A freak accident allows Dr Niemann, a follower of Dr Frankenstein, to escape from prison along with his hunchback assistant. Killing and then assuming the place of the owner of a chamber of horrors sideshow, Niemann is shocked to realise that the exhibit contains the skeleton remains of Count Dracula. Reviving Dracula to kill those who imprisoned him in the first place, Niemann then discovers the frozen bodies of the Wolfman, Larry Talbot, and the Frankenstein monster. Promising Talbot he would rid him of his curse if he helped him find Frankenstein’s notes and continue his work, it isn’t long before Niemann encounters problems with his old enemies.
House of Frankenstein was the penultimate Universal monster mash (not including the comedy romp with Abbott and Costello in 1948) and it’s clear to see that the studio was running out of steam with their respective franchises. Pitting two of them off against each other in the previous entry Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the studio beat the Marvel Cinematic Universe bandwagon by decades by acknowledging that two or more of their famous characters inhabited the same universe. The film worked well to combine the two monsters and it was a success so it was inevitable that Universal would continue the trend, adding further monsters to the mix. In doing so, they’ve watered down the formula and, far from being a battle royal of epic proportions featuring the pillars of the horror genre, House of Frankenstein turns into something of an epic mess.
The three classic monsters have all seen far better days and it’s a shame to see how shabby they are treated here. Dracula has become a stereotype of himself, all cape-wearing, wide-eyed, hypnotic and well-mannered rather than a ravenous, hissing sexual monster. The Frankenstein monster, far from the pitiful, pathetic creature of the original Frankenstein, is now just a lumbering brute who walks with his hands stretched out in front of him. The Wolf Man comes out the best but that’s purely because it’s the same actor, Lon Chaney Jr, portraying him and so there’s at least a sense of cohesion between the films. His character hasn’t shown any progression though and is still in the same self-pitying, tormented position as he was in The Wolf Man years earlier. The poor chap just can’t catch a break and desperately falls in with the dangerous Niemann who provides him with false promises.
The main problem with House of Frankenstein isn’t the portrayal of the monsters, it’s that although the film advertises the plot to feature all of the famous monsters going at each other at the same time, the reality is very different and the film is almost split into episodes dealing with the individual monsters. Dracula is first up and his standalone appearance in the first twenty minutes means that he doesn’t interact with either the Wolf Man or Frankenstein monster. The second part of the film focuses on Niemann’s efforts to deal with the Wolf Man and Frankenstein monster. The Wolf Man is the main focus here and then the monster finally comes into play in the final ten minutes or so. It’s all a very disjointed narrative and something which clearly shows the desperation to which the writers tried to crowbar every monster into the film.
At seventy minutes, the film isn’t overly long and so needs every moment that it can to give the monsters enough time to make an impression. But even with this length, the film does feel like gross padding on many occasions and the split narrative really doesn’t help. Thankfully Boris Karloff’s Niemann does anchor the film and he’s the central component to which the monsters rotate around. Karloff, returning to the series after previously portraying the monster, is in malicious form as the well-mannered but clearly insane doctor. He runs away with the film and his performance certainly adds an extra relish to proceedings.
Either of the separate stories could have filled the entire film and it wouldn’t have made much difference. What we do get with House of Frankenstein is a muddled effort where you get a little taster of each of the monsters, not enough to really spoil them too much, and end up wanting more of them. It’s brisk entertainment, not the best or worst of Universal’s horror films, but definitely one of a defining era of team-ups which would set the benchmark for Toho and Godzilla and Marvel and it’s superheroes in years to come.