The early days of sound cinema are some of the most consistently inconsistent years in all of the medium. Universal Horror was one of the few companies to attempt a personal stamp during that era, along with one of the few to shine through into the public consciousness in the modern era. The company’s dynasty, especially throughout the 1930s, was marked by exactly that particular breed of scattered and scaffolded formal invention that marked all of early sound cinema. The medium was still trying to figure out what it meant to be “sound cinema”, and the process of the collective unconsciousness of film-land figuring out all that “sound cinema” could entail is one of the most exciting treasure troves for any modern cinephile to discover and witness with the benefit of hind-sight. It wasn’t quite as off-balance and delectably weird as silent cinema – always cinema at its most frontierist and vexing – but the wild years had not yet given way to the increased symmetry and corporate similitude of the 1940s and what would become classical Hollywood filmmaking.
You couldn’t find a better showpiece for American cinema in the 1930s than Universal’s Frankenstein franchise, beginning in the bowels of post-expressionist dread with James Whales’ Frankenstein itself, deepening itself and navigating uncharted subtextual waters with the sensual, deliberately flamboyant high-camp of Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and settling down to earth again with the thoroughly solid character tragedy of Son of Frankenstein. Three films spanning the course of a decade, all of them great, and none of them remotely similar in any way (only the first really qualifies as horror at all).
That was the 1930s though, and sanity had to come to all films at some point. So did the ineptitude of sanity as well, and although hackwork was plentiful in the 1930s as it has been at any time in cinematic history, Universal hackwork really began in earnest in the 1940s. Fancy shenanigans and genre experimentation gave way to making a quick buck, and poverty row no-budget huckster pieces made on the quick soon replaced the perversely experimental fop of Universal at its best.
As for the company’s flagship franchise, the Frankenstein series…the bigger they were, they harder they fell. Ghost of Frankenstein, the first of these cheapo B pictures in the series (money after all was being funneled to other areas of the world at this point, namely the middle of Europe), was the first middling effort in the franchise, but let us not call it “the fall”. No, no. We have Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man for that. If the first three films in the franchise were inspired art and Ghost was a sort of sturdy craft, this fifth entry is someone running around a tree trying to catch their own tail for a little over an hour before they grow tired and pass out.
It is also the first time Universal went to the well with what would years later become a tried and true B-movie “get em in the theater” gimmick: the monster mash-up, taking Universal’s grand daddy and pitting him against the new kid on the block, the Wolf Man, played as per usual by the always game, and the always abused, Lon Chaney Jr. Not much of an actor, Chaney certainly lacked the expressively monstrous quality of his father, who had played the titular Phantom in one of the great silent films, The Phantom of the Opera. But Chaney had a certain hound-dog pitiful everyman quality about him, and Universal understood this for 1941’s The Wolf Man (the last of the great offerings from the company, until they re-emerged in the mid ’50s just long enough for it to be a shame when Hammer Films, the new bad boys of horror, stole all their progenitor’s glory before the end of the 1950s). In The Wolf Man, Universal allowed Chaney to swash around indifferently, his wooden features and perpetually confused expression revealing a shocked incapability in the film’s main character, an incapability perfect for a man unable to cope with having been turned into a wolf. Non-acting at its finest, in other words.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, however, uses no one right, letting, as so many mash-up films would do, the smack-down concept do all the talking and leaving it at that. The weight shifted onto the idea of the film rather than the execution, and pretty much no one put any effort into this feature. Worse, they didn’t even do the immediate pleasures of the concept right. One would think that a pile of dead body parts with a conscience fighting a wolf human would have enough of a Cinema of Attractions appeal that the craft could slide by the wayside. But no, the film doesn’t even indulge us in what we are all here to see in the first place.
Why bother with simple pleasures, though, when you have the absolutely stunning display of manically illiterate, illegible writing that went into justifying the meeting of those two monsters. We begin with what is in effect a Wolf Man sequel, no surprise considering the character was the Universal figure most in need of some continued life-blood and broad appeal at this point, as well as the freshest figure in the public’s mind. He was dead when we last left him, but a pesky thing like death never stopped a corporate machine from selling its nonsense time and time again. Say this for the opening scene where two grave robbers inadvertently resurrect the beast: it has a modicum of that old Gothic style, the base boards of the house that Universal built. From there, Larry Talbot (our Wolf Man, played by Chaney as per usual) awakes post-resurrection in an asylum, or a hospital, but in the 1800s weren’t those the same things anyway? Some mild shenanigans involving a deeply unfortunate… let’s call him a detective … detective begin and end more quickly than you can say red herring, the wolf escapes, and we are off into another movie altogether.
From this somewhat sensible base for a film, screenwriter Curt Siodmak decided to make this his magnum opus and take Talbot on a self-hating journey to kill himself, eventually winding up in a plot to resurrect the weakened Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) somehow. How? Well, by transferring Talbot’s wolf energy – yes, wolf energy – to the Monster so that the wolf may die and the Monster may continue on to become an insurance salesman or whatever. Lame enough in this truncated, succinct form, but it is the endless trepidation of the film to actually arrive at this end that befuddles the most. There are at least a half dozen natural stopping points for the set-up Siodmak could have pursued, but he piles endless development on top of endless development, perhaps to distract us while he is busy not writing a worthwhile ending destination for the film anyway. I mean, how difficult should it be to get two monsters to fight one another? I’m no crypto-zoologist, but it really shouldn’t require spreadsheets and a twist every two minutes to get us there.
So, we have a lame destination battling for supremacy with an even worse journey, and I can say no more about how all of this happens, primarily because you should witness it for yourself and secondarily because I am not sure what happens myself. Talk about “building up suspense for the final climax”. Except there is no real final climax, and there is no suspense. Just running around in no lighting and all sorts of pseudo-scientific slog about life energy transfer. Never mind about “build up”.
And never mind the absolutely stunted structure of the film’s narrative, too, for that might have been salvaged if any one had taken any care to sand over the narrative with genuine craft. After all, films aren’t screenplays right? They have actors and directors and editors and cinematographers and all sorts of people designed to bring a screenplay, no matter how putrescent, to life. Director Roy William Neill, who really ought to be a pirate with that name, certainly doesn’t have much interest in distracting us from how lost the material is, although his style is at least technically functional in the end. Chaney is, as he usually was, someone in need of a director or script to make use of his wooden style, and as you can perhaps tell, he has neither of those here.
For the Monster, it is hard to blame Lugosi. Karloff had long since grown angry at the character and lost interest, while Lugosi was always the whipping boy for Universal, carted out for name value and abused and beaten and torn of dignity until the day he died. Blame the Universal machine for throwing him scraps, but Lugosi doesn’t do much to elevate the material here, flopping around like a blind fish (in fact, the character is supposed to be blind, but this fact was cut from the screenplay) and saddling the character with an accent, his accent, that is totally unfitting. At some level, however, Lugosi could not do much with this character even in a better screenplay; it was about as far away from his natural (limited) abilities as possible. He slidee into Dracula because the character was all gusto and punishing, glammy theatricality, all ham-bone frights of fancy. The Monster needed quavering anxiety and blunt force, and when asked for these two emotions, the over-zealous Lugosi could only really sell childlike crayon-drawings.
So we have a perfect storm of incompetence then, a work that literally begins with its single outright good scene, as if to tempt us and mock us with what we wish to see for the rest of the film, and then proceeds to crumble further and further with each successive scene. At the least, it moves well past the point of conventional badness into the mad-scientist-as-an-editor disconnection we who enjoy this sort of trifle can connect with. But the large majority of the film, where Talbot just sort of stands around, walks around, stares, contemplates his earning potential, and mentally considers bathroom lighting options, makes it a chore to enjoy the film on even that accidental level.
Oh, and that song-and-dance number in the middle of the film. My hats off to you Universal for the confidence that your horror film could survive this song. One more reason why Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is in desperate need of a stern talking to. Or a grave. Maybe that would have been better.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (rotten, and how much energy it expends at a scripting level to deliver this rot is beyond me)
But how “good” is it?: 2.5/5 (too turgid and frosty and death-driven to ever attain the magnetic anti-life of a good bad movie proper, although it is not without its pleasures)