Saturday, April 26, 1975: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) / Rodan (1956)

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.

In a lot of ways, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man anticipated the sort of crossover films that are common today: the idea of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man inhabiting the same universe must have seemed quite novel at the time, especially since one character is rooted in science-fiction tropes, while the other has occult origins. But the result is quite pleasing, and it wasn’t long before all the characters in the Universal monster pantheon were thrown together — first for dramatic effect in the monster rallies, and later for more comedic purposes in the Abbot and Costello films, where the monsters fit in surprisingly well amidst the hijinks of Bud and Lou.

Rodan

Synopsis: In a Japanese coal mining town, a new mine shaft has been opened that is deeper than any before it. After the deepest part of the shaft floods, several miners go missing.  Safety inspector Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) goes down to look for the missing men, knowing that one of them is Goro, the brother of his fiancee Kyo (Yumi Shirakawa). Descending to the new opening with a search party, Shigeru and his colleagues are attacked by giant insects that have been living in the subterranean depths. After part of the mine collapses, Shigeru is cut off and trapped with the creatures. But later he is found on the surface, unable to remember how he got there; the trauma of his ordeal seems to have blocked his memory.

Soon there are reports of a supersonic object that is streaking at high altitude over nearby cities. At first called UFO by the press, it destroys any fighter jets that manage to get near it. It is only when a family on holiday mysteriously vanishes that the first clue to the object is discovered: the last photo taken in their camera captured the blurred edge of a gigantic wing.

During Shigeru’s convalescence, Kyo shows him a bird’s nest that was just outside the window. Looking at the eggs within, Shigeru’s memories come flooding back: he had been on the wrong side of the cave-in, trapped near the Volkswagen-sized insects. A massive egg in the chamber began to crack apart, and from it emerged a giant pterosaur, which ravenously devoured the loathsome bugs.

With Shigeru’s memory restored it is now clear what the flying creature is and where it came from. This is proof, Shigeru relates, that the dinosaurs were not extinct, but only dormant. The pterosaur — now called Rodan — has descended from the high altitudes it had kept to previously, and is now making low passes over Japanese cities, its huge wings and supersonic speeds causing typhoon-level damage below.

The military deploys tanks and bombers to dispatch Rodan in its temporary resting place, only to discover there are two of the creatures. Finding that all of mankind’s weaponry is useless against Rodan, the military must now face the fact that these invulnerable monsters may soon settle down and hatch out a whole clutch of similar creatures….

Comments: The first kaiju film to be shot in color, Rodan retains the high production values of the previous Godzilla films, expanding the boundaries of Toho’s cinematic universe beyond Big G himself, and making very good use of Eiji Tsubaraya’s meticulously-built miniature cityscapes. Over time, of course, kaiju films would become notorious for both cheap miniatures and atrocious dubbing, but Rodan can’t be faulted for either – it is, in every way, a meticulously-made film, possessing the slick production values that the early Japanese monster movies boasted.

Unlike Godzilla, Rodan isn’t depicted as a product of human meddling with nature; no H-bomb tests were necessary to bring it to life, nor does radioactivity augment the threat it poses. We could make the argument that the mining company defied nature by digging to an unprecedented depth, but this really serves a more of an excuse for the monster to appear than a warning about digging holes too far underground. “The dinosaurs hadn’t died,” Shigeru tells us, “they only slept.” The implication, of course,  is that all sleeping things will eventually awaken.

rodan3

The American cut, however, really wants the then-topical H-bomb to be involved, and adds a lugubrious opening narration about the might of atomic weapons and the advent of the altogether new and terrifying hydrogen weapons that had recently succeeded them. Over stock footage of an H-bomb test, a stern-sounding narrator first extols the power and military advantage afforded by the bomb; then pivots to speculate about the unanticipated horrors that the weapons might unleash. This is a good example of the ambivalence America had about nuclear weapons, ca. 1955. We were as a nation proud of the awesome power of our nuclear arsenal and the technological acumen that developing it required. But at the same time it was beginning to dawn on us that atomic weapons were horrifyingly indiscriminate; and that, paradoxically, the more of them we stockpiled, the less secure we became.

So while the opening narration implies that the bomb is responsible for Rodan’s appearances, Shigeru’s narration points to the opposite. For the American audience it probably didn’t make a lot of difference, but it at least adds the suggestion that Rodan is, on some level, something we brought on ourselves.

Kaiju films typically run on two tracks, with the human subplot grounding the outlandish scenes of monsters destroying whole cities. When done well, the human scenes ensure that the stakes are high, the personal conflicts are realistic, and that we have someone in the cast with whom we can identify. The perfect example of this is Ishiro Honda’s own Gojira (1954). The human subplot feeds directly into the monster story, and the two complement one another perfectly.

Compare Gojira with the movie that inspired it: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. While it’s a very entertaining movie, the romantic subplot in Beast was never more than perfunctory, and Dr. Nesbit’s primary motivation (to convince the world he wasn’t crazy when he said he saw a monster) is laughable compared to the terrible dilemma Dr. Serizawa faces in Gojira:  use the oxygen destroyer and hand the military a new kind of weapon that will threaten all life on Earth; or fail to use it and allow, through his inaction, the deaths of millions.

Rodan doesn’t swing for the thematic fences in the same way Gojira did. The movie quite admirably gives its hero a blue-collar profession (mine safety inspector) rather than a white-collar one (eminent scientist), but this decision comes at a cost: the second that Shigeru has his flashback to the traumatic events that occurred after the cave-in, his utility to the plot comes to an end. He keeps showing up in subsequent scenes, but there’s no real reason for him to be there.

But the movie still works, thanks to the ingenious aura of mystery it builds. So many strange and seemingly unconnected events pile up: the missing tourists, the miners hacked to pieces, the gigantic insects, the egg fragments, the UFO, the blurred photograph of a wing. It’s the mystery, not the characters themselves, that keep us hooked.

Rodan is a great introduction to one of the mainstays in the kaiju pantheon. I’ll admit though that as a kid, while I liked the movie, I wasn’t a big fan of the character. Lacking arms, opposable thumbs or a cool breath weapon, most of Rodan’s damage is collateral, and in a fight he is usually reduced to frenzied wing-flapping or (as in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) dropping rocks on his enemies from above.

But here he is dignified, even graceful; and it’s hard to watch the tragic ending without feeling pity for the two doomed creatures, who would rather die than be parted.

2 comments

  1. So would this be about the time when the Saturday afternoon shows ended? I am guessing that I started watching in late 75/1976 and personally have no recollection of the afternoon broadcasts

    I’ve mentioned to the author in past correspondence, I have distinct memories of way-too-young me staying up late waiting impatiently for Horror Inc to start, languishing through this new show of “grown up humor” that I wasn’t sure what to make out of….Saturday Night Live. Little did I realize that I was being exposed to some of the greatest comedy of all time in my formative years! Not to mention the still-strong-decades-later SNL trope of late-in-the-episode garbage bits….even as a kid I could tell that some of those were just complete clunkers

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    • We do still have some Saturday noontime shows coming up, but not many. They now seem to be used just to plug the occasional hole in the schedule. On a somewhat related note, our last Friday night edition of the show was September 7, 1973. I don’t see any more on the schedule through 1976, so we can assume they are gone for good.

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