Saturday, September 28, 1973: The Invisible Man Returns (1940) / House of Frankenstein (1944)

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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.

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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….

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Comments: Universal got a lot of mileage out of its various horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy each kicked out a number of profitable sequels. The Invisible Man didn’t prove to be quite as durable.  Tonight’s movie, The Invisible Man Returns, was the first and really the only decent follow-up.  The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were all misfires of one kind or another.

The problem seems to be that once the protagonists turn invisible, their story options narrow considerably; the plot can either focus on the invisible protagonist’s hijinks (creeping around like a ghost, listening in on private conversations, or smashing things like a poltergeist), or on the authorities’ efforts to locate and detain their quarry.

But hunting an invisible man can remain suspenseful for only so long.  And the poltergeist route, as we’ve seen, gets tiresome rather quickly — particularly in Invisible Agent, where the thick-headed hero succeeds not because he’s clever, or even because he’s invisible, but because the Nazis he’s fighting are an uncommonly dim-witted and cowardly bunch.

That The Invisible Man Returns succeeds at all is largely due to its brisk pace and clever screenplay, which relies less on the invisibility gimmick than it does on a simple mystery story: who framed Geoffrey Radcliffe, and why?

John Sutton’s Frank Griffin connects us to the events of the first film, but Sutton himself is secondary to the action.  Nan Grey gets a good deal more to do than most female leads of the time (certainly more than the dismal Gloria Stuart in the first film) and her performance is uncommonly intelligent, as we see her constantly trying to suss out Geoffrey’s erratic mental state. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who famously disliked appearing in genre pictures, is nevertheless splendid here. His Richard Cobbe is a smooth and reassuring presence throughout the early part of the picture; we trust him implicitly, and when his betrayal becomes clear it adds enormous impact to the final act.

Watching Vincent Price in this film makes me empathize with casting directors in the early 1940s.  It was clear that Price was an uncommon talent, yet finding the right roles for him must have been extraordinarily difficult.  He clearly wasn’t cut out to be a romantic lead, yet he was in some ways too warm and sympathetic to play a conventional bad guy. Early in his career he was often cast as a character who seemed pleasant on the surface, but who proved to be hiding a sinister agenda (we’re clearly supposed to wonder which way he would fall in The Invisible Man Returns, and both Laura (1944) and Shock (1946) make exquisite use of Price’s outwardly charming yet vaguely unsettling demeanor).  In time this dilemma would be addressed by constructing the sort of hybrid character that Price specialized in playing: the grimly amused owner of an existential spookhouse, the same sort of character that Lugosi tried unsuccessfully to play in The Raven–  and one can only imagine the sinister delight that Price would have brought to that role.

House of Frankenstein

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: 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 —Niemann has 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 supposedly had committed to appear in a touring production of Arsenic and Old Lace, as Jonathan Brewster, the role originated by Boris Karloff.

I’m not sure I believe that story. Universal never had much regard for Lugosi, and the studio seemed eager to put almost any other actor in the Dracula cape, no matter how unsuited they were to the part. As a result, 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, and 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.

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