Regardless of the day or time Rob Medaska III will bring up Roy William Neill‘s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man whenever classic movies are mentioned. Medaska, a fan of the Universal Horror slate of movies doesn’t think that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is simply a good movie. He thinks it’s the best movie ever made. According to him it has the best opening in film history and pits Universals two greatest monsters against each other.
Perhaps I should mention that Rob Medaska III is six years old. His eyes glaze with wonderment as he recounts his favorite scenes in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and his love for this movie makes me appreciate it that much more. Despite a few inconsistencies and what I think is a disappointing monster portrayal Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is exactly the kind of movie that makes new classic fans. For reasons both in front of and behind the camera this movie is an interesting watch as well as a fun outing and I thought I’d pay it tribute on the 73rd anniversary of its release on March 5, 1943. With spoilers!
It’s worth starting the tale of Neill’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man with a brief look at Universal Studios in 1943. By that year Universal had firmly established itself as the place for horror by making memorable movies in the genre for the better part of two decades. But Universal was losing its horror grip in an artistic sense and in the realm of true scares with its productions moving steadily from the moody earlier releases to monster schlock. RKO pictures was (by 1943) giving Universal a run for its horror money producing fantastically creepy low budget pictures made by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur that were giving audiences real nightmares. And they hardly even showed any monsters. Lewton’s Cat People (1942) is the perfect example of an RKO box-office and critical success that goes far in the scare department with the use of sound and shadows. In contrast Universal was offering little aside from their monster icons and by this point were recycling the characters for mass consumption with little effort going to style or story. The only Universal Monster who had not been given a sequel by 1943 was the Wolf Man although his portrayer Lon Chaney, Jr. had by this time played Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and a few other not-so-human beings. It was in this type of highly competitive horror environment that the monster mash-ups began, a then revolutionary idea that came from a script written by the dependable Curt Siodmak called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man picks up the story of both monsters from their movie predecessors and although they make little sense as far as true continuity goes the stories are fun to consider. By this movie Frankenstein’s Monster had died several deaths none of which proved permanent. At the end of Erle C. Kenton’s Ghost of Frankenstein, which precedes Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in the Universal timeline, the Monster’s brain had been replaced with the brain of his best friend Ygor whose body was a lot worse for wear after being hanged and shot several times. Ygor was played by Bela Lugosi and although I am less than enamored with Ghost of Frankenstein overall as I stated in my commentary on the film, it has its definite fun factor thanks to Lugosi’s terrific performance. The mayhem that ensues after the brain transplant takes place in Ghost leads to the Monster and others engulfed in flames at the end of which we are sure he is gone for good. But no – the Monster lived on in several other movies.
When Universal was considering casting The Monster for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man they naturally turned first to Boris Karloff who’d brought the creature to life in James Whale’s 1931 and 1935 masterpieces followed by a third turn in Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein, which is one of my favorites of the Universal classics. Karloff had sworn never to play the Monster again after Son, however, and stayed true to his word. So Universal turned to Bela Lugosi who had had less success than Karloff as far as quality outings go, but who’d proved both a fan favorite as well as a reliable go-to for Universal. Lugosi didn’t get the credit for his performances as Ygor in both Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein but his portrayal of that character should stand among the best in Universal’s horror cannon. Offering The Monster to Bela Lugosi would allow the actor to play the character he’d turned down in 1931, the role that had made Karloff a legend and that had – perhaps – been the worst decision Lugosi ever made in his career. So, when the Monster was placed before him Lugosi accepted, a nice touch given his brain had been put into the monster’s head in the previous movie. What’s unfortunate about the decision is that Lugosi’s depiction of the Monster – for my money – turns out to be rather clumsy. We’d learned at the end of the previous movie that Ygor’s blood had been incompatible with the Monster’s causing the creature to be rendered completely blind following the replacement of the brain. The Monster’s blindness was supposed to be central to the creature’s characterization in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but because the dialogue was removed due to Lugosi’s heavy accent there’s no mention of it at all. I’m assuming that the blind factor is part of the reason why the creature’s physicality makes him seem little more than a lumbering brute – the walking stiffly with arms outstretched that would result – ironically – in the stereotypical depiction of the Monster, the one that would be imitated in all media from then on, rather than Karloff’s acclaimed nuanced, touching portrayal. If there’s one disappointment in this movie it’s that. I really wish a bit more attention had been paid to the Monster in this outing so that real drama had been made a part of the character to match the Talbot storyline. But that wasn’t to be. Lugosi is fun to watch in anything and his legend is secure with fans of classic horror. But if you’re going for art in comparison to Karloff’s outing as the Monster you will be disappointed with the Monster here. In truth, it’s not unlike watching Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein and the bottom line for me may well be that Karloff’s portrayal is so memorable that no one else could quite fit the bill.
As for The Wolf Man – the last time we’d seen Lawrence Talbot was at the end of George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941). Larry had been tragically bludgeoned to death by Sir John Talbot – his own father. The full moon had worked its magic on Larry Talbot changing him into the beast and thinking he’s killing an indiscriminate monster Sir John watches in horror as his son transforms from monster back to man right before his very eyes. Larry and Sir John, who died from heartbreak two years after his son, are interred in the Talbot family crypt, a final resting place which proves none too final four years later.
As Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man begins grave robbers break into the Talbot crypt to steal valuables from the dead. Unlucky for them they break in on the night of the full moon and when one of them removes the wolfsbane that has been placed over Larry Talbot’s body the Wolf Man comes back to life and kills one of them. This is the opening my friend Rob is crazy about and with good reason. For my money it’s among the scariest scenes in all of Universal’s horror movies. Not that I feel bad for the two idiots who broke into the crypt. Not only were they familiar with Larry Talbot’s story reciting the wolfsbane poem as they pick up the plant from the grave, but they also go in to the crypt on the night of a full moon. Add to that this fact – Tom Stevenson plays the grave robber who is killed by the Wolf Man in this scene after having played the gravedigger who is killed by the Wolf Man in the 1941 movie. He should have known better don’t ya think? Also, if you make a living in a job that begins with “grave” you’re the Universal classics equivalent of the people who wear red shirts on “Star Trek” and should expect to die.
Anyway – so poor Larry Talbot is now alive again destined to live with the awful lycanthrope curse. After leaving the crypt Larry’s hospitalized where he tries in vain to convince the doctors he turns into a wolf man and therefore should be killed. Desperate to find a cure Larry escapes from the hospital in search of the only person who will believe him, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the gypsy woman who knows the curse all too well since her son Bela (Bela Lugosi) was afflicted. It was Bela who passed the curse onto Larry four years earlier. Maleva agrees to help Larry and together they set off to find information left behind by one Dr. Frankenstein in his scientific journals in hopes his secrets of life and death explain how Larry can end his suffering for good.
When Larry and Maleva arrive in Vasaria they find the angry townspeople still reeling from the effects of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. They also find the ruins Frankenstein’s castle. Trying to escape the angry crowd Larry as the Wolf Man falls into the belly of the castle where he finds the Monster encased in ice.
Larry frees the creation and together they search the castle for the Dr.’s notes, which they find thanks to the Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey), the Dr.’s daughter. Meanwhile Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles) who treated Larry in the hospital has also made it to Vasaria. Mannering has been following Larry in hopes of taking him back to a mental hospital, but the Dr. is immediately sucked in to the fray upon reading Dr. Frankenstein’s notes. Instead of killing off the Monster for good as the Baroness asks, Mannering is (naturally) seduced by the possibility of creating life and decides to revitalize the Monster while also helping Larry Talbot. With both the Monster and Larry on slabs in the laboratory Mannering proceeds to add juice to the Monster, but while he’s doing so the full moon rises and the Wolf Man reappears. A battle ensues between the two legendary monsters who are eventually stopped by the explosion of a damn that washes them away with what’s left of Frankenstein’s castle.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man began Universal’s monster mash-ups and is the best of the lot thanks in large part to Lon Chaney’s performance as the long-suffering Larry Talbot, the role that made him a bona fide star and that he was born to play. Chaney adds real pathos to his performance here making the first half of the picture during which he searches for Maleva and later Dr. Frankenstein a true sentimental journey, which is lost in the second half after they reach Frankenstein’s castle and the monster shenanigans begin in earnest.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is the second of six times Lon Chaney, Jr. played the wolf man. As was mentioned he began this journey with the 1941 movie and later recreated the character in House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Chaney also reprised the role, sort of, in a 1962 episode of Route 66 in which he appeared with fellow classic horror legends, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. In that episode, by the way, Chaney plays the only one of the three horror legends who’s still working in the industry and gets to disguise himself in a number of different monster costumes, the wolf man being one of them. By the way, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man features two terrific Wolf Man transformation scenes.
Aside from the two legendary monsters who face-off in Frankenstein Meet the Wolf Man the picture features several familiar Universal monster staples like Lionel Atwill who always adds class to the proceedings. In this turn Atwill plays the mayor of Vasaria. You can also catch Dwight Frye playing townsperson Rudi. Go here for the complete cast and crew list.
It’s no wonder that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man makes fans of Rob Medaska III and others to this day. While it has its faults the meeting of the two movie icons in one picture is still thrilling when mash-ups of classic heroes and the like seem like everyday occurrences. In fact Universal is getting ready to reboot its slate of monsters. While it makes me a bit nervous to think about it I’m likely to go see them and hope the reboots honor the originals. There’s something special about these classic Universal movies where even the lesser ones offer endless entertainment. Part of the fun is in the knowing the history of the characters, part is due to simply watching greats like Lugosi giving an icon an earnest try and part is due to the head scratching that occurs when continuity is sent by the wayside. These Universal classics require we set aside disbelief and generations of fans are all too happy to do so.