Six films into the franchise and Universal finally decided to make their all of their premiere monsters team-up in House of Frankenstein, an entertaining mid-tier entry that should’ve been better. You get five for the price of one here, as the Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, a mad scientist, and his hunchback assistant all appear. But wait, there’s more! You get the flooded ruins of Castle Frankenstein, the damaged property of Ludwig Frankenstein miraculous erected and in working order, a lovely gypsy girl, torch wielding townsfolk, and Boris Karloff returning to the franchise – all of that in 71 minutes!
The gag is that House of Frankenstein barely involves the Monster and has no relatives bearing the name. The plot is actually an elaborate revenge story about Karloff’s mad scientist using the various creatures to do his dirty work, be it kidnapping, seducing, or killing his enemies. Dracula and the Monster are big names with small presences here, but Larry Talbot gets a plum supporting part. It averages out to be just enough material for each of them to prove worthwhile and logical for their appearances to mean something.
Talbot and Lon Chaney Jr.’s continued anxiety, disgust, and emotional crisis in the role make for humanizing moments that reveal the eternal struggle of good and evil at play in the best of these films. You root for Talbot’s cure, be it a way to relieve the curse and a return to normalcy or the peace he seeks in death and no longer having to fear or worry. Talbot’s possibly the most developed and interesting of the major monsters as his continual resurrections only anger him and he longs to no longer kill or cause destruction.
The same can’t be said for Karloff’s mad scientist. He’s a man who relishes his villainy, and Karloff makes a meal of the part. It’s thinly written stuff, but he plays it like its going to win him an Oscar. Even better is the strange poetry that emerges as the story progresses and he becomes the reanimator for the Monster. Once he was the stitched together son and now he’s the patriarch, the master of afterlife and the man who dared to play god. His character also exhibits a strange protectiveness of the Frankenstein legacy and lineage, a plot point that becomes unexpectedly poignant by his mere presence in the role.
It’s just a damn shame that this same kind of thoughtful examination or smart casting couldn’t extend to the hunchback, Dracula, or the Monster. John Carradine was a wonderful character actor, but he’s a dud as Dracula. He completely lacks mixture of Old World charisma and erotic danger that Bela Lugosi effortless brought to the role, and this Dracula feels too modern, earth-bound, and American. The effects to transform him from skeletal remains to corporeal entity are dream-like and artful in their artifice, so at least his limited appearance isn’t a total strikeout.
Once again, we’re sacked with a hunchback character that pines for a gypsy dancer that won’t return his affections. They can call him Daniel all they want, but Quasimodo by any other name is still Quasimodo. Nothing original is done with the part since Karloff’s Niemann can easily scan as a Frollo stand-in, or they forced this Quasimodo clone into the shape of an Igor/Ygor/Fritz. Both readings can easily scan as accurate.
Despite being dubbed House of Frankenstein, the Monster only appears in a small amount of the finished product. Consider it the curious case of the Monster as he spends much of his time as a cadaver that must be brought back to life, yet again. The makeup looks cheap here, and the most action the Monster does is throwing Daniel out a window and being thawed out of the ice. How’d we make it six films deep in this franchise only to end with the Monster being a glorified cameo and no Frankenstein to rebel against? Still, the scenes between the Monster’s lifeless corpse and Karloff are fascinating for their meta-textual entertainment.
Still, House of Frankenstein is a minor entertainment. It manages to make the meeting of this many flagship characters a coherent narrative, and that’s no small trick to pull off. There’s enough moody, inky shadows and omnipresent smoke and fog to give it some personality, which is a major step-up from both Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein. And there’s the joy in watching Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff play off of each other while surrounded by a laboratory or carnival caravan, and that’s a pretty joyful experience for me. It may not live up to the hype that putting all of these characters together would engender, but it’s still a fun lazy Saturday afternoon entertainment.