HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) August 27th 1977 10.20-11.30
‘Who are you? Why have you freed me from the ice that imprisoned the beast that lived within me? Why? ‘
Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney)
I make it a fixed rule that mixing friends from different arenas of my life will lead inevitably to disaster. Or at least I would make it a fixed rule if my life were interesting enough to have different arenas in it. Or if I had any friends.
After all, it can be a dangerous proposition to assume that indiscriminately combining your favourite things will necessarily produce good results. A nice prawn curry isn’t improved by pouring it over New York cheesecake, wonderful though each separate ingredient may be.
It was this sort of flawed thinking that saw the Universal golden age slip away into uninspired monster rallies like House of Frankenstein, so initially enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying. The Pot Noodle of the horror film world.
Even so, it’s a wonderfully entertaining movie, with an awful lot to enjoy. Karloff is on form in his only post-Monster return to the Frankenstein franchise as mad scientist Dr Niemann, and so is Chaney, always reliably excellent when reprising the Wolf Man. There is an engagingly sepulchral John Carradine taking his first bow as Dracula, a bow very nearly successful enough to allow me not to spend the next few thousand words lamenting the missing Lugosi, plus George Zucco as the unfortunate owner of Lampini’s travelling chamber of horrors and Lionel ‘the inevitable’ Atwill in the supporting cast.
Perhaps best of all, there is also J. Carroll Naish exuding equal parts menace and pathos as the hunchbacked Daniel in the film’s most affecting and memorable performance. There is a genuinely moving quality to the yearning and the sense of loss in his eyes as he recognises that Rita, the dancing gypsy girl he is smitten with, could never return his feelings, a quality which only deepens when the pangs of unrequited love begin to meld into a smouldering resentment as he watches her succumbing to the charms of Chaney’s Talbot. I’m also especially fond of Naish’s slow murderous advances towards camera, fingers menacingly splayed and pointed in order to sportingly announce his strangulatory intent to his prospective victims, mainly because my old school friend Mark Welch used to do a cracking impersonation of Daniel’s not entirely inconspicuous approach to murders.
It’s also true to say that I’m not unutterably opposed to the idea of the ‘shared universe’ so currently in vogue. I loved the cheeky panache with which Russell T Davies was willing to hurl Daleks and Cybermen into the same Doctor Who story, legitimising the ‘eight year old in their bedroom with their toys’ approach to narrative strategy for ever afterwards, and Joss Whedon had a more than creditable stab at uniting the strands of the Marvel films into something coherent and entertaining, at least in the first of the Avengers films.
The problem in House of Frankenstein, for me at least, is that the different narrative strands are barely interacting with one another, creating the (possibly accurate) impression that they have been dropped purposelessly into the feature without any conscious consideration of why they might belong together.
First we have a prison break segment which helps establish the characters and goals of Daniel and Niemann, culminating in Daniel killing and Karloff stealing the identity of Zucco’s travelling showman. But Niemann then becomes no more than a plot device to wake the skeletal Dracula by removing the stake from his heart and the Carradine Dracula segment which follows is entirely self-contained. It’s actually quite effective on its own terms, with a particularly nice piece of vampiric mesmerism and an unusually fluent man to bat transformation, but nothing Carradine’s vampire count does before speedily being reduced back to a pile of bones by the morning sunlight reflects on or affects the later narrative at all and we simply return to Niemann’s mission of self-justifying revenge as though nothing had occurred. Then we thaw the Monster and the Wolf Man from the ice, but it is only Talbot’s story which occupies us next, including the love triangle which develops between Chaney, Naish and Anne Gwynne’s Rita, with the Monster really only entering the action in the final act.
House of Frankenstein, in other words, contrives to be a little less than the sum of its parts.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the portmanteau form. The near contemporary British anthology film Dead of Night contains a couple of cracking episodes, and helped form the template on which Amicus, in the ’60s and ’70s, was to produce a string of massively enjoyable horror films – things like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, From Beyond the Grave and Asylum – which make a virtue out of their episodic nature, since the quality of the stories within each film could vary wildly and failure to enjoy one particular episode did not necessarily spoil your enjoyment of the whole film.
However, unlike the Amicus films, House of Frankenstein makes a pretence at having a single linear plot rather than cheerfully admitting to being a group of unconnected episodes held together only by a sketchy framing narrative, and as such is almost sneakily a portmanteau movie. It’s like buying a novel only to discover it’s actually a collection of short stories, and the film can feel a faintly disappointing, unsatisfying experience as a result.
The failings of House of Frankenstein, for me, are thrown into sharp relief by a comparison with the contemporaneous work being done by Val Lewton’s horror film unit at RKO. Lewton’s work at RKO has, deservedly, garnered a great deal of critical praise and attention, and so I suspect his films will already be very familiar to anyone reading this, but since Lewton’s body of work, like that of Amicus, did not feature at all in this 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills, which focuses exclusively on classic horror’s ‘big three’ (Universal, Hammer and the Corman Poe pictures) it might be worth me dwelling on them a little here.
In the wake of the commercial failure of the studio’s brief association with Orson ‘wunderkind’ Welles, and under the auspices of a new studio management whose watchword was ‘showmanship in place of genius’, RKO found themselves casting envious glances in the direction of the highly profitable and relatively cheap cycle of B feature horrors Universal was creating in the ’40s. Val Lewton, who had worked as Selznick’s right hand man on ’30s classics like Gone With the Wind, was the producer RKO turned to in order to grab a share of Universal’s monster profits. Lewton was to establish a production team (which became an invaluable training ground for major talents like Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Mark Robson and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca), RKO would provide him with a pre-tested schlocky title like The Leopard Man or I Walked With a Zombie, a 75 minute running time, a tiny budget and a tinier shooting schedule, and Lewton would do the rest.
Surprisingly, rather than the kind of drek which Monogram and PRC were churning out in a similarly motivated but even more low-rent attempt to get in on a little of the Universal action, from this inauspicious beginning Lewton’s horror unit produced some of the most distinctive and atmospheric films of the era, films which belong every bit as much to the ‘genius’ school of filmmaking as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons – an irony given RKO’s desperation to dissociate themselves from any hint of their recent past with Welles. Lewton took the attitude – partly out of financial necessity, since a $150,000 budget was never going to run to a convincing Jack Pierce make-up job, but partly also from a personal sensibility that favoured subtlety and restraint – that suggestion and suspense would work better than the more conventional, overt monster movies Universal was specialising in.
That Lewton was allowed to continue consistently giving RKO material which was so much better than they had either asked for, wanted, or deserved, is largely down to the fact that the first of these films, 1942s Cat People, was a huge commercial success. With a massively profitable and cheaply produced hit under his belt, Lewton was by and large left alone to produce the kind of work he wanted to. Even to the extent that, presented with the title I Walked With a Zombie for his second film, Lewton felt sufficiently empowered to deliver RKO an unofficial adaptation of Jane Eyre. And it was Cat People, brilliantly directed by Jacques Tourneur, Lewton’s first and most crucial collaborator, which established the template which, in varying ways, the succeeding films adopted.
Firstly, the ‘monster’ – if there even is one – remains shadowy and unseen. Secondly, there is a psychological depth and complexity to the characterisation which is rare for any film of the period. Viewed in a certain light, Cat People is not about a woman turning into a black panther at all, but a deeply acuitive study of sexual dysfunction within an unhappy marriage. The decision, taken early on by Lewton, not to go for a period adaptation of the Algernon Blackwood story ‘Ancient Sorceries’, but instead to adopt a determinedly realistic and recognisable contemporary American setting and therefore to differentiate the film very strongly from Universal’s geographically and historically vague middle Europe, alongside the powerful and effective use of expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting, aligns the film more closely to the developing noir aesthetic than to the traditional horror film.
The ‘horror’ elements are restricted to a couple of astonishingly effective set piece moments. In Cat People itself the first of these is the scene in which the heroine is followed down a street at night, signalled by a series of shots of feet moving into pools of streetlamp light and then plunging into deeper pools of darkness once more – the sound and the editing build the tension to a crescendo which is broken both visually and aurally by the sudden, shocking interjection into frame of a perfectly innocent bus, accompanied by a hiss of hydraulic brakes, a jump scare technique so familiar now within the horror film that its use has become referred to as a ‘Lewton bus’. The second, even more remarkable set piece is the virtuoso handling of light, shadow and sound when our heroine is menaced in a deserted swimming pool at night. Nothing is shown, nothing is made overt, and yet the sense of genuine menace is astonishingly powerful.
Once the formula was established, the Lewton films redeploy such highlights again and again. The night-time walk in I Walked With a Zombie, among the most hauntingly beautiful sequences in the whole of 1940s cinema, or the ‘girl outside the door’ scene in The Leopard Man. In fact, my own favourite of all the Lewton films, the ‘sequel in name only’ Curse of the Cat People, is no kind of horror film at all but an evocation of childhood, with all its terrors, delights and fantasies, every bit as resonant and poetic as Richard Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica, Dennis Potter’s play Blue Remembered Hills, or Charles Laughton’s film Night of the Hunter.
Perhaps the contrast between House of Frankenstein and the approach of the Lewton films can be seen most tellingly through the lens of Boris Karloff’s acting. As I’ve already said, I find a lot to enjoy in Karloff’s Dr Niemann, and would go so far as to suggest that, even if the portrayal lacks some of the light and shade he brought to classic ’30s performances like Ardeth Bay in The Mummy, or Poelzig in The Black Cat, it is a sustained study of a monomaniacal sociopath that pointed the way to Peter Cushing’s later take on the monster-making Baron in Hammer’s Frankenstein films a little more directly than had either Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Basil Rathbone or Cedric Hardwicke in the earlier Universal movies. Still, a number of critics have found Karloff’s tongue slipping a little too far into his cheek in House of Frankenstein, and have drawn attention to the idea that, unlike Lugosi who brought a furious, sometimes overwrought, sincerity to even the most appalling of scripts, Karloff was a little to willing to distance himself from material he was unimpressed by, either with a too-knowing wink of condescension or a self-conscious and self-parodying hint of ham. While I don’t entirely agree, it seems to me undeniable that there’s a touch of both in his Dr Niemann.
Now look at the work Karloff did for Lewton. An awkward plagiarism court case surrounding 1943s The Ghost Ship; a couple of commercial failures; and a drift away from even the most tangential relationship to the horror genre into period drama with Mademoiselle Fifi, and juvenile delinquency in Youth Runs Wild, both released in 1944, had weakened Lewton’s position at RKO and led the studio to revisit its usual policy of non-intervention. They pushed Karloff, coming straight off House of Frankenstein, onto an initially horrified Lewton, partly as a punishment and partly in an effort to get him at last to make the kind of straight horror film Karloff was associated with. Perhaps surprisingly, however, unlike the kind of fractious and openly hostile relationship that occurred between ‘boy genius’ director Michael Reeve and Vincent Price on the set of the 1969 classic Withchfinder General after a very similar piece of studio interference had seen AIP foist their established star on an unwilling Reeve, Karloff and Lewton hit it off from the first, and found a shared sensibility. Lewton came to view Karloff as one of the all time great character actors, and Karloff, forever grateful for the opportunities at genuine artistic expression which the RKO films afforded him, simply said that Lewton had saved him from the living dead and given him back his soul and self respect.
Though each one is entirely different, the performances Karloff gives in the three films he made with Lewton all rank as among the very best of his career. The first, and least showy of these, Nikolas Pherides in Isle of the Dead, is a model of the steadily accumulating power that comes through depth and, most of all, restraint. Probably the most memorable performance of the three, as graverobber Gray in The Body Snatcher, has everything: wit, sly charm, intelligence, malice and a genuine monstrosity, and all in a film which has a decent case to make for being the best horror movie of the 1940s. It may well be the finest acting Karloff ever did; it’s certainly his best work since the mid ’30s. Their final collaboration, and the last of the Lewton films, was Bedlam in 1946, and Karloff’s work as the sinister and manipulative asylum director is, once again, exceptional. The common factor across the three performances, so superficially different, is nuance and subtlety; the contrast with the entertaining, but essentially cartoonish Niemann in House of Frankenstein could hardly be more evident.
Technically and narratively ambitious, stylishly realised, with a potent understanding of human psychology, acted with precision and power and showing a sophisticated and creative sensibility at work, it is easy to see with hindsight that the Lewton films were cutting edge, modern even when set in period, and pointed a fruitful way into the future of film making, while House of Frankenstein shows Universal’s Golden Age in its last dying moments.
In essence, Lewton was making films for grown-ups, while House of Frankenstein, at its core, is a kids’ film.
Certainly when I first encountered the Lewton movies in a block, as the first screened film each week in the last of the original run of BBC2 horror double bills in 1981, this is how they presented themselves to me. In 1977, for Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends! I had actually been a kid, and so kids’ films like House of Frankenstein were entirely to my taste. By the summer horror double bill season of 1981, I was seventeen, and although looking back now I can see just how much of a kid I still was, at the time I thought quite the opposite. The intervening years had given me, through the educative power of television, and in particular the BBC, an understanding and awareness of film history it would be much harder to achieve for a similarly inclined adolescent today. I’d seen plenty of classic noir. I knew Bogart’s films particularly well. I’d seen a lot of Hitchcock, and some Welles. I’d encountered screwball comedy, and the ‘women’s melodramas’ of the ’40s. I knew westerns and musicals and gangsters and silent comedy and British ’60s kitchen sink movies. I didn’t have to make an effort, all of that stuff was just on. Additionally, by 1981 I’d seen a lot of the key films from New Hollywood, usually in Sunday night BBC2 movie seasons called things like The Great American Picture Show which I’d come to value almost as much to my growth and development as the younger me had valued Doctor Who and the annual horror double bill – 70s movies by Altman and Coppola and Scorsese and Bogdanovich and Pakula and Woody Allen. Real films, proper films, serious films as, with a very young man’s lack of perspective on the value of the things he once loved, I was beginning to think of them.
Beyond television, I had seen The Elephant Man at the cinema, my first encounter with Lynch. And since the opening of Cinema City, the first – and still only – arthouse in my hometown, I’d also begun to discover foreign films. I’d certainly seen some Herzog and Truffaut by 1981, and though the exact chronology is a bit vague in my memory now perhaps also a bit of Bergman and Bunuel.
So by the time I saw the Lewton movies in the 1981 season, with their sombre, elegiac, doom-laden and above all adult sensibility, it felt somehow miraculously right to me. A perfect circularity, and a perfect sense of the end of an era. They felt like a jumping off point, bridging the gap for me between the things I used to love and the things I was moving towards. When I became a man, I put away childish things, or something along those lines, and those childish things included Universal and Lugosi and Karloff and Hammer and Cushing and Lee. I was too old for kids’ films. Even if the ’81 season hadn’t actually been the last, it probably would have been for me, now that I’d grown up.
Edgy, sophisticated and film-literate, the Lewton films struck me as everything the Universal films no longer were, both in their actual production history – the films of the Universal golden age tended to get progressively less complex and less sophisticated as they went on – and in terms of what they had once meant to me but were ceasing to. My dwindling ability to appreciate the monster movie any longer was a symptom, I felt, of moving, as I was convinced I had, from innocence to experience, from a child’s perspective to an adult one.
But here’s the twist. Over the years since my 1981 first encounter with Lewton – rich, enigmatic, sophisticated Lewton – I could count the numbers of rewatches I’ve undertaken on the fingers of one hand. There was a separate season of Lewton films on the BBC in the late ’80s, and again in the late ’90s I believe, and I would have dipped back into those films on both occasions. Since the growth of home video though, a certain truth emerges. I never owned any Lewton on VHS tapes – I don’t even know if any of his films came out on that format, because I never tried to find out. I had lots of the Universals on tape though, because I bought any I could find almost as soon as I had a VCR. By the mid ’90s a number of the Universals were available in a uniform Classic Collection edition – not all in the UK though – but those I owned I played until the tapes were all but unwatchably worn. I eventually replaced the tapes with the Universal legacy collection on DVD, which I had to import from the US because the versions available in England contained the nailed on ’30s classics, but did not include most of the later films. The first time I performed a multi-region hack on a DVD player was not out of a vague desire to be able to see any old American region DVDs, but specifically in order to be able to watch the lesser sequels and mash-ups of the second wave Universal era. And watch them I did, all of them, many, many times. As I did all over again when I bought collections of the same films on Blu-ray.
I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve seen House of Frankenstein. Considerably more times than some of the Universal films I’ve come to feel I undervalued – like 1932’s The Mummy for instance – or some that I still just don’t like quite as much, like Werewolf of London or any of the later Mummy films. A few less times than my real, real favourites, like the Lugosi Dracula, the first three Frankenstein films, The Black Cat, The Raven, The Wolf Man and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Even so, I’ve probably seen House of Frankenstein at least a couple of times a year since the available technology allowed me to make that choice. That means in all probability I’ve seen the film perhaps 25 times, maybe more. The figure would be about the same for most of the other ’40s Universals, and a bit more – perhaps three or four times a year – for the real ’30s classics.
When the Lewton films became available as a DVD box set – an accolade I’m not aware of having been bestowed on any other producer, as opposed to director – of course I bought it. Of the five films I already knew best, four – Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Bedlam, and The Body Snatcher – I have watched just a single time since then. My personal favourite, Curse of the Cat People, I’ve watched twice. A couple I knew a little less well, either because I’d missed one or other of the later TV screenings or simply hadn’t found them as memorable, like The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim and Isle of the Dead I’ve probably seen twice too. The Ghost Ship, which I’d never seen before it became available on DVD, I’ve still seen only once.
Which means that, for all I’ve said about the relative technical, creative and storytelling superiority of the Lewton films, there is something in House of Frankenstein that means I want to watch it again and again. There is some property in what is, by any objective measure, a work of much lesser merit which has enabled me to experience it, without boredom, not because I needed to remind myself about the film in order to teach it, or write about it, or any other borderline rational real-world reason like that, but simply because I wanted to see it again, something like twenty times more often than I could face any of the artistically superior Lewton films.
I think it comes down to this. The Lewton films are just that, beautiful, atmospheric, sophisticated films. To want to see a really good film once, twice, maybe even three or four times in a lifetime, as I’ve watched the Lewton films is, I think, a normal, rational response. To be able to – more, to want or even need to – watch a film twenty, thirty, forty times suggests that I’m responding to something different. To something more than just a film. The Universal movies, and in particular the later, and lesser Universal movies, have stopped being just films and have become myths instead, a broader element of our culture. Once Universal began throwing their monsters rather randomly into shared narratives, however flawed their formula-driven sequelising might have been, they created a world in which Dracula and the Monster and the Wolf Man were no longer simply characters within a film, but cultural giants whose presence would not, later, be out of place on postage stamps and lollies, in fanzines and plastic modelling kits, in advertising and comic books and on T shirts and lunchboxes and collectors cards. It was in these narratively uninspired later monster mash-ups that they became finally, irrevocably a part of the landscape of all our dreams and imaginings, that they truly began to live and breathe beyond the confines of the screen and inhabit a world of their own. House of Frankenstein liberates the monsters from the source material, frees them from the context of the specific film or story in which they are appearing and sets them off about their business of becoming truly immortal. The undying monsters indeed. House of Frankenstein is when the monsters stop belonging to Universal and start belonging to all of us, like all of the great storytelling myths which underpinned earlier cultures. Just as no ancient Greek ever moaned ‘Not Zeus again…’ when the bard began to intone, and no self-respecting young Viking ever declared ‘I’m fed up with Thor and Loki…can’t you tell us a real story, for grown-ups?’, so I can quite happily press ‘Play’ time after time after time and wallow joyfully once again in the cosily familiar, hyperreal world of Professor Lampini’s immortal chamber of horrors.
Maybe next time I’ll accompany it with a nice plate of curried prawn cheesecake after all.