Blog Archives

Universal Movie Monsters Sequel Mini Reviews: Frankenstein

by Steve Habrat

Nothing says Halloween like Frankenstein, the iconic horror story penned by Mary Shelley. The legendary tale has it all: walking corpses, gothic castles, mad scientists, hunchbacks, and misty graveyards. If that doesn’t scream Halloween then I don’t know what does. Shortly after the success of Dracula, Universal unleashed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, two horror classics that are still celebrated today and beloved by every single horror fan on the planet. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s reviews of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, click here for Frankenstein or click here for Bride of Frankenstein. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews of the Frankenstein sequels.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Picking up several years after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein’s son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Played by Basil Rathbone), returns to his father’s castle with his wife, Elsa (Played by Josephine Hutchinson), and his young son, Peter (Played by Donnie Dunagan). Eager to repair his father’s reputation, Wolf quickly discovers that local villagers are not so eager to forgive for the abomination that his father created. Wolf soon finds himself approached by the demented Ygor (Played by Béla Lugosi), who wants Wolf to bring the Monster (Played by Boris Karloff) back from the dead. Wolf reluctantly agrees with the hopes of restoring his father’s legacy but with the reanimation of the Monster, death and destruction once again tear through the countryside.

If Universal would have ended its Frankenstein series with Son of Frankenstein, then it could have ranked as one of the greatest trilogies to ever come out of Hollywood. Wrapping things up quite horrifically, director Rowland V. Lee tells one of the heartiest tales Frankenstein’s Monster ever received and it is all the better for it. Immensely satisfying and surprisingly eerie, Karloff once again shines as everyone’s favorite grunting brute corpse as he shuffles about the twisted landscape. It would become the last time Karloff would ever don that famous make-up and boy does he go out with a bang. While he lacks much of the understanding and humanity that he did in Bride of Frankenstein (my personal favorite Universal Monster movie), he still gives the Monster heaping amounts of personality. Karloff does end up playing second fiddle to Lugosi, who gives one hell of a performance as Ygor, a raspy grave robber who somehow survived a hanging and now has a deformed neck.

As far as the supporting players go, Rathbone is adequate as a man who refuses to own up to what he has created. Rathbone consistently plays off of Lionel Atwill’s one-armed Inspector Krogh, who is being forced into reprimanding Wolf even though he believes that he isn’t the criminal the rambling villagers think he is. The film applies a nightmarish German Expressionist vision to the terror, making everything seem slightly surreal as Karloff and Lugosi lurch about the rocky landscape. The film really takes hold when Wolf’s son Peter begins explaining that a giant has paid him a visit, a confession that will give you the creeps. Overall, Son of Frankenstein stands as the last great Universal Frankenstein film, one that still manages to terrify to this very day. An unsung winner from Universal’s glory days. Grade: A-

 

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Taking place shortly after the events of Son of Frankenstein, the horrific devastation that took place at Frankenstein’s castle still looms over the nearby village. Many villagers believe that Ygor (Played by Béla Lugosi) is still alive and is desperately trying to find the body of Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.). It turns out that Ygor has indeed found the body of the Monster caught and preserved in the sulfur that he was pushed into by Wolf von Frankenstein. The villagers soon storm the ruins of the castle and run Ygor and the Monster, who has been weakened due to the sulfur exposure, out of town. Ygor decides to travel to the nearby village of Vasaria to find Ludwig Frankenstein (Played by Cedric Hardwicke), the second son of Henry Frankenstein, with the hopes that he can restore the Monster to his full strength. Ludwig begins studying the Monster with the hopes of destroying it once and for all, but a visit from his father’s apparition pleads with him to perfect the creation.

At a brief sixty-seven minutes, The Ghost of Frankenstein seems like lukewarm scraps that should have been thrown out rather than reheated. Despite a tepid script and a nonsensical storyline that is slightly convoluted, The Ghost of Frankenstein still has a few surprises that keep things just barely shuffling along. Chaney does a surprisingly decent job as the Monster, who once again doesn’t show the degree of humanity that Karloff did in Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein. Chaney is much better as this monster than he was as Dracula but he will always be the best at the Wolf-Man, a role he should have stuck to but I guess someone had to step in and fill Karloff’s shoes. Meanwhile, Lugosi once again steals the show as the unhinged freak Ygor, who wants to use the Monster to cause as much destruction as he possibly can. Despite a lot of silliness, Lugosi plays for keeps. Thankfully, he comes out unscathed. Then there is Hardwicke, who seems rather disinterested as Ludwig, a man who has been blackmailed into reviving the Monster. He certainly doesn’t live up to the other two Frankenstein boys.

A step down in the production department, The Ghost of Frankenstein feels frustratingly stale and downright meaningless. It is obviously a quick cash grab on the Frankenstein name and it is hard to forgive Universal for that, especially after that trio of treasures that they delivered before this. The film has very few creepy moments to speak of but the atmosphere of the original three films is long gone. Still, Chaney works hard to keep things on the ghoulish track and the ever-colorful Lugosi aids him along. I will admit that I did enjoy the morbid twist at the end of film, a twist that involves a quick brain swap with fiery results. Overall, it is far from my favorite Universal horror film but I believe you can do much, much worse. It just hurts to see the high quality Frankenstein series deteriorate into such an unimaginative mess. Grade: C 

 

The House of Frankenstein (1944)

After the vengeful Dr. Gustav Niemann (Played by Boris Karloff) escapes from prison with the help of his hunchback assistant Daniel (Played by J. Carrol Naish), he sets out to find the three men responsible for his imprisonment. After murdering a traveling showman and taking over his roaming horror show, Dr. Niemann unleashes Dracula (Played by John Carradine), the Wolf-Man (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.), and Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Glenn Strange) to get revenge on those who have wronged him. As their rampage tears through multiple villages, Dr. Niemann and Daniel begin to fear that they may also fall victim to the horrors that they have unleashed.

Released a year before the weary House of Dracula, The House of Frankenstein marked the first time that all of Universal’s headlining monsters were together in one smash horror show. A bit smoother than House of Dracula, The House of Frankenstein is carried by the mere presence of Karloff, who here is portraying the mad doctor rather than the big green Monster. While Karloff seems to be enjoying the fact that he isn’t caked with make-up, the real star here is Naish’s hunchback Daniel, a tragic soul who lusts after a beautiful gypsy Ilonka (Played by Elena Verdugo). Daniel longs for a better body, which he believes would allow him to win over Ilonka’s affection. It is even more tragic to see Daniel pitted against Larry Tolbot/the Wolf-Man, who seems to be the apple of Ilonka’s eye. The House of Frankenstein also finds Glenn Strange stepping in as the Frankenstein Monster, once again played as a grunting brute with very little emotion. Carradine also makes an appearance as Dracula, who flies off with the film’s most thrilling sequence.

Much like House of Dracula, The House of Frankenstein is really straining to keep itself together for its seventy-one minute run. The film really works due to the surprisingly strong conflict between the Daniel and Larry; a feud that we know will not have a positive outcome. Still, the plot finding Dr. Niemann using these creatures to exact revenge is a much sharper idea than all of them wanting to be cured of their curses. While it doesn’t mark the last appearance of all these ghouls in one film, it really should have acted as their last appearance on the big screen. Overall, The House of Frankenstein is a mildly enjoyable undead soirée that should have closed the coffin lid on these decomposing beasts from Hell. Grade: C+

 

Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, and The House of Frankenstein are all available on DVD.

Universal Movie Monsters Sequel Mini Reviews: Dracula

by Steve Habrat

The first legendary monster from Universal Studios, Dracula is one of the most iconic movie monsters ever put on the big screen. Played brilliantly by Béla Lugosi, the original film recieved three sequels and a chilling Spanish language version. Without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews of the Dracula sequels. Just make sure you hold your crucifix close and have Van Helsing speed dial. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of Dracula (1931), click here .

Drácula (Spanish Version) (1931)

Young solicitor Renfield (Played by Pablo Álvarez Rubio) travels to Transylvania to meet the mysterious Count Dracula (Played by Carlos Villarías) about the Count’s recent purchase of a home in London. Upon Renfield’s arrival, he finds himself drugged and bitten by the Count’s trio of undead wives. With Renfield under his control, Dracula travels to London where he brings with him a plague of death and destruction. Shortly after his arrival, Dracula finds himself pitted against the cunning Professor Van Helsing (Played by Eduardo Arozamena), who is hell-bent on sending the undead terror back to his grave.

Shot at night on the same sets that Tod Browning and Béla Lugosi haunted, Drácula is a much more alive artistically than the rather comatose American version. Browning’s version was composed of multiple long shots that looked like the actors were performing on a giant stage rather than acting in a Hollywood motion picture. George Melford is much more sure of himself as he dares to move his camera around with the actors and in the process, wakes the film up from its dusty, cobwebbed slumber. Melford’s film also ends up being quite a bit longer than Browning’s, with a slower build up and a lengthier pay off than the sudden climax of the American version (this film is a whopping half-hour longer than Browning’s). It is blatantly apparent that this was made for an audience with a much longer attention span and a genuine love for character development. In addition to these touches, the film is much creepier than Browning’s, which ultimately gives it the upper hand. Your spine will tingle when Dracula’s brides emerge from their shadows and begin feeding upon the doomed Renfield and you’ll shiver when Dracula emerges from the dark depths of a ship braving stormy waters as Renfield roars with delight. The boat sequence was my personal favorite scene in the film. This one will give you nightmares, folks!

Then there is Villarías as Dracula and I must say, he comes dangerously close to toppling Lugosi but he just misses by a hair. The two have largely the same physical appearance but Villarías lacks the otherworldly gaze and the spidery fingers that Lugosi was so blessed with. However, Villarías has a curling lip and jagged sneer that makes him look like an unhinged madman who is seconds away from ripping out your jugular. He does have bulging eyes and a psychotic stare, which Melford likes to focus in on in extreme close-ups, but his gaze never really made my heart skip a beat. The rest of the actors and actresses do a fine job and match the American cast the entire way. Another standout is Rubio as Renfield, a man with a laugh that could wake the dead and a quiver that looks like the set temperature was below zero. It would have been perfect if Melford had included an equally hair-raising score but unfortunately, we don’t get one here. Still, Drácula is fully capable of giving you a few sleepless nights, that is, if you are one of the patient viewers. A stunning alternative that ranks as one of the best vampire films ever put on celluloid. Grade: A

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Picking up shortly after the events of 1931’s Dracula, the Hungarian countess Marya Zaleska (Played by Gloria Holden) emerges on the streets of London searching for the corpse of her father, Count Dracula. She is also searching for a way to rid herself of a mysterious curse that causes her to drink the blood of the living. With the help of her sinister manservant, Sandor (Played by Irving Pichel), Marya seeks out psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Played by Otto Kruger) in the hopes that he can cure her through scientific methods. Meanwhile, Professor Van Helsing (Played by Edward Van Sloan) is trying to convince Scotland Yard that there are vampires walking among the citizens of foggy London.

Exhibiting a much more artistic approach than Tod Browning’s original film, Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter is a creeping tale that draws you deep into its gothic atmosphere and slow building crescendo of tension. Rather than just a collection of stationary long shots of cobwebbed castles and misty gardens, Dracula’s Daughter is all damp, ominous streets and shadowy dens where Holden’s Marya grapples tragically with the curse that plagues her. The creepiest scenes come when Marya and Sandor slip around in the shadows and discuss ways to quench Marya’s unquenchable thirst. The film can also be relatively humorous, which does undercut some of the scares that generate, making Dracula’s Daughter a bit kid friendly, even more so than Dracula. Lengthy dry spots where thinly written background characters step into the frame and babble on, forcing us to drift out of the action until Holden reappears also trip up moments of Dracula’s Daughter.

Dracula’s Daughter is probably best remembered for the lesbian subtext that runs heavy through the second half of the film. This subtext is crystal clear in a sequence between Marya and a young girl named Lili (Played by Nan Grey), who is supposed to acting as a model for Marya. One thing is for sure, you have to see the scene to believe it. It is surprising that the scene made it past the production code authority but it actually makes Dracula’s Daughter all the more fascinating and thought provoking. It may not rank as one of the best Universal Movie Monsters sequels out there, but Dracula’s Daughter manages to be a smidgeon better than its predecessor, at least in construction. It would have also been nice to get a cameo from the legendary vampire himself but sadly, this film is Dracula-less. Overall, this gothic follow up will stick with you due to its dreary ambiance and nightmarish imagery that will have you switching the nightlight on before bed. Grade: B

 

Son of Dracula (1943)

After taking a trip to Hungry, the beautiful Kay Caldwell (Played by Louise Allbritton) returns to United States with a morbid curiosity with the supernatural. She returns to her family’s southern plantation with a gypsy fortuneteller named Madame Zimba (Played by Adeline DeWalt Reynolds) and the mysterious Count Alucard (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.), who only makes select appearances after the sun has gone down. After Madame Zimba warns Kay that death looms over the plantation, several individuals close to Kay are discovered dead. To make matters worse, Kay informs her fiancé Frank (Played by Robert Paige) that she does not intend to marry him anymore. She instead plans on marrying Count Alucard, with the hopes of obtaining immortality.

Don’t be fooled by the title, there is no son of Dracula in Son of Dracula. I guess it was just a catchy title that everyone could agree on. The third installment in Universal’s Dracula franchise does find the legendary bloodsucker (thankfully) returning after his absence in Dracula’s Daughter but this time he is portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr. Unlike Béla Lugosi, Chaney is never really able to own the fangs and it shows. Chaney lacks Lugosi’s horrific grin that just spelled pure evil and his piercing eyes, but he does an adequate job with the role. You are left wishing that Lugosi would show up and relieve Chaney of his duties here and sometimes, I got the feeling that Chaney was secretly hoping the same thing. His casting here has been widely considered one of the worst casting choices in the history of cinema and he does seem a bit awkward at times but he is aided by the stellar direction from Robert Siodmak, who ratchets up the eeriness with a relentlessly gloomy landscape.

More of a film noir with vibrations of terror, Son of Dracula has some superb moments of paranormal horror. Alucard drifts silently over the murky waters of a desolate swamp while another character chats with a ghost in a dingy jail cell as police officers murmur amongst themselves that the prisoner must be crazy. Dropping the comic relief that Dracula’s Daughter was fond of, Son of Dracula is done in by a thinly spread plot that ultimately got a bit monotonous for me. I did enjoy the somber tone and I have to say I really liked the scenes in which Alucard would transform from a bat into his human form. I also was quite fond of Allbritton’s distant femme fatale who has big plans for Chaney’s bloodsucker. I was thrown off by the idea that Dracu… I mean Alucard was looking to settle down and take a wife, especially after Dracula shows three of his wives slithering out of their graves. Overall, Son of Dracula plays things gravely serious and more power to it for that, but a bone-dry script and a dull monster cause the film to be a bit stiff. Grade: C+

 

House of Dracula (1945)

Count Dracula (Played by John Carradine) arrives in Visaria at the castle of Dr. Franz Edelmann (Played by Onslow Stevens) and asks the doctor to cure him of his vampirism. The good doctor agrees and just as he begins work on a cure, Larry Talbot (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr) comes knocking on his door seeking a cure him of his lycanthropy. As the doctor races to find cures for both monsters, he stumbles upon the ultimate discovery— Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Glenn Strange). With all the ghouls together, Dr. Edelmann races the clock to protect his two assistants, hunchbacked Nina (Played by Jane Adams) and beautiful Milizia (Played by Martha O’Driscoll), from certain death, but Count Dracula has other plans for Dr. Edelmann, a plot that could unleash pure evil on the local villagers.

The lash hurrah for three of the most iconic movie monsters in Universal’s arsenal, House of Dracula does end with a big bang, lots of flames, and even a few fireworks. You’d think with three of the studio’s main monsters in the same picture, there would be plenty of murder and mayhem to go around but sadly, that is not necessarily the case. There is quite a bit of down time in House of Dracula and only some of it works. A scene where Count Dracula attempts to seduce Milizia is effectively frightening and a horrific vision by Dr. Edelmann is a hair-raiser but things are forced here. Screenwriter Edward T. Lowe, Jr really hopes for smooth sailing but some of these chance encounters are strained, especially the way Frankenstein’s Monster is discovered. Furthermore, the film lacks the unshakable gothic mood of some of the better Universal horror offerings, which further throws the film off. Luckily, this monster mash only goes on for a measly sixty-seven minutes.

As far as acting is concerned, Chaney is the only one reprising a role that he perfected. Béla Lugosi is replaced by John Carradine, who does more with the role than Chaney did in Son of Dracula but still lacks the allure of Lugosi. Glenn Strange steps in for Boris Karloff and has little to do as the Monster. He mostly just stays rooted to an operating table and flails his arms around in the film’s final minutes. It is Chaney’s Talbot/Wolf-Man who really steals the picture with his sympathetic performance of a man terrified of himself. Stevens also does an above average job with Dr. Edelmann and gets to really have some nasty fun in the home stretch when he descends into madness. The other memorable aspect of House of Dracula is the inclusion of female hunchback Nina, an unusual touch for a horror film at this time. As the last gothic gasp before the explosion of atomic terror and Cold War fears, House of Dracula attempts to send the terrifying trio back to the grave in grandiose style but ends up ushering them out with a big yawn and a faint snore. Grade: C

 

Drácula (The Spanish Version), Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula are all available on DVD.