Saturday, January 23, 1971: House of Frankenstein (1946) / The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

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: Almost exactly thirty minutes after House of Frankenstein begins, the movie abruptly ends.

Well, sort of. Dr. Niemann and his assistant Daniel realize that the authorities who are pursuing them don’t really want Lampini’s carriage, which they’ve stolen. Nope, they are after Count Dracula, whom Niemann has sworn to protect. So Niemann jettisons Dracula and his coffin from the carriage. The count is caught out in the open, and can’t climb inside his downed coffin quickly enough (morning comes quickly in the Carpathian mountains, you know) and he is destroyed by sunlight.

At that moment, Dracula’s ring falls off the finger of young Rita Hussman, and she and her husband hold each other close and stare off into the distance together. The music swells, we see a shot of Lampini’s carriage winding away into the distance, and we fade to black.

A moment later we fade in to find Lampini’s carriage rolling along toward that hard-luck village of Vasaria. It is here that we’ll meet the gypsy girl Ilonka and return again to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. But it is this first, false ending that gives us the strange feeling that we’re seeing a “compilation film”, that is, a film cobbled together from episodes of an old TV series.

It would have been amusing if that were true — a movie assembled, Frankenstein-style, from the corpses of other movies.

Truth is, House of Frankenstein would have made a pretty interesting TV series – each week Niemann and Daniel would travel to a different Carpathian village, meeting up with a new monster every week. Niemann, besides wanting revenge on Ullman, Hussman and Strauss, would always be looking for an opportunity to replicate Dr. Frankenstein’s research; meanwhile, Daniel wants love, and / or a new body. Each week they would come thiiiis close to success but it would always elude them. Sort of Wagon Train meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

I would have made one hell of a TV executive.

Unfortunately, it’s supposed to be a movie, no matter how much my mind keeps trying to twist it into a TV show. So we have to judge it on that basis, and on that basis it doesn’t work very well. I generally dislike the Universal monster rallies, and this one is probably the most disagreeable of them all.

The Invisible Man Returns

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.
Geoffrey’s cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey’s fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb’s last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.


Shortly after Griffin’s visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family’s coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother’s work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners’s dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug — knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane….

Comments: The Invisible Man Returns is so much better than House of Frankenstein that I spent some time wondering why it turned up as the second feature on Horror Incorporated, and not the first.

It seems pretty obvious that, on a creature feature, you want to present your best picture first, because your peak audience will be with you at the start of the show, slowly draining away as the night wears on.

Of course when these movies were first released in theaters, the opposite was true: the less desirable “B” picture was seen first, forcing the audience to stick around for the “A” picture at the end.

This had been the rule since the dawn of the talkies and it continued until 1948, when two earthshaking events conspired to end the era of the theatrical double bill.

The first was the landmark Supreme Court decision United States V. Paramount Pictures, which essentially decided that the vertically-integrated movie industry held too much control over its distribution channels. Direct studio ownership of theater chains was outlawed as a result, and so was “block booking” — the practice of forcing theaters to book a movie they didn’t want in order to get a movie they did. Block booking was not only how most “B” pictures got into theaters, it was to a large extent their raison d’etre. United States V. Paramount was also designed to prevent studios from discriminating against independently-owned cinemas.

Of course, the decision didn’t do much to solve the problems the Court thought it was solving at the time (today, block booking still happens, though not as blatantly as it once did; theaters are owned by giant chains that are all in bed with the studios; and independent cinemas are still discriminated against by the studios). But the decision was at least partially responsible for the unraveling of the vertically-integrated studio system.

I say partially because the second earthshaking event was happening right around the same time. This, of course, was the advent of television. After decades of experimentation, a national technological standard for TV broadcasts was established in 1941. World War II froze the planned rollout of television and it wasn’t until 1947 that sets were being manufactured and purchased in significant numbers.

The existence of this giant new entertainment pipeline forced the film industry to become more efficient; double bills were one of the first casualties (for the next couple of decades, some small producers like AIP were able to continue offering double features for distribution, but only because they could make two movies for a lower price than the major studios could make one.

Which brings us right around again to the late 1950s, the Shock! package and the advent of the late night creature feature.

The Invisible Man Returns stands up very well today; this is partly due to the intelligent, suspenseful script, and partly due to an extraordinarily talented cast and the sure hand of veteran director Joe May, a grouchy German expat who gave Fritz Lang his start in the business. May wasn’t well-liked by the casts he worked with, but you can’t argue with his results — this is a great little film.

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5 comments

  1. I look at the Universal Frankensteins with unconditional love, no different from when I was a child, when you dared not miss a broadcast because you never knew when it might show again. John Carradine's Dracula is good, but lacked Lugosi's otherworldly presence and was completely devoid of menace (at least Lon Chaney's Count was physically imposing). Only three Draculas until 1958, with Francis Lederer (THE RETURN OF DRACULA) and of course, Sir Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA). Joe May did other above par efforts for Universal, THE HOUSE OF FEAR and THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, but he was slow and costly, and once he and Rowland V. Lee departed, the studio rarely deviated from its 'B' movie horror budgets. I'll still take Universal over Monogram or PRC any day.

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  2. Well, of course you're right about the relative quality of Universal vs. poverty row studios. And maybe I'm being a bit hard on the Universal monster rallies.

    As you pointed out, we didn't take these movies for granted back in the day; back then it was necessary to scour the TV listings for a movie we wanted to see, then make a point to show up in front of the boob tube at the appointed hour. Still, there's something about House of Frankenstein that doesn't sit well with me; I suspect my problem is less the individual elements than the way they're assembled. Still, some moments — like the escape from Neustadt prison, or the tragic deaths of the remaining principals at the end — are really quite thrilling.

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  3. Basically, what you're saying is that it's the script that gives you problems. Director Erle C. Kenton would never be called a stylist, but his other horrors, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and HOUSE OF DRACULA, are all fast moving, solid entertainment. And HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN features perhaps the finest single cast of any of the studio's wartime frightfests. What rabid young fan of the famous SHOCK! package would dare pass up a film with both Karloff and Chaney, even with a new Count Dracula in John Carradine (who borrowed the director's name for his character in 1980's THE HOWLING, helmed by lifelong horror buff Joe Dante).

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  4. Ah. Well, I'll agree that screenplay is the usual culprit when these pictures go wrong, with low budgets and / or rushed shooting schedules making up the balance. Even the most unassuming directors of Universal horror films of this era — Jean Yarbrough for example, or Lambert Hillyer — were competent craftsmen.

    I consider craftsmanship to be a virtue, by the way. Craftsmanship was the great strength of the studio system– I would never insult any of the directors of these films by accusing them of being artists. An artist makes nine duds in a row, then produces a masterpiece. That's nice, but you can't run a film factory that way.

    Working with bread-and-butter actors in horror films gave the directors a distinct advantage: they didn't have the headaches caused by A-list actors and their titanic egos and the petty demands that went with them. Jack Arnold, for instance, seemed utterly intimidated by Orson Welles in MAN IN THE SHADOW and didn't have the nerve to tell him, no, you can't write your own dialogue. Not that I would tell Orson Welles that he couldn't write his own dialogue. But you get the idea.

    BTW Joe Dante borrowed a few director's names, didn't he? George Waggner's name was one, but it's been a while since I've seen it.

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  5. George Waggner was the name of Patrick Macnee's psychiatrist character in THE HOWLING. Others included Roy William Neill (Christopher Stone), Terence Fisher (Belinda Balaski), Freddie Francis (Kevin McCarthy), Sam Newfield (Slim Pickens), Charles T. Barton (Noble Willingham), Jerry Warren (James Murtaugh), and Lew Landers (Jim McKrell). I went to see it when it came out in May 1981, just a few weeks before I met John Carradine. Curious that you should mention MAN IN THE SHADOW, because we were expecting a British title with Faith Domergue, and wound up viewing this forgotten Jack Arnold Western. None of Arnold's 'important' assignments for Universal are remembered as fondly as his genre output. I even liked MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, a definite comedown after the classic THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. MCA purchased Universal in 1962, so nothing would ever be the same, but what a wonderful 3 decades horror fans got!

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