Halloween Havoc!: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (Universal 1943)

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN was Universal’s first Monster Mash-Up, and in my opinion the best of the lot. From here, things got a little crowded, but by spotlighting just two supernatural terrors, we get a spooky, atmospheric ‘B’ film that really works. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to his signature role of Lawrence Talbot, suffering from the curse of lycanthropy, and he’s even better than in the original (which I reviewed in 2015 ). And The Monster is played by 60-year-old Bela Lugosi , in the part he rejected twelve years earlier. Bela’s interpretation is… interesting (but more on that later).

The eerie opening scene features two graverobbers under a full moon, breaking into the Talbot family crypt. Opening the lid of the late Larry Talbot’s coffin, they find the body is covered in wolfbane, and one of them recites that familiar “Even a man who’s pure in heart…” poem. As Talbot’s body is bathed in moonlight, the dormant werewolf revives, and a hand reaches out from beyond the grave, snatching one unfortunate graverobber. This beautifully shot sequence by DP George Robinson sets the mood for the horrors to come.

Talbot is found unconscious in Cardiff and taken to the local hospital, where he’s treated for a skull fracture by Dr. Mannering and questioned by Inspector Owen. A routine call to the police in Llanwelly to verify Talbot’s identity finds Lawrence Talbot “died four years ago”. The full moon beckons once again, and Talbot leaves his room as The Wolf Man, killing a constable, and found in the morning slumped in his bed. Talbot confesses to Mannering and Owen his cursed affliction, but they think he’s insane. The two men then take a trip to Llanwelly, discovering the dead graverobber and an empty coffin inside the crypt. A call to the Cardiff hospital reveals Talbot has escaped.

Talbot now wanders Europe searching for Maleva, the gypsy woman whose son inflicted the curse on him. Finding the elderly Maleva in a gypsy camp, she takes him to see Dr. Ludwig von Frankenstein, healer of “Diseases of the Mind” in Vasaria (who, as we all know from GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, perished in that film fiery finale). The Wolf Man kills again, and is chased by angry villagers to the ruins of Frankenstein’s estate, where he awakens in a frozen cavern and discovers The Monster encased in ice. Talbot searches unsuccessfully for Frankenstein’s notebook, which contains “the secrets of life and death”, then (under an assumed name) contacts Baroness Elsa von Frankenstein. Elsa (who must’ve dumped fiancé Erick from the previous film) refuses, but the Mayor invites them both to stay for the Festival of the New Wine, celebrated in song by an uncredited Adia Kuznetzoff:

… obviously, Talbot doesn’t dig the song! Just then, Mannering, who’s been tracking Talbot’s path of destruction across Europe, arrives, as does The Monster, terrorizing those villagers again! Talbot and the creature escape, the villagers are in an uproar once again, and Mannering, Elsa, and Maleva return to the Frankenstein homestead to destroy The Monster and cure Talbot of his curse. But like all scientists, Mannering lets his curiosity get the best of him (“I’ve got to see Frankenstein’s creation at its full strength”), resulting in an epic Battle of the Monsters (well, as epic as a three-minute fight can be!).

Curt Siodmak’s  script retains the continuity of both THE WOLF MAN and GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, unlike some of the other entries before and after. Veteran director Roy William Neill handles the pacing well, and creates a genuinely creepy atmosphere throughout, aided by Robinson and John Fulton’s camera tricks during the transformation scenes of Talbot to The Wolf Man. Chaney his outstanding as “his baby” Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man, eliciting sympathy as the man and getting gruesomely physical as the werewolf. Ilona Massey, making her second Universal Horror appearance,  takes over the role of Elsa from Evelyn Ankers. Patric Knowles gets the ‘mad scientist’ role, though he’s not really mad… just curious! Maria Ouspenskaya returns to the part of Maleva, Lionel Atwill is the Mayor of Vasaria, Dennis Hoey the Inspector, and Rex Evans an angry villager. Also appearing as a villager is Dwight Frye , marking his seventh and final Universal Horror role  (Frye died at age 44 nine months after the film’s release).

Then there’s Bela Lugosi as The Monster, who had all his dialog cut out of the film by the studio after test audiences laughed during a pre-screening. If you recall GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, you’ll remember Ygor’s brain was transplanted in The Monster’s body, and he went blind due to having the wrong blood type. This explains Lugosi’s outstretched arms and lumbering gait through the movie, but filmgoers didn’t have DVD or DVR back in the 40’s, and had short memories (besides, no one back then took these little ‘B’ films seriously). And since the Monster’s blindness isn’t mentioned by any character in this one, Lugosi’s performance  has been a source of ridicule for generations. It wasn’t Bela’s fault… he was playing the part according the original script. Despite this studio meddling undoing Lugosi’s portrayal of The Monster, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN remains a classic outing in the genre, and that’s more than can be said for subsequent Universal Frankenstein films to come…

sound + vision: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (RKO 1943)

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Producer Val Lewton revitalized the horror film during his tenure at RKO Studios in the 1940s. Working with a miniscule budget, Lewton used the power of suggestion rather than monsters to create a body of work that’s still influential on filmmakers today. Studio execs came up with the sensationalistic titles (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and gave the producer free rein to tell the stories. Using shadows, light, and sound, Lewton’s quiet, intelligent approach to terror was miles ahead of the juvenile (but fun) stuff cranked out at Universal and Monogram.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM could be considered lesser Lewton. It’s  not seen as often some of his other classics, and that’s a pity, because it’s superior to many of the better known horror movies of the era. This quiet psychological thriller with its civilized satanic cult was a rarity for its time. Only Edgar G Ulmer’s 1934 THE BLACK CAT dared to tackle this kind of material before. In fact, I’m surprised the Production Code didn’t cut this one to shreds, with its devil worshippers and barely concealed lesbian subplot.

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