I was going to move on to something more interesting this week, because I’m already getting tired of the late Universal Monster Mash. Then I decided just to power through this one and House of Dracula. Here goes:
A circus cart drives through the rain, then we cut to Neustadt Prison. A guard opens the hatch on a door and Boris friggin’ Karloff reaches out and tries to strangle him. Okay, fair dues: that’s a good start. Let’s see where we go from here.
The guard calls Karloff (aka Dr Niemand) a ‘would be Frankenstein’. Niemand basically agrees, promising to follow in Frankenstein’s footsteps when he escapes. Niemand tells his hunchbacked cellmate, Daniel (J. Carol Nash), that his father was Frankenstein’s assistant and passed his secrets on to him. Daniel sees possibilities here, and wonders if Niemand might give him a non-hunchbacked body.
The prison collapses in the storm, and the pair easily walk out through a tunnel. The Shawshank Redemption it ain’t. Coming across a circus cart, they help the showman get the wheels out of a ditch and join him inside. The cart is the property of
Dr Caligari Dr Bruno Lampini, who makes a living showing a box containing Cesare the Somnambulist what he claims is Dracula’s skeleton. Niemand observes that removing the stake from the skeleton would bring Dracula back to life.
It’s revealed that Niemand was arrested in Vasaria for putting a man’s brain into a dog because reasons. He seeks revenge those behind his arrest. Daniel kills Lampini, and the happy-go-lucky murder-hobos go in search of revenge.
They go to Riegelsburg where… Lionel Atwill? Again? Seriously, man, get a better agent. But Atwill is not Niemand’s target, Sieg Ruman is. Ruman is town Burgomaster. He has a bland grandson who has married a bland American girl, who drags everyone along to Lampini’s Chamber of Horrors show. That may seem a little dull to us now, but remember there wasn’t much of interest happening in Europe in 1944.
Niemand shows Dracula’s coffin, and tells us once more everything that we already heard about vampires. The Burgomaster is unimpressed, and I don’t blame him. When the show is over Niemand pulls out the stake and the skeleton turns into Dracula (John Carridine). Niemand offers to protect Dracula’s coffin in return for the vampire’s service. Dracula accepts without question, which certainly seems in character for the Prince of the Undead.
More boring banter with the Burgomaster’s family, then Dracula turns up in a carriage and offers them a lift. They invite Dracula home. I don’t know where Dracula’s coach or driver come from but… No, there’s no ‘but’. It’s just odd.
Dracula sets to work seducing the Burgomaster’s granddaughter using his magic ring. You remember Dracula’s magic ring? No? Well it turns up again. She looks into the ring and sees the world of the dead, and Dracula promises to come for her before dawn. But first he breaks into the Burgomeister’s study and exsanguinates the old guy.
The granddaughter (I refuse to learn these characters’ names) starts getting weird, which actually makes her a lot more interesting. Her husband recognises the Dracula crest on her ring and locks her in her room. Finding his grandfather dead, he calls Lionel Atwill. As you do.
Granddaughter escapes the locked room and goes to Dracula. Husband follows, just as the inspector shows up. Niemand, seeing the cops, makes his escape. Dracula also tries to make a getaway, but Daniel throws the coffin out of the cart, which somehow causes Dracula’s carriage to overturn. Dracula tries to get into the coffin, but the sun rises before he can, and he’s dead. The ring falls off the granddaughter’s finger. And that’s the Dracula portion of this story over without him even seeing the Wolf Man or the Frankenstein Monster.
Niemand and Daniel head towards the village of Frankenstein. They see a Romany dancer on the way, and Daniel falls in love. The Frankenstein village police turn up and kick the Romany out. The cops also tell Niemand to move along, claiming the town has seen too many horrors and pointing to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein as proof. They claim that the dam broke and sent the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster to their doom. Which I’m pretty sure happened in Visaria. Also it happened fifteen years ago, as opposed to, like, one.
The dancer, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), argues with another Romany, who attacks her with a whip. Because the biggest thing the European Romany people had to worry about in 1944 was other Romany. Daniel intervenes, then brings Ilonka to Niemand for medical treatment. Daniel offers to bring her to Vasaria. There’s a dull and somewhat pathetic love scene that goes sour when she sees his hunched back. She’s nice to him and everything, but Daniel clearly thinks that’s all he’s getting.
Niemand takes Daniel to the ruins to find Frankenstein’s notes. In a frozen cave beneath the castle… seriously? Is central Europe on top of a huge glacier or something? Anyway in the cave they find the frozen bodies of the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) and the ‘undying Monster’ (Glenn Strange). The Wolf Man awakes and turns back into Larry Talbot. Talbot gives his self-pitying backstory. Niemand offers to help by building Talbot a new brain.
Talbot helps find Frankenstein’s notes. Finding Frankenstein’s notes is, as always, a nice little time-waster for these movies. Niemand and co move onto Visaria. This means he gets to ride up front with Ilonka, who tries to cheer him up — which goes about as well as might be expected. Daniel is not happy.
(Why is it that the love of hunchbacks for Romany girls always goes so badly? Someone should write a book about that.)
In Visaria, Nieman returns to his lab. There’s a surprisingly charming montage of everyone helping to clean the lab. Talbot is impatient, because the full moon is coming soon. Daniel wants his brain in Talbot’s body. Niemand kidnaps his last two enemies as part of his revenge plan. Remember his revenge plan? Yeah, that revenge plan.
Nieman plots to put one of his enemy’s brains into the Monster, put the Wolf Man’s brain in the other one’s body and the Monster’s brain in Talbot’s body. Because science! Daniel, unhappy at being left out of this brainswap tells Ilonka that Talbot is a werewolf. She freaks out and runs off. Daniel takes out his anger against the still dormant Monster, and beats it. Talbot transforms and runs off into the mist.
The Visarians notice the missing people and also Talbot’s latest victim. Seeing the animal wounds on the body, they instantly decide that it is a werewolf. A bit of a conclusion-jump, but I guess it is Visaria. What are the odds that it’s not a werewolf?
There’s a slightly interesting exchange between Talbot and Ilonka in which he describes the experience of killing while in wolf form. Later movies try this same move and do it better, but I can’t say its done badly here. Ilonka, heartbroken by Talbot’s predicament, goes and makes a silver bullet, thereby earning her the title of ‘most sensible character in this movie’.
Tabot confronts Niemand, to no avail. The Visarian angry mob, lying in wait for the Wolf Man, see strange lights in Niemand’s lab. The Monster awakens, and Niemand is finally ready to operate on Talbot.
The moon rises, Ilonka tries to shoot Talbot, but can’t bring herself do it. Talbot transforms and runs off. Ilonka follows. He attacks her, and she shoots him dead. Daniel finds Ilonka’s body next to Talbot’s. Blaming him for not curing Talbot, Daniel attacks Niemand. The Monster rises and throws Daniel out of a window. The villagers attack with surprisingly precise shouts of ‘It’s the Frankenstein Monster!’ Again, Viseria!
The Monster picks up the dying Niemand, but is driven off by the villagers’ torches. He staggers out into the swamp, pursued by the mob. Niemand warns the Monster he’s going the wrong way, but the Monster keeps going and they both sink into the quicksand. The end.
That’s quite a long summary to cover a very slight movie. I think the reason for this is that House of Frankenstein is not really one story, but rather three. Consequently there’s a surprising amount of plot. There’s a Dracula movie, a Wolf Man movie and a Frankenstein movie all jostling for space in the same short running time. None of these are awful short films by any means, but by the same token they don’t come together into a satisfying whole. And, critically, at no time do any of the three led monsters interact with one another in any meaningful way.
The Dracula story, for example is just a cut-down version of the basic Dracula plot. Evil vampire attempts to seduce woman to her doom is thwarted by the actions of heroic men. Western movie star John Carridine is no Lugosi, but he still makes a pretty decent Dracula. Could he have anchored a full length version of Dracula? I don’t know. But he’s suave enough and has enough presence to do well in this stripped-down version.
The Wolf Man story is actually pretty good. The relationship between Ilonka the dancer and Talbot seems a little corny now, when we’ve seen that same basic plot done to death, but here it’s fresh enough to work. There’s some chemistry between the actors, and the scene when Ilonka manages to make Talbot smile is actually pretty good. Her straight-forward, no-nonsense response to Talbot’s admission of lycanthropy is a breath of fresh air in a genre where people often take forever to accept the most obvious thing.
Then there’s the Frankenstein story. (Y’all remember Frankenstein? This here’s a blog about Frankenstein.) The Frankenstein story offers one novelty. I’m pretty sure this is the first film in which fire is explicitly described as the Monster’s weakness, and consciously used against him for that reason. Other than that, it’s just further proof that Universal ran out of things for the Monster to do in Son of Frankenstein. Monster is entombed. Monster is awoken. Monster kills someone, breaks some stuff and is entombed again. It’s Frankenstein-by-numbers here. It really is.
That leaves Niemand. Niemand isn’t bad. It’s Karloff, you know? And Karloff always brings his a-game to horror roles. He can do a pathetic, tragic horror villain to beat the best, but he can also do pure evil roles like Niemand almost as brilliantly. Trouble is, Niemand’s role is basically to tie together three quite disparate plotlines, and this has the effect of unfocusing his character and muddying his motivation. Yes, it’s Karloff being intense and threatening, and yes, this helps the movie to suck less. Still, Niemand isn’t Karloff’s high point as an actor nor the Frankenstein series’ high point as a mad scientist.
The only interesting thing about Niemand is his confusion concerning brains. He wants to bring destruction on one of his victims by putting his brain in the Monster’s body. This will mean that the victim’s brain will be in constant anguish and therefore the victim will be in anguish because his brain is who he is. On the other hand, he wants to torture his other enemy by taking his brain out and putting the Wolf Man’s brain in. This will torture him, because he’ll always be worried about turning into a wolf… but worried with someone else’s brain?
My point is, I don’t think Niemand has put a lot of thought into how brains might work.
On a personal level, analyzing this movie is a little weird. I saw ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ when I was about 10, and then I never saw another Universal Horror film until this one at 16. And, yes, I thought it was silly then. But it also made me want to know more about the series and dig deeper, and that’s the reason that I went searching for VHS copies of Dracula, the Mummy and of course Frankenstein. From there, I read books about horror movies in my local library, which got me reading Mary Shelley, Poe, Stoker. This film is a big part of the reason that I’m a horror fan — a huge part of my personal story.
Even so — it’s not very good, is it?