Synopsis: In Neustadt prison, mad scientist Dr. Niemann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel are unexpectedly freed when a wall of their cell collapses during a violent thunderstorm. The two happen upon Lampini’s traveling horror show, which boasts as its main attraction the skeleton of Count Dracula. Neimann and Eric quickly murder Lampini and his driver and take their places. Niemann has been obsessed with proving the genius of Dr. Frankenstein and he sets out to the village where the Monster was created.
Niemann discovers that the skeleton of Dracula is authentic when he removes the stake that had been thrust through the vampire’s heart. The skeleton promptly transforms into the Count. Threatening to replace the stake if Dracula doesn’t do his bidding, Niemann sends the vampire out to kill the three men who had him imprisoned: Strauss, Ullman and Hussman. Dracula kills Hussman but dies before he can dispense with the hated Strauss and Ullman.
Reaching the village of Vasaria, they encounter a band of gypsies. Seeing a gypsy woman Ilonka being abused, Daniel saves her and, smitten with her, asks her to join them.
Later, examining the ruins of Frankenstein Castle, Neimann and Daniel discover the frozen bodies of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Niemann realizes that the Monster can be revived, and he plans to place the Monster’s brain in Lawrence Talbot’s body; Talbot’s brain in Strauss’ body, and Ullman’s brain in the Monster’s body. But discovering that the Ilonka has fallen in love with Lawrence Talbot, Daniel wants his own brain placed into Talbot’s body….
Comments: The House of Frankenstein is a movie about many things. It is an indictment of science without discipline, of ambition without morals, of the loss of identity in a scientific age, of the cruelty of unrequited love; and in Lawrence Talbot’s case, the lure of the thanatos, the existential knowledge that dogs us all — the knowledge that the only peace we will find in this world is in the grave….
Aw, who the hell am I kidding? It’s a Frankenstein movie, okay? There’s a wolf man! And a mad scientist! And a really lazy, ineffectual Dracula! If you’re looking for more than that, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Really, if there is any moral to be found at the heart of House of Frankenstein, it is this: everyone should be happy with their own brain. Everybody is lusting after somebody else’s brain in this movie, and it actually made me very sad.
House of Frankenstein is generally better-regarded than its predecessor Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but I’m not sure why; there are too many characters here and altogether too much going on. Dracula appears early on and is killed off too quickly and too glibly. In fact, Dracula dies before any of the other monsters are brought into the story.
For this reason the movie is often described as “episodic”, but the plot actually holds together fairly well once the Dracula subplot is (rather unceremoniously) dispensed with.
Interestingly, having Frankenstein’s monster — essentially a science-fiction element — occupy the screen with supernatural things like vampires and werewolves seemed more jarring in this movie than in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. This might be because Siodmak’s script for the earlier film introduced the Wolf Man first, and from there led Dr. Mannering to Baroness Frankenstein and the perversion of science that her family created.
But this movie gives us the science first, and Dr. Niemann (a scientist, though admittedly an unconventional one) doesn’t seem to be particularly surprised that the Dracula skeleton in Lampini’s collection is imbued with supernatural powers, or that Lawrence Talbot is really a werewolf.
The cast is generally pretty good here, with Boris Karloff showing a sinister charm as Niemann. I particularly liked his conversation with Lampini in the trailer — he imbues the character with an ironic sense of detachment, an interesting note added to a fairly straightforward mad-scientist role.
Lugosi was originally slated to reprise his Dracula role, but (in one of those little Hollywood ironies) he had committed to appear in a touring production of Arsenic and Old Lace, as Jonathan Brewster, the role originated by Boris Karloff.
This is too bad, because without Lugosi, the role goes to a surprisingly laconic John Carradine, who plays Dracula as if he were a two-bit riverboat gambler.
Lon Chaney, Jr. seems oddly distracted, as though wondering how many more of these movies he’s going to have to do (answer: not many). Ann Gwynne, as the spunky, fast-talking American gal, seems to have breezed in from a Howard Hawks picture.
J. Carrol Naish has the most interesting performance, as the tormented hunchback Daniel. How hunchbacks became a desirable accessory for mad scientists is beyond me, but in the 13 years since the original Frankenstein they are apparently a requirement. Daniel gets the most poignant story and as a result, is rewarded with the most tragic death. The truth is, all the principal characters are killed in quick succession during the last two minutes of the film, apparently in a desperate attempt to tie up loose ends. House of Frankenstein doesn’t work well, but the plot is so overloaded that, really, you’re amazed it works at all.