“I only want to die. That’s why I’m here. If I ever find peace, I’ll find it here.”
Cinematic universes are hugely popular right now, due in large part to the comic book movies being made by Marvel and DC. Other studios are attempting to capitalize on the phenomenon, such as Sony with the new Ghostbusters (2016). Even Universal, starting with Dracula Untold (2014), hopes to create a shared universe with its classic monsters.
This isn’t the first time Universal has done something like this. Back in 1943, when its monsters were still new, it made its first film that brought together two or more of its creatures. It’s a gimmicky idea, but the result is impressively serious, well-written, and mature.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man originated as a jest by Curt Siodmak, writer or co-writer of a few films we’ve talked about this month: The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), and Invisible Agent (1942).
Siodmak was having lunch in the Universal commissary one day, so the story goes, when he jokingly suggested Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as the title for a new movie to producer George Waggner. Waggner, who apparently didn’t have much of a sense of humor, took Siodmak seriously and assigned the project to the writer. Siodmak needed money for a down payment on a car and so took the job.
A few years after the events of The Wolf Man (1941), Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is brought back to life when two grave robbers remove the wolf-bane from his tomb and moonlight hits his body. Transforming into a werewolf once again, Larry kills one of the men. He is later found unconscious in Cardiff, Wales and taken to a city hospital.
Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles) of the hospital doesn’t believe Larry (declared dead years ago) is who he says he is nor does he swallow Larry’s werewolf story. Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey), the man investigating the vicious murders occurring in the city, agrees with Mannering and is suspicious of Larry.
Larry eventually escapes the hospital and goes in search of Maleva, the gypsy fortune teller from the first film played by Maria Ouspenskaya. Werewolves being hard to kill all of a sudden, Larry believes Maleva is the only one who knows how to kill him for good and give him peace.
Maleva has an idea but it will require traveling to the village of Vasaria (the setting of The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942) to find Henry Frankenstein’s notes about life located in the wreckage of Ludwig Frankenstein’s old medical practice. Along the way, the two run into Ludwig’s daughter Elsa (played this time by Ilona Massey) and the thought-dead Creature (Bela Lugosi).
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was directed by Roy William Neill, who’s probably best known for this movie and for directing most of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. All but two of the Holmes pictures were B-Movies, but it was hard to tell due to the immense care, love, creativity, and attention Neill infused into each outing with the Great Detective.
In other words, he did what I wish some of the other directors this month would’ve done: gone beyond the B-Picture boundaries and done something fantastic within limited means.
Right from the get-go, you can tell Neill brought his high standards to this horror film. The opening produces a subtle but effective horror atmosphere with its two superstitious grave robbers, a great use of shadows and inventive camera angles, a spooky graveyard, a strong wind, and the sound of leaves and trees rustling in the dark.
When we move to the hospital, the camerawork seems inspired by one of those eerie psychological dramas that make you question your own sanity. Later cinematography in a village bar, in the woods, and an icy cavern always work towards the movie’s excellently constructed tone of macabre, dread, and melancholy.
Indeed, the production values and cinematography throughout the whole film are a monster-sized step up from some of this month’s other B-Movies.
Neill’s direction isn’t all eye candy and no substance. He treats Larry’s torturous tale with the same seriousness and maturity of horror classics like Cat People (1942) and Psycho (1960). The film’s first half especially is genuine and real, you almost forget you’re watching a horror film and not the purely psychological drama I mentioned earlier.
Neill also brings out the best in an already terrific cast. I knew Chaney played tragedy well, but I never thought he could be so human, honest, and heart-wrenching. I’ve really come to see how fantastic an actor he was.
Larry grows nicely here, by the way, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a natural progression from The Wolf Man. Well, minus the Frankenstein part.
Actually, let’s talk about Frankenstein – more specifically the Creature – for a moment. I was really dreading Lugosi’s performance of the Monster. It’s a long time coming. If you remember, he was supposed to play the Monster for the original 1931 film before he dropped out. He thought he was too well-known and handsome an actor to be a mute, unrecognizable monster. Well, his career was in decline by this point, and this time, he said yes.
So how’d he do? From the brief clips I had seen of Lugosi, I was afraid he’d be two-dimensional, corny, over-the-top, and far away from the subtle, multifaceted Karloff creation.
It’s safe to say Lugosi doesn’t approach the greatness of Karloff or the adequate Chaney (The Ghost of Frankenstein). There’s certainly effort and potential there, though. Whereas the writing hurt Karloff in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Chaney in Ghost, it’s the editing that does Lugosi in.
Lugosi’s Creature was originally going to talk. Test audiences reacted poorly to these scenes, however. According to Siodmak, the audiences found the monster speaking with Lugosi’s Hungarian accent unintentionally funny. Almost all the sequences featuring a speaking Creature are omitted. (Some scenes remain where you can see the Monster moving his mouth, but the words have been silenced.)
The severe cutting has left the Creature with literally only minutes of screen time. It’s really Larry’s film and you could easily rewrite the story a bit to exclude the Monster entirely.
I am upset that so little of the Monster remains, but the wolf man stuff is so good that it more than makes up for the lack of one of its two monsters. Plus, Lugosi and particularly Chaney do an admirable job forming a rudimentary relationship in their few moments on screen. You get the sense that these are two rejected souls finding solace in each other.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man doesn’t quite live up to its title of two popular monster meeting for the first time, but it provides a great continuation of Larry’s story with a serious look into his horrific search for an end to his torment. Seriously, check this one out. You’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.