Frankenstein Month: 'House of Frankenstein' (1944)
The success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943 pretty much guaranteed that Frankenstein's various descendants and his monster would never again get their own movie from Universal. Like modern-day Marvel Studios, Universal became focused on the idea of ever-expanding team-ups, and the next (and essentially final) movie in the studio's Frankenstein series is a direct sequel to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, adding yet another monster to the mix. It also brings Boris Karloff back to the series, albeit not as Frankenstein's monster; instead he's playing the series' latest scientist attempting to follow in the footsteps of the original Henry Frankenstein. The film series has finally exhausted the various members of the Frankenstein family, so Karloff's Dr. Gustav Niemann is just a Frankenstein admirer, although he does claim to be related to one of Frankenstein's former assistants.
Niemann's main obsession is all about transplanting brains into different bodies, in ways that make little sense (not that it matters, since he never succeeds). He's determined to track down Henry Frankenstein's research notes, and along the way he gathers up a trio of Universal monsters. They never all team up together, though, and the movie is very oddly paced, starting with the setup of Niemann's motives and methods (he and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel escape from prison and take over a traveling spook show) before spending half an hour or so on Niemann's revival of Count Dracula (John Carradine) as a tool to take out one of his enemies. The whole Dracula storyline wraps up entirely before the movie is halfway over, and neither he nor the supporting characters related to his plot are seen again.
Niemann and Daniel then move on to the town of Frankenstein, where they revive both the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange), conveniently preserved in an ice cave following the end of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Chaney's Lawrence Talbot pretty much takes over the movie at that point, falling for a gypsy woman that Niemann and Daniel have rescued and pestering Niemann about a crackpot plan to cure his lycanthropy. Once again, Chaney brings some decent angst to his portrayal of Talbot, but the more he gets killed and resurrected, the less weight his tortured existence carries. Karloff is the real star here, making Niemann sophisticated and menacing, and bringing some elegance to the cheesy dialogue.
Director Erle C. Kenton returns from The Ghost of Frankenstein, and this movie matches that film's sloppiness and rushed plotting. It does at least pay some attention to continuity, mentioning the way that the previous movie ended, but that's a fairly perfunctory way to move on to what really matters, getting the monsters back into circulation. Despite Frankenstein's research providing the entire motivation for the plot, his monster doesn't really do much; even after being discovered, the monster sits inert on a slab until the very end, when he rouses himself to attack Niemann and fend off the requisite angry villagers. What was once a potentially complex character has been reduced to a plot device.