House of Frankenstein (1944) is another Universal Monsters movie for which, as a child, I owned a Super 8 excerpt reel. For that reason, it lives in my mind as a terrific movie. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch the full thing now and realize how bad it is. Like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man before it, it’s fun for the different monsters to get together, but you can’t look any deeper than that for coherence.
Regardless of the specific circumstances of the stories, they’re ultimately the same:
Frankenstein’s monster lives in a state of disrepair.
Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, longs to die so he’ll be at peace.
A mad doctor promises to help Larry, but becomes consumed with reviving Frankenstein’s monster.
The set-ups, though, can be clever. In House of Frankenstein, we also have an appearance by Dracula and a hunchback. It takes some ingenuity to craft a story, no matter how ridiculous it is, that brings them all together.
Here, the common thread is Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff), who masquerades as Professor Bruno Lampini, driving his mobile Chamber of Horrors across Europe from Neustadt to Vasaria. Mad scientist? Check. This travelling sideshow features the skeleton of Count Dracula, from which Niemann extracts the wooden stake to revive the vampire. Dracula? Check.
Niemann’s assistant is Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) who repeatedly asks Niemann to make him like other men. Hunchback? Check. While hunting for Henry Frankenstein’s records so that he can do so, Niemann unearths the bodies of Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and The Monster (Glenn Strange). Wolf Man? Check. Frankenstein’s monster? Check.
The climax always arrives in a laboratory when the particular drama of the movie comes to a head just as equipment is buzzing, lights are flashing and villagers are grabbing torches. Here, it’s Daniel’s jealousy of Talbot’s relationship with gypsy sweetheart, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), that causes silver bullets to be fired, man made monsters to be frenzied and bodies to be thrown out of windows.
Dracula’s involvement is limited to the first 30 minutes of House of Frankenstein and is totally uncharacteristic of the character. John Carradine is slightly better than Lon Chaney, Jr. was as the Count in Son of Dracula, but the same effort is not made to connect him to the continuity that is so strict for the other monsters. Here, he’s blackmailed to do Niemann’s bidding, which we all know Dracula would never do.
It’s nice to see Karloff in a Universal Monsters movie without elaborate makeup covering his face. It’s also an interesting reversal in House of Frankenstein that he’s bringing a monster to life rather than portraying the monster being brought to life. But Naish’s Daniel is the heart of this movie and the actor gives a moving performance. So, it’s not without its little rewards, but the entire movie is no treasure.