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…

Halloween Havoc!: THE WOLF MAN (Universal 1941)

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We’re heading down the Halloween Havoc! homestretch and for the last week of October I’ll be dusting of my Universal Classic Horror tapes (yes I still have a VHS player…doesn’t everybody?) From watching them on late night TV to reading about them in “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “Castle of Frankenstein” magazines, these are the films that got me started as a life-long lover of macabre movies. So let’s take a trip down Monster Memory Lane with one of my personal favorites, THE WOLF MAN.

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Prodigal son Larry Talbot returns to his Welsh home of Llanwelly after spending 18 years in America. Father Sir John Talbot is an astronomer, and through the telescope Larry spies beautiful village girl Gwen Conliffe. Fun loving Larry is captivated by her, so he heads to her father’s antique shop to work his charm on the lass. Larry flirts away,  and on impulse buys a cane with a silver wolf’s head attached. This is where we hear that famous poem for the first time: “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night/ May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright”. (I tried to find a YouTube clip but no dice! Sorry!)

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Gwen agrees to go to the gypsy camp to have their fortunes read, dragging along her friend Jenny Williams. When Bela the gypsy reads Jenny’s palm, he sees doom in her future. She’s attacked by a wolf and Larry bashes its head in with his silver cane, getting bit in the process. Gwen and Maleva, gypsy mother of Bela, bring Larry home, but the next day Bela’s dead body is discovered in the wolf’s stead. Larry’s wound is mysteriously gone, in its place a pentagram…the sign of the werewolf!

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Lon Chaney Jr always said Larry Talbot was his “baby”, and the role made him a star at Universal. The transformation from happy-go-lucky Larry to conflicted, morose victim of lycanthropy earned Chaney the title of “The Screen’s Master Character Creator” in Universal’s advertising hype. Chaney is the only actor to portray all the studio’s major monsters: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Mummy, as well as appearing as The Wolf Man in four sequels. His roles in mainstream films like OF MICE AND MEN, HIGH NOON, and THE DEFIANT ONES brought critical acclaim, but Chaney’s lifelong battle with the bottle saw him ending his career in B-Westerns and Al Adamson schlockers. Larry Talbot was his signature role, and his contributions to cinematic horror will not be soon forgotten.

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“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating” and nowhere is that truer than in THE WOLF MAN. Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers was Universal’s go-to girl when it came to horror, and she’s at her best in this one. Bela the gypsy is of course horror icon Bela Lugosi. Lugosi only gets about two minutes of screen time as the doomed gypsy, but he makes the most of it, playing the part with an understated melancholy. The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains lends dignity to Sir John, who refuses to believe his son is a werewolf. Also giving a dignified performance is diminutive Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva. The twice Oscar nominated Ouspenskaya returned to the role in the sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Warren William, Patric Knowles, and Fay Helm (the unfortunate Jenny) lend good support, but Ralph Bellamy is annoying as the local constable.

Curt Siodmak wrote the intelligent script. The German immigrant never achieved the success of his brother, director Robert (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS), but was a major figure in the horror genre. His novel Donovan’s Brain is a classic, and his screenplays for THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS hold up well. As for his directorial career…well, he was a good writer! George Waggner directed this one, and while his screen career is undistinguished, he found his niche working on television shows like 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE MAN FROM UNCLE, and BATMAN. Makeup artist Jack Pierce created one of his masterpieces for Chaney, and the Wolf Man’s visage still  manages to frighten. THE WOLF MAN ranks with the best of Universal’s 30s classics, and while the recent remake wasn’t all that bad, it was missing one key element. Sorry Benicio Del Toro, but you’re just no Lon Chaney Jr!