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.