The Universal “Monster mash” movies of the 1940s

4 May, 2009

Monster mash (AKA Monster rally): an entertainment exploiting the appearance of two or more popular horror monsters; especially the films produced by Universal Studios in the 1940s, all of which included an appearance by Frankenstein’s Monster.

The 1930s saw the first talking horror pictures, which came chiefly from Universal Studios. These films were also notable because a scientific explanation, with which silent Hollywood horrors had typically concluded, was now excluded in favour of a supernatural aura previously unknown in mainstream American cinema.

The first of these films was Dracula (1931), which, being hugely successful, was shortly followed by Frankenstein in the same year, and The Mummy in the year after. This initial trilogy saw a burst of low budget successors from other studios, but none had the impact of these three. Universal produced other horrors too, including Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, but did not attempt to capitalise on its prime properties until 1935, when James Whale was convinced to direct a sequel to Frankenstein, his Bride of Frankenstein.

Bride showed that a sequel recalling previously known characters could be a commercial success (this had been known in the theatre for years, but apparently the lesson had not transferred to the screen). Bride also showed, importantly, that a horror film could be fun. Fun is perhaps the chief differentiating characteristic of this sequel, as embodied in the arch observations of Dr Thessinger, the Monster’s picaresque adventures through the countryside, and, perhaps most of all, a rollicking tone which could only originate from the director’s shear joy at letting loose, cinematically, thematically and dramatically.

The success of Bride of Frankenstein saw sequels also produced for Dracula and The Mummy, plus a couple of new properties, The Invisible Man (1933)and The Wolf Man (1941). Most of these sequels were not only inferior to their forebears, but mediocre in general cinematic terms. Dracula’s Daughter (1936) had a terrific star in Gloria Holden, but was otherwise a shabby “B” picture, let down most of all by its wooden male lead, Otto Kruger. Son of Dracula (1943) was a relatively lavish successor, which was successful in its Southern Gothic atmosphere, but let down by its cast, especially Lon Chaney Jr. as the eponymous Count “Alucard” – he seemed more sad than sinister, and this weak threat made for a poor protagonist. The best performance here was from male lead Robert Paige, who starts out unpromisingly as a conventional juvenile lead, but becomes more convincing as his circumstances begin to straiten.

Lon Chaney Junior was the weak link in a number of Universal horror films, beginning with the title role of The Wolf Man, and following this with roles including Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy. Resting his career entirely on his famous father’s name, he brought little to his roles except a strangely flabby face and an acting range limited to a constant hangdog expression, which passed for gravitas chiefly in the role of the accursed Wolf Man, which was his best part.

On the other hand, the 1940s Universal horrors show Bela Lugosi in a couple of his best performances preserved on film, as the jovial psychopath Igor. This character appears first in Son of Frankenstein (1939), which may have claim to be called the first of Universal’s “monster mashes”, seeing as it is the first horror film to feature several of the archetypal monsters, or at least grotesque characters brought to life by actors notably associated with horror (trailers from the height of the monster mash frenzy tried to bump up their monster count by enumerating generic types such as “the mad scientist!” and “the hunchback!”).

In this film, Lugosi defies critics who call him a clown with little acting ability. In the few film opportunities he had to demonstrate his range, he impresses as, variously, the aristocratic Count Dracula, the leering, jeering Igor, and the obsequious cabby in The Bodysnatcher. What Lugosi lacked was not so much acting ability as a good agent, since, despite his accent, he could have done well filling roles as diverse as Earthy Peasant, Herr Professor (AKA the explainer), and various types of Foreigner, instead of the badly written villain roles in the series of “poverty row” pictures that doomed his reputation.

Karloff is here too, of course, in his last appearance as the Monster. Sadly, after starting well, this film drags heavily in the second half, chiefly when the Monster is on screen. Karloff complained of having little dramatically to do in this film, which can indeed also be said for later incarnations of the Monster, all though not all those later films drag so much as Son. Basil Rathbone plays the Son, though mostly on one cranky note. Lionel Atwill adds to his cult notoriety as the wooden-handed, darts-playing police chief. The Monster ends up falling into a pit of sulphur beneath Frankenstein’s laboratory.

The first really successful monster mash was Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Again, the only “official” monster on site is Frankenstein’s monster, now played by Lon Chaney, who seems to find even this shop’s dummy role a stretch. However, the very “sequelitis” of the film gives it that monster mash tone – here are the same characters, again, in another variation of the old, old story, again (the Monster even befriends a little girl, in a deliberate echo of the first film, though this time she doesn’t come to such a sticky end). Bela Lugosi’s Igor appears for the second and final time, and is again the bright spot and anchor of the movie. There are solid performances by Cedric Hardwicke as the other son of Baron Frankenstein, with Lionel Atwill as his thwarted assistant, and an appearance by B-movie lead Ralph Bellamy as the juvenile lead.

The pacing of the narrative has also improved from Son, and, to be blunt, from Bride and the original as well – this new decade seems to have seen the first glimmerings of insight that films do not always have to move at a walking pace, but can rattle along like a fast-going train. At the time this was regarded as poor film-making, and mainstream cinema still tended to the deliberate and respectable. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cinema as “ride” became a mainstream phenomenon.

But the classic monster mashes, at their best, give an early glimpse of this new, effervescent character of story-telling. Ghost of Frankenstein is, along with House of Frankenstein, the most successful in this respect (both were directed by Erle C. Kenton). There may be weak spots, but we are carried over them by the enthusiastic rhythm of the piece as a whole.

Ghost concludes with Igor’s brain transplanted into the head of the Monster (following which the building explodes for some reason I don’t recall). The sequel semilogically sees Bela Lugosi now playing the Monster, while former Monster Lon Chaney returns as the lupinely challenged Laurence Talbot, AKA the Wolf Man, in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1942). Reportedly, test audiences laughed when they heard the Monster speak in Lugosi’s voice. He had of course uttered a few words at the end of Ghost, but otherwise the Monster had not articulated verbally since the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. Plus, of course, Lugosi’s Hungarian accent was by this time irrevocably associated with Dracula. As a result, Lugosi’s speaking scenes were cut entirely, except a few moments where you can see his lips moving silently. Even the Monster’s growls were dubbed by a presumably less accent-impaired actor. This is a shame, firstly because this historically unique performance has disappeared forever, and even more so because the surviving portion of the film is so woeful.

Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was directed by Roy William Neill, best known today for directing Universal’s classic Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone. Sadly, just as Rathbone belied this success by turning out to be one of Son of Frankenstein‘s weak points, so Neill revealed that without a solid cast he could not produce a creditable motion picture. The film is reasonably well made, though lacking the pace of Kenton’s Ghost, but the lead actors (beside the mute Lugosi) are uniformly wooden, making this film resemble nothing so much as a compendium of bad acting. Chaney as the Wolf Man is probably the best thing here, let down by Ilona Massey as his uninviting love interest, plus the tedious Patrick Knowles as Dr. Mannering, and (from the first Wolf Man film) Maria Ouspenskaya’s amateurish turn as the Gypsy Lady. To be fair, the way in which they deliver their lines without any apparent concern for their meaning may be due to (1) lack of diligence on director Neill’s part, used as he was to the stage-bred cast of the Holmes films, who properly prepared for their performances, and could power their way through the story on sheer charisma; and (2) what is the silliest of all the Frankestein movies in terms of plot, leading to dialog which would have been awkward in the mouths of the most capable actors. Holmes veterans Lionel Atwill and Dennis Hoey (who played Lestrade in the Holmes films) are wasted here. There is also a truly woeful song-and-dance number to suffer through. In the end, the cast are done away with by an exploding dam, which presumably also carries away the revolting population of the nearby village of Visaria. Together with the chopped-up nature of the final product, this constitutes the weakest of the monster mash movies, and is best avoided except for the sake of having viewed the complete cinematic cycle.

Luckily, things pick up again with House of Frankenstein (1944), the other high point of the monster mash films. Karloff appears (as “the mad scientist!”), assisted by J. Carroll Naish (as “the hunchback!”), and together they are the best part of the film. The film is notable for its quaint episodic structure: in the first half, our above-named “heroes” escape prison, revive the skeleton of Dracula, and send him to do their bidding, only to see him get a permanent and fatal suntan. In the second half, they recover the frozen bodies of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, revive them too, and come to a sticky end. Director Erle C. Kenton directs with rare flare – the brief scene in which Naish falls through a castle wall into an underground cave is remarkable in its assured, dynamic movement, and sophisticated use of special effect-rigged sets.

John Carradine plays Dracula (AKA Baron Latos), not much more effectively than Chaney had done, but the fast action of the story stops us worrying about that too much. The Monster is now played (mutely) by Glenn Strange, who despite the little screen time he got in the role, is possibly my favourite incarnation of this character (his resemblance to Herman Munster probably helps!). The Wolf Man is Chaney again, and he spends his time complaining about his lot, as usual. There is also a plumply attractive gypsy girl, plus cult favourite George Zucco – he shines in the role of house of horrors host Lampini, before immediately being bumped off by Naish. In the end, Karloff’s mad scientist is dragged into a swamp and submerges along with the Monster, a surprisingly powerful scene, while Naish is thrown out a high window, and Chaney is shot with a silver bullet.

Only Chaney and Carradine return for the final monster mash, House of Dracula (1945), also directed by Kenton. Dracula visits scientist Onslow Stevens (“the mad doctor!”) in his seaside castle/laboratory, to ask for a “cure” for his vampirism. The doctor is assisted by a surprising innovation: a female hunchback (Jane Adams). Soon Chaney turns up, also seeking a cure, having somehow survived a silver bullet in the last film, and then the Monster is discovered in the sea caves under the castle. This film is often derided, unfairly, I think. The plot is plainly silly, but it is certainly more enjoyable than Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and makes a decent conclusion to the series. The only real problem is the abrupt ending, when the Monster comes to life for the shortest time so far, and perishes in flames only a minute later.

So the core monster mash movies are:
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1942)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
House of Dracula (1945)
–of which best are the fourth and the second.

After these films, Universal included their monsters in a series of comedy films starring the team of Abbott and Costello, starting with Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948), starring Lugosi as the Count, Chaney as the Wolf Man, and Strange as the Monster, and devolving through Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (starring Karloff again) (1953), to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Some fans of the 1940s monster mash movies include these comedies within the oeuvre, but I am not a fan of Abbott and Costello, and I don’t consider these overt comedies to fall within the horror category.

In 1944, Bela Lugosi appeared in Return of the Vampire, playing a role which was Dracula in all but name, assisted by a werewolf companion. This film is supposed to be quite good (I haven’t seen it), and was apparently successful enough that Universal asked Columbia to cease making films that could possibly infringe on their intellectual copyright. We might consider this little-known team-up to represent one of the classic monster mash movies.

A note on the music.

While mainstream Hollywood movie music followed Korngold’s lead, in producing scores influenced largely by Richard Strauss, Wagner, and the ballets of Tchaikovsky, composers in shadowy genres like horror and film noir saw the opportunity to write music in a more contemporary style. While Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein score was still largely beholden to the Late Romantic model, the 1940s saw opportunities in this vein increase, and we hear this in the Universal horror scores by Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, etc. Most of these scores have their requisite Korngoldian romantic moments, but in fact are largely in the same family of tonal modernism as composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Hindemith and Vaughan Williams. Career film composers do not have the same opportunities for respectability, but listeners with open minds will find much gratifying music in these scores, particularly as John Morgan and William Stromberg have done so much good work reconstructing and recording these scores for the Marco Polo and Naxos record labels.

I note that the film House of Dracula has no composer credit, only a credit for musical director to one Edgar Fairchild. However, there is at least one interesting piece of “original” music here, a piano performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata that devolves (thanks to Dracula’s evil influence) into a Mephistophelean mood piece in the style of Debussy, before returning to Beethoven and then stopping abruptly. I hope some diligent person will transcribe and record this music separately at some point.

Universal horror’s little-known cousin.

I must take this opportunity to mention the little known RKO horror films of the 1940s. These were produced in response to Universal’s success in the monster genre. Responsibility was given to one Val Lewton, previously an associate of David O. Selznik, but a gifted producer and writer in his own right. In this unique deal, Lewton was given a free hand to produce the films he wanted – provided he use the lurid titles bestowed upon him by the studio publicity department. In response, Lewton produced a series of horror films notable for their intellectual subtlety, and emphasis on atmosphere over sensationalism. The two best films in this series of seven are the first two, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, both directed by Jacque Tourneur. Boris Karloff joined Lewton to star in the last three films, and in The Body Snatcher was teamed again with Bela Lugosi, who takes the rare opportunity to shine as the wheedling cabby. Any fan of early horror movies should take the opportunity to become acquainted with these little-known gems of the genre.

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