FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942) August 20th 1977 22.00-23.15
If I ever find peace I’ll find it here.
Lawrence Stewart Talbot (Lon Chaney jr.)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? A comically bad title, designed like a satirical comment on the worst kind of brainless formulaic Hollywood nonsense.
In fact, if you believe screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s account, that is indeed exactly how it started out. When producer George Waggner buttonholed him in the studio commissary and asked him for his ideas for a new Universal horror movie, Siodmak indulged his sardonic instincts with a throwaway gag. ‘How about Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat-Man…I mean Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’ he suggested. Much to Siodmak’s surprise, rather than seeing the joke, Waggner signed him up to the project on the spot, thus opening the door to ‘Alien vs Predator’, ‘Jason vs Freddy’ and in fact the whole concept of the ‘Shared Universe’ so important to modern-day Hollywood thinking. Marvel Studios and Warner brothers’ DC franchise both owe a lot to Curt Siodmak’s sceptical gag.
So too does modern-day Universal, currently attempting to launch their own shared universe with the false start of the ‘not especially good’ Dracula Untold and the ‘even less especially good in fact downright not good at all’ Tom Cruise version of The Mummy.
Siodmak was always pretty cynical about the quality of his own work, even more so about the horror genre, and most of all about Hollywood in general. He’d have fallen about laughing at the idea of a pretentious idiot like me taking any of it seriously, let alone thinking it worthy of thousands of words of exploration. And even I would have to admit that the problems with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man extend well beyond the cheesy formula-driven sequelising logic that Siodmak first mocked, then delivered. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a film beset with problems.
Firstly, the title suggests a balance that the film doesn’t deliver. By now, three sequels on from the 1931 original film, the Frankenstein Monster was more than a little tired. The Wolf-Man, on the other hand, had only had one previous, very successful, outing, and so this sequel is pretty much the ongoing story of Lawrence Stewart Talbot, with the Monster forming a much less prominent element in the narrative.
Secondly, the film, like many another mid to lowish budget quickie of the period, makes up some of its running time with an extended ‘tra-la-lee fol-de-rol’ Tyrolean musical number set during the Festival of the New Wine, no doubt intended to get maximum value out of Universal’s brilliant middle-European village set. In the context of a 40s monster movie though, the thigh slapping lederhosen sequence feels distinctly odd.
More significantly, the casting posed a real problem for Universal. Karloff had quit the role of the Monster unequivocally and irrevocably after seeing the formulaic writing on the wall during Son of Frankenstein. The present incumbent, having had a go at filling the Master’s asphalt-spreader’s boots in Ghost of Frankenstein, was Lon Chaney jr. However, Chaney was also, and much more recognisably, Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man.
For a time, Universal considered the idea of giving their favoured Chaney both roles, accomplishing this through a mixture of split screen, stunt doubles and other trick photography. However, a number of practical obstacles, alongside Chaney’s reluctance to undergo dual makeup ordeals, led the studio to abandon the idea. Despite his somewhat vainglorious boast about his one stab at Karloff’s most famous role – “I can do anything that guy can” – Chaney had not enjoyed the experience of making Ghost of Frankenstein, partly because the mutual dislike between him and his co-star Evelyn Ankers had only increased since their pairing on The Wolf Man, and partly because he liked makeup chief Jack Pierce even less. He had, in short, hated the part of the Monster only marginally less than he was soon to hate the equally makeup-heavy role of Kharis in Universal’s Mummy series.
Besides which, there was never any question of Chaney abandoning his favourite role as Larry Talbot, a part the actor fondly described ever afterwards as ‘my baby’. All of which left Universal in need of a new Monster.
Not unnaturally, the studio turned to the only other horror ‘name’ fit to grace a poster or marquee alongside the likes of Karloff or Chaney. Step forward, Bela Lugosi. Fortuitously, the climax of the previous film in the series had given us the brain of Lugosi’s Ygor being transplanted into the Monster’s skull, providing the monster for the final sequence of Ghost of Frankenstein with Lugosi’s instantly recognisable Ygor voice, as well as a nasty case of blindness. So if the audience now recognised Lugosi’s features beneath the makeup, it was, quite reasonably, simply Ygor’s expressions showing through.
Lugosi himself was no longer at a place in his career where he could high-handedly turn down the role of the Monster as he had done more than a decade earlier in the wake of his Dracula success. He readily accepted, despite the physical demands of a role that, by now entering his sixties, the actor was not really best placed to fill.
As a result, a number of key shots, even some of the close ups (including the iconic moment when Chaney first discovers the Monster frozen in ice in a subterranean cavern, and some parts of the ultimate battle between the two monsters ) quite visibly don’t feature Lugosi, but stunt double Gil Perkins instead. Or stunt double Eddie Parker, depending on which account you accept.
Worse still for the finished film, however, Siodmak’s script originally picked up directly from the conclusion to Ghost of Frankenstein. The Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was given lengthy expository dialogue, which during filming Lugosi delivered in his Ygor voice. The screenplay also retained the Monster’s blindness, again as established at the end of the earlier film. Lugosi developed the arms-outstretched lumbering walk (so beloved of generations of monster-impersonating schoolkids to come) as a highly effective way of suggesting the sightless creature’s caution and vulnerability. It also explains the quite brilliant flourish of sly malice Lugosi gives to the close-up of the Monster on the operating table towards the end. Not only has his strength returned, his sight has been restored.
So far so good, and certainly watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man as part of a BBC2 horror double bill season only a couple of Saturdays after seeing Ghost of Frankenstein, this twelve year old fanboy had no problem retaining the continuity from the earlier film, which made Lugosi’s stumbling stiff-armed walk perfectly logical.
However, back in 1942, audiences hadn’t necessarily seen the previous film for a couple of years, if at all. Hearing Lugosi’s heavily accented voice emerging from the Monster’s mouth without the benefit of the narrative build-up that Ghost of Frankenstein had given to the same effect in its concluding scene, struck audiences at Universal’s test screenings as hysterically funny.
Universal’s bosses panicked, and the film’s soundtrack was re-edited in post-production, excising all Lugosi’s dialogue and thus removing all reference to the Monster’s blindness. Consequently, audiences were treated to the Monster lumbering around with his arms extended for no apparent reason, while occasionally and wordlessly opening and closing his mouth like the world’s deadliest goldfish. The apparent absurdity is exacerbated by the fact that, while Lugosi adjusted his performance according to the development of the narrative, the stunt doubles simply aped the straight-armed Lugosi stomp even in the fight scenes after the Monster’s sight has come back.
As a result of all this, through no fault of his own, Lugosi’s performance was rendered bizarre, even risible. He would not appear in another role for Universal until six years later in the last dying gasp of horror’s Golden Age, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This is perhaps the only example in cinema history of an actor being blacklisted by a studio for having had the audacity to have stuck strictly to the script the studio had given him.
Given the range of problems the finished Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man is unable to hide, it’s extraordinary that I love the film as much as I do. But I do.
The film’s director Roy William Neill, best known for his briskly efficient and hugely effective helming of Universal’s exquisite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, delivers some wonderfully inventive and imaginative visuals.
The opening sequence in the Welsh graveyard where poor Larry Talbot has been laid to rest is as atmospheric a feast for the eyes as anything Universal ever did. The set for the Llanwelly cemetery is magnificently realised, the crooked gravestones offering a suitably morbid punctuation to the sloping landscape, darkened skeletal trees rolling across the foreground as Neill’s camera tracks the nervy progress of our two opportunistic graverobbers. It would surprise me greatly if I were to learn that Roger Corman had never seen the sequence before filming the equally effective graveyard-set opening to The Premature Burial.
The scene is just as wonderful once the two men break into the Talbot tomb, hoping to liberate Larry’s gold valuables from the coffin in which he was interred after being beaten to death by Sir John at the end The Wolf Man. The lighting is moody and powerful, and the sense of encroaching doom as the full moon flits across the sky outside the little window and the wolfbane is lifted away from Talbot’s perfectly preserved corpse is genuinely intense. The eventual fate of the first graverobber, caught in the iron grip of the rejuvenated and transforming werewolf and pleading in vain for help as his terrified friend scrabbles his way back out of the tomb creates a real degree of pathos.
Curt Siodmak’s cheery cynicism notwithstanding, I also love the film for the exceptional and courageous willingness of the writer to embrace rather than evade the deep pessimism and despair at the heart of the subject matter. Talbot’s only goal in searching for Frankenstein’s secrets is to discover the means by which he can die; if we’re rooting for Chaney – as we certainly are – then what we’re rooting for is his successful suicide.
There aren’t many mainstream Hollywood genre movies where the narrative drive stems from something so unremittingly bleak; the film’s philosophy is essentially Schopenhauer plus yak hair. In this regard, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man goes one step further than its near contemporary, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The joyous sentimentality of the conclusion to Capra’s masterpiece tends to lead audiences to forget the tone of disillusion and despair which dominates the middle section of the film. Jimmy Stewart’s subjective feeling that he has wasted his life may be shown to be objectively false in his triumphant snowy return to Bedford Falls, but that doesn’t make it any less real while he experiences it. Chaney’s Talbot also despairs, but he has no Clarence to console him, and no Christmas bell to signal an angel getting its wings. Siodmak follows the suicidal logic of his story remorselessly to the end, the film’s tragic monsters locked in conflict as the castle collapses around them, but even more than its bitingly effective screenplay it is Chaney’s performance which renders the film as powerful as it is at the human level and which, like Stewart’s, magnificently exudes essence of ‘Everyman’.
Lon Chaney junior is the least loved and the most underrated of the great horror stars. He’s very good in The Wolf Man, and for my money he’s even better here. Given the chance, as he is this time, to hit the ‘tortured soul’ button from the word go rather than a third of the way through the movie as in the previous film, he makes Talbot’s plight touching, human and genuinely affecting. In lesser hands the performance might easily have slipped into bathos but Chaney never puts a hairy paw wrong. His humanity lends a truly tragic element to Talbot, fully engaging our sympathies, and is a tribute to Chaney’s considerable skill and charm.
It’s not the actor’s fault that Universal overused him in the 1940s, or that some of the vehicles he was offered – the couple of Mummy films he did, or the Inner Sanctum series for instance – were poor enough that even Lugosi at his most energetic and histrionic would have struggled to lift the limp corpses of their narratives out of the mire. Admittedly Chaney’s take on the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein is oddly flat, but then he had the misfortune to be the first actor faced with the unenviable task of following Karloff’s era-defining performance. Hopelessly miscast in Son of Dracula, he actually makes a half-decent fist of it despite the natural disadvantages of his bulky physique and evident all-Americanness.
But it’s his performance as poor tormented, doom-laden Larry Talbot on which a defence of Chaney’s right to be mentioned in the same breath as Karloff and Lugosi must depend, and although he played the part – with equal conviction and commitment – on five separate occasions for Universal, the definitive version is here, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
It’s not only Chaney though. The rest of the cast is also excellent. There’s Marya Ouspenskaya reprising the role of Maleva and Illona Massey replacing Evelyn Ankers as Elsa Frankenstein (much to Chaney’s delight no doubt). There’s Dennis Hoey, known and loved by generations of Sherlock Holmes fans as the pompous and dunderheaded Inspector Lestrade in the Rathbone/Bruce movies, here effectively playing the same role in all but name. Briefly, there’s Dwight Frye, who had been there at the beginning in both the 1931 classics that had set the whole thing rolling, in his last role before a tragically early death; a role the bulk of which, sadly, hit the cutting room floor with much the same force as Lugosi’s dialogue and later career. And, inevitably, there’s Lionel Atwill.
Skilled direction. Atmospheric visuals. A powerful script. A magnificent central performance. An excellent supporting cast. Hopefully this represents more than enough to establish that there are many logical and rational reasons for loving Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
However, it wasn’t really until I had children that I began to understand that the illogical, irrational ones are much more powerful.
I became a parent for the first time almost a decade ago, and am now the proud father of two daughters, one seven and one nine. Over those years, they have taught me many valuable lessons. In the early days, they taught me that the ‘bigger on the inside’ dimensional transcendentalism of the TARDIS is more scientifically plausible than it seems, since tiny babies can apparently produce two hundred times their own bodyweight in poo. A related lesson; they taught me that if the price of Protecting the Environment is washing re-usable nappies then the Environment can fuck right off. Global apocalypse is much the lesser of two evils. They taught me that long term sleeplessness is a viable life choice if incapacity, incompetence and incandescent irritability are no obstacles to your day to day existence. In fact, if you happen to be running for President, those qualities are positive advantages. More recently, they have taught me that a single episode of certain children’s television programmes can last for thirty seven months. Or seem to at least.
Mostly though, they’ve taught me what the phrase ‘Unconditional Love’ actually means.
I’m not at all certain that such a thing actually exists in any other form, or even if it should. However completely and passionately in love with your partner you may be, that love is still subject to the possibility of change. Even if it survives time, and circumstance, then, hypothetically at least, the actions of the other person could alter the nature of your love for them. Your love now may be total, absolute and overwhelming, but there are unspoken conditions attached to it. And so there should be. I love you this much while you don’t hurt me, while you don’t abuse my trust, while you don’t betray me.
That’s the proper basis for any adult relationship; we should all have sufficient self-respect to make our love conditional in that way. If we don’t, we lay ourselves open to being one of those people who stays in an abusive relationship out of ‘love’; neglecting to notice the glaringly obvious truth that if someone hits or humiliates you it tends to suggest they don’t even like you very much. Of course, we lucky ones never have to even think about the unspoken conditions on which our relationship is based. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
With my children however, those conditions simply don’t exist. There is absolutely nothing either of my daughters could do that would alter my love for them by the tiniest fraction of an iota. The love of parent for child is divorced from the conditional, from any semblance of rationality, from the very notion of cause and effect.
You see, in truth – and whisper the secret quietly – neither of my girls is completely without flaw. Of course they are kind and clever and funny and utterly brilliant, but that’s not the whole story. One is so shy and withdrawn that she will barely speak outside the house, and inside the house is prone to tantrums of quite indescribably terrifying proportions. The other is pathologically incapable of shutting up for a nanosecond at a time, and yet deeply insecure and craving approval beneath her apparent social confidence. Aware of how completely different they are, at times they can be utterly horrible to one another. Like most of us, they can both be prone to a degree of self interest and neither is above the occasional self-serving lie. They are not total strangers to materialistic greed.
They have flaws drawn from me. They have flaws drawn from their mother. They have flaws entirely their own. They have flaws stemming from nature and flaws stemming from nurture and flaws stemming from any other bloody place flaws might be lurking. The same is true of me and of the rest of the human race, but the difference with children is in the nakedness of their flaws. They’re just not as well-trained in the arts of dissembling as the rest of us.
A year or two ago, in my own hideously ill-advised version of the love trial from King Lear, I asked my daughters what they wished for. My eldest, having learned the value and rewards to be gained through offering up the ‘right’ answers, smiled sweetly and replied “I wish for happiness for my whole lovely family.” Her younger sister, marching to the beat of a deeper drum, replied “Cake.”
But the point is this. Not one of those flaws undermines the inescapable and undeniable truth that my daughters are two of the most wonderful creatures this world has ever been lucky enough to have walk upon it. And more. I don’t love my children despite their flaws. I love my children because of their flaws. I wouldn’t wish for an atom of them to be other than it is. And that love never burns more fiercely proud and protective than when those flaws are most evident. When they’re making mistakes, when they’re failing or falling, when they’re upset or isolated or making wrong choices and choosing the wrong road, when they’re some way from the top of their game; those are often the moments when I’m most aware of how profoundly and proudly and desperately my heart aches with love for them.
And to those of you wondering what any of this has to do with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – my tangential fault, not yours – my answer is this. Although different in degree (even my fanboy heart couldn’t really love a monster mashup movie from 1942 quite as much as I love my kids) it was something of the same kind of ‘unconditional all flaws happily accepted’ love that my twelve year old self felt for the film, and that I’ve found myself eventually working my way back towards.
For many years in between the 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills and today, whenever I watched or thought of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (which was, of course, far more often than any sane man would admit to) I found myself wishing for a different film. I was wishing for a film that retained Lugosi’s dialogue, for a film that explained the Monster’s blindness and made sense of Lugosi’s performance. I was wishing for a film that cast Karloff instead of Lugosi and spared the Hungarian’s blushes. I was wishing for a film that gave the monster a fairer deal, or for a film that didn’t have Far-o-la Far-o-li running infuriatingly around my head for days afterwards. I was wishing for a film that was a bit more tastefully titled, that didn’t wear its formulaic intentions quite so obviously on its sleeve.
If the 1977 me could have met and talked with the 2017 version, perhaps sitting amiably around a campfire like Talbot and the thawing Monster, the twelve year old me would have laughed at the poor, unfortunate, myopic creature I had become. “It’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man!” he would have reminded me. “The Frankenstein Monster meets the Wolf Man in it!! They have a fight!!!! What more do you want?!!!!!”
And the middle-aged father I have become would nod sagely and agree. Why wish for a different film when the one you’ve got is fantastic? Why bother with might have beens at all? Why waste precious time wishing for things in life to be different at the expense of seeing the brilliant stuff that’s right there in front of you?
It’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. What’s not to love?