fantasies that would probably be a nightmare if it came true. Getting a feel for where you are in relation to everything else when you can’t see yourself would be hell enough, but even if you crack that conundrum, what’s to stop you from going mad with power once you realize you could do nearly anything you want without getting caught? Combined with the influence that whatever scientific means rendered you transparent might have on your mind, and this power could easily become more curse than blessing. 1933’s The Invisible Man made this loud and clear, and it’s a message that continued to be heard in its first sequel seven years later, The Invisible Man Returns. Though the franchise would soon take a turn for the ludicrous with a female-led comedic riff on the original H.G. Wells story (as well as a propaganda piece that sicced a see-through fellow on the Nazis), this film retains the seriousness of its predecessor while carving out its own identity. In fact, one could argue that The Invisible Man Returns is even more of a heartbreaker, as we come to see a good man’s gradual transformation into a monster rather than know him just as a maniac from the start.

Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is in a terrible bind. As our tale opens, he stands convicted of killing his brother, mere hours away from his execution and with no reprieve in sight. His fiancé Helen (Nan Grey) knows he’s innocent, but with no evidence to prove it, her beloved’s fate is all but sealed — or is it? Hope lies in the form of a drug concocted by Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), a solution that turns Geoffrey invisible and allows him to escape the hangman. The downside is that the potion has a nasty habit of eventually driving those who inject it insane…the same fate that befell Griffin’s brother when he experimented on it years before. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear that Geoffrey is heading down the very same path, as he becomes drunk on his newfound power and decides to use it to track down those who framed him. But when Griffin and Helen learn that he intends to exact deadly vengeance rather than see the guilty party behind bars, they must race to find a cure for Geoffrey’s condition before he goes irrevocably batty.

While its predecessor had Claude Rains delivering a deranged, off-kilter performance pretty much from the word go, The Invisible Man Returns finds its impact in showing the progression of madness. Price’s Geoffrey still dives headfirst into lunacy fairly quickly, but that we see him in the beginning stages of having been injected with Griffin’s serum makes all the difference in helping us empathize with the guy. The affection he displays towards Helen and concern over losing himself to the drug’s side effects give the character a truly tragic bent, since we witness his mental well-being deteriorate instead of having the breakdown take place off screen. Geoffrey’s violent deeds aren’t quite as heinous as Jack Griffin’s (he keeps his revenge personal, as opposed to taking it out on innocents), but his corruption remains fearful all the same. Even with a sense of humor noticeably more lighthearted than the first movie’s (courtesy of the Cockneyest supporting actors you ever did see), the suspenseful moments mostly play as chillingly as they’re intended. Besides, if all else fails, the visual effects are still in damn good shape; yeah, they’re a touch crude by modern standards, but it’s impressive work anyway, as a couple well-placed shaking bushes are all it takes to convince you that Geoffrey is trampling through them.

As with the original flick, The Invisible Man Returns features the eponymous marvel of science addressing us either as a disembodied voice or through that unforgettable ensemble of bandages. Rains made a doozy of an impression with his performance, but if anyone’s worthy of being deemed his successor, it’s the inimitable Vincent Price. In what’s considered to be his first fright film role (unless you count 1939’s Tower of London, which some would say falls under the category of “historical horror”), Price is just terrific, able to go back and forth from cackling madman to wounded victim with the greatest of ease. That you always understand where Geoffrey’s coming from — whether he’s calm and collected or has murder in mind — is a credit to the quality of Price’s acting, since he manages to make even the most melodramatic dialogue sound like poetry. The only trouble is that he’s so fantastic here, the rest of the cast can only dream of catching up to him. No one else’s role has the same bite, though that’s through no fault of the actors themselves; Grey (famously seen as one of Gloria Holden’s victims in Dracula’s Daughter) makes an appealing romantic partner, Cecil Kellaway has a lot of fun as an inspector hot on Geoffrey’s trail, and Alan Napier (Alfred from the ’60s “Batman” series) is memorable in a small part as one of the poor souls who faces Geoffrey’s wrath.

Though more sentimental and less shocking than its predecessor, The Invisible Man Returns can confidently call itself a worthy sequel. The acting is in fine form, the special effects are terrific for their time, and the atmosphere is faithful to that of the original movie while putting its own spin on things. Be you a Vincent Price fan itching to see where he got his start in horror or a vintage genre junkie in general, The Invisible Man Returns is a spooky ol’ time through and through.

 

“Revenge of the Creature” (1955)

"Revenge of the Creature" poster

 

The Gill Man has been referred to as Universal’s answer to King Kong, a comparison with which I’d have to agree. Like the real lord of the apes, this hybrid of man and marine life isn’t the product of mad science or an active force of evil; he’s an evolutionary aberration just doing his own thing, and those unlucky enough to taste the business end of his claws were usually interlopers messing up his home. The similarities become clearer still once you stack 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon against its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature, to form one mega-movie with a Kong-like narrative. But I wouldn’t advise having a marathon anytime soon, as the original Black Lagoon‘s awe, mystery, and memorable imagery make it too daunting of an act to follow. With so much time to kill before it’s allowed to unleash its titular terror on his first panicked mob, Revenge of the Creature does a lot of walking around in circles with its story, leaving little room for enough monster action or pseudo science to prevent viewers from tuning out.

Deep in the Amazon, there lives a being that time forgot. He’s the Gill Man, a link between humanity and its sea-dwelling ancestors that was thought for the longest time to be only a myth. He evaded capture in the previous Black Lagoon excursion, but as this adventure opens, he’s not that lucky. A group of scientists manage to track the Gill Man down and stun him into submission, before hauling his comatose carcass back to a Florida marine park. There, Dr. Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and young researcher Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) are eager to study the creature and explore all that makes him so strangely similar to us homo sapiens. But there’s a little matter of what the Gill Man has to say about all this, and he’s none too appreciative of being ripped from his homeland to get poked and prodded. Driven by his growing fixation on Helen, the beast sets to work breaking free of his aquatic prison and embarking on a quest to make sure those land-lubbers get good and terrified.

Revenge of the Creature ultimately falters as a proper Black Lagoon continuation because it never expands upon its own mythology. Not that it had to completely lift the shroud of secrecy draped over the Gill Man’s origins, but to give viewers a greater peek into his past than before would have given the movie at least some angle to work from. Instead, for a film with two protagonists whose job it is to see what makes the big green lummox tick, Revenge of the Creature is in no hurry to explore the mystery. There could be a thrilling little ride to be made from the idea of the Gill Man experiencing culture shock upon being hauled to civilization, but until he makes his great escape in the third act, expect to endure a good hour’s worth of him puttering around a big tank while the human characters make dinner dates. The pacing really is that leaden and filled with all manner of uninvolving busywork; Agar is just another bland hero scientist, Nelson is just another pretty face to spend most of the climax unconscious, and their banter throughout the picture is about as lively as a mayonnaise trough.

At the very least, though, Revenge of the Creature avoids botching its monstrous main attraction. Tom Hennesy lumbers about just fine as he plays the Gill Man on land, but Ricou Browning returns to portray the creature in his underwater digs and once again does terrific work. Browning fights Gilly’s restrictive confines with a series of little body movements (like swatting other fish away from his food at the park) that endow him with more personality than the script does. Plus, it’s simply satisfying to see the bewebbed one go on a tear through touristy Florida, toppling cars and chucking dudes at palm trees (an effect that’s laughably cheesy but still kinda awesome). Though nowhere near as lush as its predecessor’s was, the underwater photography is pretty nice, and scattered throughout the movie are a small handful of amusing little asides. They can be few and far between, but when you see moments like Nestor Paiva reprising his role as Black Lagoon‘s wisecracking tugboat captain or a very young Clint Eastwood making a silly cameo as a lab assistant, a smile on your mug is all but guaranteed.

As iconic of a monster as the Gill Man would become over the decades, Revenge of the Creature really doesn’t do him much justice. Even the following year’s The Creature Walks Among Us, inferior though it may be, took the character in a different direction, as opposed to this movie leaving him treading water. Oddly enough, Revenge of the Creature makes you feel what it’d be like to see a being such as the Gill Man stuck in a SeaWorld type of environment — it’s sad, it’s stifling, and in the end, you’d rather he be swimming free in his home turf.

“Jungle Woman” (1944)

"Jungle Woman" poster

 

It’s odd that the Bride of Frankenstein turned out to be the most enduring female figure from Universal’s storied cavalcade of monsters. She’s a neat character with one of the most recognizable looks in film history, but that the studio never produced another feminine frightmaker that even came close to matching her iconic status is kind of a bummer. Then again, Universal didn’t exactly try that hard, as their only effort at building a franchise around the concept of beauty as the beast yielded an obscure trilogy of B-grade chillers about, of all things, a were-ape. 1943’s Captive Wild Woman spun the fantastic story of a jungle creature transformed into an exotic supermodel, and while the bulk of it came off as a cheesed-up riff on Cat People, it was still pretty fun and served as a unique response to the male-dominated horror shows that came before it. But I wish I could be as kind to its first sequel, Jungle Woman, a movie that pays so little mind to the conceit at its core, it ends up making a solid case for why it shouldn’t even exist. It’s a flavorless affair in the first place, but add in the shadow of Universal’s monstrous legacy looming over it, and you’ve got yourself audiences afar rendered both disappointed and bored out of their skulls.

When we last left Cheela the wonder ape, she met a tragic end in the chaos of a circus riot…or so it seemed. Luckily, kindly Dr. Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish) was there that night, and after purchasing the body for experimentation, he eventually manages to revive the plucky primate. But soon after her return to life, Cheela flees and turns back into her human form, that of a young woman named Paula (Acquanetta). The good doctor even takes her on as a patient, completely unaware of her primitive heritage and how it’s about to put the lives of his loved ones in danger. You see, Paula has developed quite the crush on Bob (Richard Davis), the beloved beau of Fletcher’s daughter (Lois Collier). She demands a mate, and fueled by her jungle instincts, she’s willing to kill anyone who’s standing in her way. But will a suspicious Fletcher get to the bottom of his patient’s true nature in time to save his family from her wild wrath?

The problem with Jungle Woman is that its connections to what makes this franchise so special to begin with are tenuous at best. A quarter of the picture’s hour-long running time is comprised of stock footage taken from its predecessor, and out of the remaining minutes, Paula’s beastly form is seen for a scant five seconds, tops. That’s right, Jungle Woman is a monster movie that doesn’t really have a monster in it, and whether Acquanetta didn’t want to endure another painstaking Jack Pierce makeover or Universal was simply that damn cheap, this feature’s lack of a creature is a major distraction. It’s not even a matter of building up mystery behind Paula’s background (since we’re aware she’s actually Cheela from the start) or hiding the ape make-up for effect (since we see so little of it). All this is the product of laziness, and while I shouldn’t be surprised, given the number of genre fare at the time that was made in a hurry and existed solely to supplement more prestigious attractions, those cut corners came at the cost of anything resembling thrills and chills.

Stranger yet, however, is how clear it is that if Jungle Woman completely severed all ties to the movie that spawned it, it probably would’ve been better off. Once you boil the premise down to that of a mentally-unstable stalker who gets dangerously fixated on some poor schmoe, you realize that this could’ve easily been retrofitted to be one of the Inner Sanctum mysteries that Universal was cranking out at the exact same time. It certainly wouldn’t have raised so many questions regarding Paula, like what made her become human again after all this time, why she’s an outright villain here instead of the misunderstood anti-heroine of the first movie, and, most importantly, how the hell she learned to talk. That last part proves especially troublesome in Jungle Woman, because — as mean as it might sound — Acquanetta just wasn’t the most polished performer. As tempting as it is to chalk her stiff delivery to her trying to emulate an animalistic being’s shaky command of English, she ultimately has better luck acting with those great expressive eyes of hers than with reciting dialogue. To be fair, though, she possesses enough screen presence to help certain sequences come across as creepy as they were intended to, as in one moment where Paula terrorizes Bob and his gal pal in the middle of a lake.

Unless you’re a Universal horror junkie who simply must see every obscurity possible, it’s best not to seek out Jungle Woman. Not only is it a sixty-minute drag with hardly any tension to its name, it’s a wasted opportunity on a grand scale, piddling away the rare chance to spook monster fans with what might’ve been a female genre star. Barely possessing enough cheesy charm to help it chug along, Jungle Woman is better off buried in the past.