Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man' (1943)

I had the chance to see Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man at the TCM Classic Film Festival earlier this year, with film archivist Michael Schlesinger introducing the screening and providing some valuable context for what is, at best, an entertainingly bad movie. Schlesinger expressed his unabashed love for the movie (which I can't say that I share), and he also offered some behind-the-scenes details that explain some of the more glaring shortcomings (but certainly not all of them). The first-ever Universal monster team-up film, which spawned a hugely popular trend, apparently started as a joke by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, but just as studios do today, Universal saw a money-making opportunity and jumped on it. Thus the plot strains to bring the two main characters together, and really provides little of the monster-on-monster action promised by the title.

The main problem is the movie's portrayal of the monster, here played by Bela Lugosi, which was apparently radically altered in post-production. Ostensibly, this movie is a sequel both to 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein and 1941's The Wolf Man, but in practice it's mainly just a sequel to The Wolf Man with Frankenstein's monster awkwardly tacked on. Still, the original cut supposedly featured a lot more of Lugosi's performance, with the monster delivering extensive dialogue in keeping with its status quo at the end of Ghost (in which the brain of Ygor, played by Lugosi, was transplanted into the monster). When test audiences reacted poorly to the sound of Lugosi's voice, the producers cut all of the monster's lines, as well as any reference to the idea that the monster went blind at the end of the previous movie.

The result is a laughably inept depiction of the monster, who shambles around with the stiff-armed gait that has become shorthand for the character, and who speaks only in the occasional groan. Lugosi, who was in his 60s when the movie was made, is even replaced by stunt doubles and stand-ins much of the time. The reduction of the monster's presence makes the movie even more lopsided, since it's essentially just a Wolf Man story for the first 40 minutes until the monster finally appears. The main plot is about the resurrection of werewolf Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., who happened to also play the monster in Ghost), brought back to life four years after his apparent death and again tormented by his tendency to turn into a raging beast during the full moon. He's convinced that the late Henry Frankenstein (or perhaps one of his sons; it's not entirely clear) had some knowledge that would allow him to end his seemingly immortal existence, and so he seeks out the assistance of Henry's granddaughter Elsa (Ilona Massey, replacing Evelyn Ankers), daughter of Ludwig Frankenstein from Ghost.

Chaney brings some effective angst to his performance as Talbot, but the rather bleak quest for the sweet release of death is undermined by all the goofy, poorly constructed antics with the monster, and Elsa is a pretty poor replacement for her various Frankenstein forbears. As always, the monster and Frankenstein's lab are revived with ridiculous ease, only to be destroyed again in an absurdly abrupt ending. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays like exactly what it is, a hastily conceived cash-grab put into production to capitalize on two of the studio's most popular characters, and then butchered in editing. Michael Schlesinger and others who saw this movie on late-night TV as kids may have some nostalgic affection for it, but watching it in a pristine new 4K restoration on the big screen, I mostly found it baffling and moronic.

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