Saturday, April 10, 1971: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) / She-Wolf of London (1946)

Synopsis: Two grave-robbers enter the family crypt of the wealthy Talbot family, looking for an expensive watch and ring left on the body of young Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the titular Wolf Man. As the full Moon peeks through the windows, the thieves are puzzled to find Talbot’s body covered with wolfsbane. They clear it off and begin searching for the ring. Suddenly, a hand reaches up from the coffin to grab one of the unfortunate thieves….

Later, a Cardiff policeman finds a man lying unconscious on the street in the dead of night, the apparent victim of an assault. At the hospital the next day, Dr. Mannering is shocked to discover that his patient — on whom he had just operated hours earlier — is now conscious and talking. The man says he is Lawrence Talbot and does not know how he came to be in Cardiff. Checking Talbot’s story, the police discover that Lawrence died four years earlier.

That night, the full Moon rises over the hospital, and Lawrence changes into a werewolf. He takes to the streets of Cardiff, attacking a policeman. The next morning, Talbot declares that he committed a murder during the night and asks for the police. Thinking the man has lost his marbles, Dr. Mannering has him put in a straitjacket. He then goes with the local chief of police to the Talbot family crypt, trying to determine if the man in his hospital room is really Talbot; sure enough, they find the coffin empty.

When he returns to Cardiff he finds that Talbot has somehow shredded the straitjacket with his teeth and escaped.


After a long search Talbot finally catches up with the Gypsy camp of Maleva. Talbot knows that death is the only way he can be free of the curse, but Maleva tells him the only chance he has to die is to visit the guy who has harnessed the powers of life and death: the notorious Dr. Frankenstein.

The two travel by horse-drawn wagon to Vasaria, the hometown of Dr. Frankenstein.
Disappointed to find that Dr. Frankenstein is long dead, Talbot and Maleva decide to look around the ruins of the castle in hopes of finding Dr. Frankenstein’s diary, which purportedly holds “the secrets of life and death”.

Alas, a full Moon rises (again), Talbot turns into the Wolf Man (again), wreaks a good deal of havoc, falls through an opening near the castle and awakens (as Talbot again) in an icy underground chamber adjacent to the castle, where he finds Frankenstein’s monster, frozen like a TV dinner….

Comments:  By modern standards, the horror films of the 1940s unfolded at what we might call a leisurely pace.  Audiences had long been trained to expect movies to build slowly, with the big action set-pieces saved until the finale.*  This was true even in best-known pictures of the time, including 1941’s The Wolf Man.  

To its great credit,  Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man leaps out of the gate with admirable speed.  The movie begins at the cemetery in Lanwelly, with two thieves breaking into the Talbot family crypt to steal the gold ring and money known to be on the body of the late Lawrence Talbot.  “It’s a sin to bury money,” reasons one of the thieves nervously, “when it can help people.”

He asks his partner in crime what they will find inside the coffin.  “Just bones,” the older thief assures him, “and an empty skull”.  But that isn’t what they find.  Beneath a layer of wolfsbane is young Talbot, his body perfectly preserved — and now the light of the full Moon is shining through the windows onto his face.

For some reason this doesn’t strike the thieves as odd, and they work to pull the gold ring off Larry Talbot’s finger.  But the brains of the outfit is more than a little surprised when Talbot’s hand seizes his wrist, and he screams to his compatriot for help.  But the other thief panics and runs for his life.

The scene shifts to Cardiff, where a cop walking the beat finds a man sprawled on the pavement.  Thinking it’s a drunk, the cop tries to rouse him, but when he shines his flashlight on the man’s face he sees an ugly cut on the guy’s forehead.

This scene leads directly to St. Mary’s Hospital, where the injured man claims to be the late Lawrence Talbot.  The mystery of who he is and how he came to be in Cardiff then propels the movie forward until the next full Moon, when the usual lycanthopic hijinks ensue.  The events that propel the plot forward are much stronger than those in The Wolf Man or indeed any of the Universal horror films of the era**

Curt Siodmak’s screenplay is expertly paced and in spite of some glaring plot holes (why would Dr. Mannering follow Talbot all the way to Vasaria?) it’s really one of the best horror scripts of the 1940s.  Siodmak, who was by all accounts a crass and hackish sort of fellow, did remarkably good work during this period of his career.  Perhaps his personal best was the 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain, which was adapted as a radio play and, a decade later, as a well-regarded film.  Unfortunately, Siodmak would  essentially recycle the same story for the rest of his career.

She-Wolf of London

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the “Allenby Curse”.

Meanwhile, Phyllis’ cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless.  She reveals something that no one else seems to know — that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby.  Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades,  and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything — if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only other person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it’s all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.
Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry.  But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis’ guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London….

Comments: When I was seven years old I made the mistake of asking my father to tell me a ghost story.  Dad had been trained as a biologist and didn’t think much of ghost stories.  To him the natural world was marvelous enough; it did not need to be artificially sweetened with ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and other assorted monsters.  Nevertheless, he gave it a try.


The ghost story he told me was about a boy, much like me, who accepted a dare from his friends to enter a spooky old house that was said to be haunted.   Creeping into the house, the boy saw a rocking chair move back and forth by itself.  He heard evil cackles that seemed to come from all around him. He heard the wooden steps creak as though some invisible creature were treading up and down the staircase.

But the boy was not frightened of these things, because he was lucky enough to have a father who’d been trained as a biologist.   Using his reason and intellect, as his father had taught him, the boy discovered that the owner of the house was trying to keep nosy kids away by employing simple tricks: the rocking chair was made to move by a thin wire attached to an electric motor; the steps were made to creak by small hydraulic presses under the staircase, and the evil laughter was recorded and amplified through the house by tiny speakers that were hidden from view.


I felt a bit cheated by this story, but in time I learned this was a venerable brand of storytelling, the “explained-away” horror tale.  Conventional horror stories are about the loss of control, the weakness of reason in the face of the terrifying and the inexplicable.  In contrast, explained-away tales are meant to reassure.  They allow you a brief thrill of fear that is fully dissipated by the end, so that you can laugh and say, now wasn’t that silly?  There wasn’t anything to be afraid of after all.  Such stories insist that the rational mind can conquer anything, and the only thing to fear is — quite literally — fear itself.

As Liz Kingsley has pointed out, in the early days of cinema horror films routinely utilized explained-away endings.  In fact it was Universal’s string of horror hits in the early 1930s — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, et al — that changed that forever.  It’s easy to think of those early Universal efforts as tame, but they weren’t seen that way at the time.  Frankenstein in particular was regarded as so gruesome that some municipalities wouldn’t allow it to be shown without extensive (unauthorized) cuts.  

But such efforts at censorship were bound to fail, because once a door is opened, it’s very difficult to close it again. It quickly became clear that audiences didn’t want to be reassured.  They wanted to be scared. They wanted the full monty, metaphorically speaking, and as long as audiences were willing to pay, the studios were determined to give it to them.

So it is somewhat ironic that She-Wolf of London, coming as it did at the end of Universal’s golden age of horror films, resorted to an explained-away ending essentially for the sake of novelty.***  And that novelty was urgently needed, too, because the public’s appetite for horror films had dwindled considerably by 1946.  The lavish productions of the 1930s had long since gone by the boards, and even the low-budget horror films weren’t as profitable as they had been.  She-Wolf of London would have been ample evidence — for anyone looking for such evidence at the time — that Universal had pretty much given up on the horror game.

After all, in spite of its horror-film trappings, it ultimately tries to be the sort of psychological thriller that was then in vogue.  But She-Wolf of London simply doesn’t exude the tense and mysterious atmosphere of Gaslight or Cat People.   It is altogether too glib and too rushed.  Its stars are too lightweight to convey the subtext that’s always present in a psychological thriller (interestingly, in interviews June Lockhart has expressed pride in the convincing British accent she brought to her character, but no such accent is evident when watching the film).  Don Porter, whom we’ve seen in Night Monster, is far too bland to engage our interest.  


Dwight Babcock supplied the story; he was capable of better, having already received story credit for the superior House of Horrors, which had been released only a couple of months earlier.  Jean Yarbrough, who directed that artist-gone-wrong film, directed this one as well.  Apparently, the only attempt he made to convey psychological menace was to occasionally tilt the camera.  That was as artsy as he got.



______________________
*In the summer of 1977 I saw the movie Star Wars at the Mann Theater on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.  I came in a few minutes late and was surprised to walk in on an epic firefight between the rebels and the Imperial forces on board Princess Leia’s ship.  Because the unwritten rules of cinema heretofore dictated that the most exciting bits were saved for last, I assumed that this had to be the end of the movie, not the beginning.    It’s difficult today to overstate the impact Star Wars had back then: to kids my age, it was as though we’d never seen a movie before; and indeed the rules of genre cinema were being re-written before our very eyes.

**With the possible exception of the lucky prison beak the starts House of Frankenstein – though the narrative tension isn’t sustained nearly as well in that opus.


***Curt Siodmak, who had made a good living writing straight-up horror films, went this route in the 1956 thriller Curucu, Beast of the Amazon

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One comment

  1. More popular than the original WOLF MAN, especially in later television showings, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is nearly perfect for the first half, only bogging down during a second half under studio-imposed interference. Judging by the original script, Curt Siodmak's dialogue for Bela Lugosi's Monster is downright ludicrous, perhaps reflecting the disdain he felt for the actor. Only after shooting was completed was it decided to delete all references to The Monster's blindness, but we still get Lugosi's triumphant smile at the very end, realizing that Mannering has restored him to full strength. Lon Chaney's Wolf Man has his finest showcase. SHE-WOLF OF LONDON has never received much praise over the years, and likely never will, a plot already done to death well before 1946 (and reused yet again for 1957's DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL). There is a little fog laden atmosphere, investigator Lloyd Corrigan is a surprising victim, Laurel and Hardy nemesis James Finlayson plays a bobby, and Martin Kosleck gets to play a good guy for a change, in a criminally small role.

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