Saturday, May 10, 1975: The House of Frankenstein (1944) / Mothra (1961)

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 — 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.

Mothra

Synopsis: A typhoon rages off the coast of Japan, and a maritime monitoring station notes that one ship, the Genjin Maru, is caught near the center of the storm. When the crew finds the nearest island on the charts, they realize it is Biru Island, which had previously been used as a test site for nuclear weapons by the powerful nation of Rolisica and is considered deadly. However, with the ship foundering, the captain has no choice but to tell the crew to abandon ship.

After the storm has passed helicopters scour the area, looking for survivors. Four men are picked up on a beach at Biru Island.

After the men are retrieved, they are kept in an isolation ward in the hospital complex. The four men appear to be in perfect health, though they should all be dead. Newspaper reporter Fukada (Furanki Sakai) — known as “the Bulldog” ( or “Snapping Turtle” in the subtitled version) because of his tenacity — asks the men why they aren’t feeling any ill effects, and one of them says it must have been the juice they drank, given to them by the natives on the island.

This causes enormous consternation, because the island is not only supposed to be completely uninhabited, but uninhabitable as well. An expedition to the island is organized. Camera-shy scientist Dr. Chujo Nazako (Hiroshi Koizumi) is set to accompany the expedition, and Fukada and photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagana) visit him in his home, and despite his icy demeanor, Fukada manages to befriend him by rescuing a pet rat lost by one of his kids.

No reporters are allowed on the expedition, but Fukada stows away on the ship and by the time he’s discovered it’s too late to send him back ashore. The trip is financed by the oily Rolisican emissary Nelson (Jerry Ito), who would just as soon throw Fukada overboard, but the scientists on board — even though they have little sway over Nelson — lobby for Fukada to be allowed to join the shore party and chronicle the events that unfold.

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The island proves to be very dangerous place, with perils up to and including carnivorous plants, but the most astonishing discovery is two very tiny women who speak in unison. Seeing the potential of exploiting them, Nelson returns to Japan with the two girls and places them in (what else) a popular nightclub act. The girls are lowered to the stage in a tiny golden carriage, where they sing sad songs that repeatedly use the word “Mosura”

Fukada, Michi, Chujo and his mouse-owning son get in to see the girls, who are being held captive by Nelson in his nightclub. The girls are not worried about themselves, but they do express some concern for their friends. Their protector is a giant caterpillar called Mosura (“Mothra” in the dubbed version) with whom they are telepathically linked; and it’s only a matter of time before it will arrive in Tokyo and tear it apart until the girls are returned….

Comments: Mothra represented  a new twist on the giant monster genre when it premiered in 1961: unlike Gojira (1954) and Rodan (1956), it wasn’t an extinct creature thrust into the 20th century, eager to mete out destruction. Rather, Mothra’s only aim is retrieving the twin fairies who have been stolen from Biru Island and thus restoring the balance to a world that had been thrown out of order by human machinations — not the least of which is the nuclear tests which have poisoned the environment. Thus all the destruction that occurs in the film is the fault of the greedy Nelson, who embodies all the worst traits of “Rolisica” — a country that, while fictional, was clearly modeled on the United States.

Japan is depicted as under the thumb of the powerful but immoral Rolisica, but always manages to retain the high ground. Throughout the film the Japanese are presented as unfailingly wise and reasonable, free of the ruinous devotion to profit that has tainted Nelson and his fellow gangsters (in the end they are revealed as no more than gangsters) who destroyed Biru island with atomic tests and who now seek to exploit the fairies. This is the first overtly political entry of Toho’s kaiju movies (and the last until 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: All-Out Giant Monster Attack, in which giant monsters are depicted as a curse brought on by Japan by war crimes against her neighbors in the 1930s and 40s). It’s also the first kaiju film to depict the monster as a hero, defending the good guys instead of just destroying cities.

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Speaking of good guys, we have a pretty winning cast at work in Mothra, with the beefy Furanki Masai standing out as the “Snapping Turtle” reporter who won’t let go of a story. Chujo is played by Hiroshi Koizumi, who would appear in a number of kaijus and who gets some funny moments as the scientist afraid of having his picture taken (“the sound of the shutter clicking is to me like the sound of the guillotine”, he says uncomfortably).

Kyoko Kagana’s Michi is one of a long line of female sidekicks to the hero that inhabit this sort of film — not quite a romantic interest, more like a kid sister tagging along with the hero. She doesn’t get many good lines here, but she makes them count, particularly her rejoinder to Chujo’s guillotine line. She holds up her cigarette lighter / camera and tells him, “Unlike the guillotine, you can’t always tell when you’re picture’s been taken.”

Yumi and Emi Ito were popular twin singers of the time who were billed as “The Peanuts” and who were splendidly cast here as the twin fairies. They weren’t really called upon to do much in the way of acting, but they were able to say their lines precisely in unison, which isn’t as easy as it looks. The two would return for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964) and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964).

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