DOC’S JOURNEY INTO UNIVERSAL HORROR 9: THE WOLF MAN/ THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN

, (, )
Directed by: ,
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , , ,

Dr Lenera brings you a pairing of one of the definitive werewolf films and Universal’s fourth Frankenstein adventure, which contrary to popular opinion he likes more than the third!

After learning of the death of his brother, Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales, to reconcile with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot. Whilst playing around with John’s telescope, he sees a pretty local girl named Gwen Conliffe, who runs an antique shop, and finally gets her to go on a date with him, despite the fact she is engaged to someone else.  That night, whilst visiting a gypsy camp, Gwen’s friend Jenny has the mark of a pentagram [five pointed star] on her hand, meaning she will be the next victim of a werewolf, and sure enough she is attacked in the fog by a wolf.   Talbot tries to save her and kills the beast, who is revealed to  be Bela, head of the gypsy camp, but is bitten as a result……….. Universal’s second go at a werewolf film, six years after the interesting but not-entirely-successful Werewolf Of London, remains one of the most fondly regarded lycanthrope pictures.  I personally don’t think it’s quite on the same level as the very best werewolf films such as An American Werewolf Of London and The Curse Of The Werewolf [my personal favourite]; parts of it are fantastic, but an equal number of parts are just average.  I think that if this script, with maybe a few adjustments, had been made in the first half of the 1930s, where Universal’s horror films were at their most artistic and interesting, the result would have been a true masterpiece.  Still, I sound negative about The Wolf Man and I shouldn’t be; it has some great things in it and a strong story that attains a real sense of myth.  I just don’t think it’s quite as good as its reputation.

Though Universal already had a completed script about a werewolf lying around, with the intention being for Boris Karloff to play the creature, Karloff bailed, and writer Curt Siodmak, who had scripted The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman, opted to throw out the old script and start afresh.  Influenced somewhat by his experiences in Nazi Germany, where he found himself an outsider and on the run, Siodmak’s initial draft was rather more subtle than the studio wanted, lacking actual werewolf scenes, and making us wonder if Talbot was a werewolf at all or just a psychologically damaged killer, but material more to Universal’s liking was added to the next draft,as well as making him part of the Talbot family he visits. Dick Foran, fresh from The Mummy’s Hand, was originally going to star and thank goodness he was deemed unsuitable a week before filming and Lon Chaney Jnr, the son of silent film horror star Lon Chaney Snr who had been mostly a bit player until his breakout role in Of Mice And Men [playing Lennie, another tragic ‘monster’] was signed on in the part!  The film was slightly shortened before release, removing some footage on Talbot in the gypsy camp.  Despite apprehension about releasing a major horror production just after the Pearl Harbour attack, The Wolf Man, released towards the end of 1941, went on to become the studio’s biggest hit of 1942.

Taking its time, The Wolf Man is a little flat in its early scenes, not really building up enough atmosphere, and the attempts by Talbot to woo Gwen come across as being rather too ‘pushy’, despite the likeable awkwardness of Chaney.  However, when the movie switches to the magnificent fog-strewn countryside, it comes alive magnificently.  Yes, you can tell that its mostly one small set photographed from different angles, yes the amount of fog swirling around is ridiculous, but it doesn’t really matter, it looks simply magnificent.  Talbot’s fight with the werewolf Bela happens mostly behind a tree, [as do some later bits of action], though this just about disguises the fact that the monster is actually Chaney’s own German Shepherd!  After Talbot eventually becomes the Wolf Man around half way through, the actual screen time devoted to the werewolf is only about ten minutes, though one major scene where he battles a bear was partially filmed and then discarded [though shots made its way into the trailer] because the bear got out of control, chased co-star Evelyn Ankers round the set and then escaped.  Still, we saw far more of Henry Hull’s lycanthrope in Werewolf Of London, though of course Hull declined to wear the Jack B. Pierce makeup that was intended for him and Chaney didn’t mind wearing.  Taking six hours to apply and two hours to remove, the makeup perhaps looks a little dated now, with Chaney looking like he is wearing a furry cap, but it set the general look of most successive screen werewolves for quite a while.

Talbot’s transformations are handled subtly, with the emphasis on his feet, and many will be disappointed that we don’t get on a full-on facial change, though that would be corrected in the sequels, and of course we do see Talbot change back from a werewolf to a human, where a record number of nineteen dissolves were used in a single shot.  Despite its reticence in some aspects, this movie introduced many of the so-called myths about lycanthropy which seem like they derive from actual folklore but were actually just inventions of Siodmak, clearly on fire when he wrote this one.  This includes thing such as a person becoming a werewolf through a bite, the only way to kill a werewolf being with a silver bullet and even the following poem which is often considered an authentic Eastern European or gypsy saying: ” even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”. This last line was amended to “when the moon is full” in sequels and oddly the full moon doesn’t actually feature in this movie at all.

Generally serious and quite downbeat in nature, The Wolf Man has a fatalism about it that grows throughout the film and, towards the end when the pace eventually speeds up considerably, it really does almost attain a kind of mythic power, though the final reels remain a little rushed; I for example would have liked to have seen more scenes between Talbot and his so-called ‘love interest’, who virtually disappears from the film for a bit. Talbot is a great tragic character though, turned into a monster against his will after trying to save someone, and Chaney, though not the best actor with a rather limited number of expressions, is perfect in the role with his sad, haggard features, someone whom life just screws over and over again.  You just have to forget that Claude Rains, who plays his father, is only eighteen years older than him  [well it’s possible, but doubtful in those days!], and even more, that Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays the gypsy Maleva, is only seven years old than Bela Lugosi, who plays her son!

Lugosi, it must be said, is disappointing in his small role, overacting wildly though he puts his eyebrows to greater use than even Roger Moore, but Ouspenskaya is hypnotic, spouting her sayings and giving the sentences strange emphases; she pretty much defines the cliche of the mysterious, fortune-telling Romany woman.  Evelyn Ankers, who briefly attained stardom as a horror movie ‘screamer’ for Universal including seven films with Chaney [despite the two hating each other including in The Wolf Man where he would scare her with his makeup on], is very sweet and likeable though she’s just not in the film enough.  The film’s score was almost equally shared by three composers; Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner, but, because their styles are so similar, the score flows very well and you’d probably think it was all the work of one person.  Making good use of its three note ‘Wolf Man ‘motif throughout in the way it works throughout the score, and with several other strong motifs, its enjoyably melodramatic though restrained at times and at times rather sad, especially during a moving theme played during the two times when Maleva utters her lines, with slight variation the second time;  “the way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace”.  Its lines like this that help make The Wolf Man a classic. Even though elements of it don’t hold up too well and were even bettered elsewhere, it retains the strength of a true fable, a very moving tale of a doomed soul.

Rating: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

 

 

The residents of the village of Frankenstein feel they are under a curse and blame all their troubles on the Frankenstein Monster.  Rumours circulate about Ygor being still alive and supposedly trying to revive the Monster, so the villagers dynamite Frankenstein’s castle, despite Ygor’s resistance.  However the explosions free the Monster from his sulphuric tomb and the two escape where a bolt of lightning rejuvenates the Monster.  Ygor goes to the village of Vasaria where Ludwig, the second son of Frankenstein, has a successful practice treating mental illness and has been able to remove a a damaged brain from a body, surgically alter it, then successfully reintroduced it into the patient’s skull.  Ygor asks Ludwig to help make the Monster strong again, something the good doctor finds horrifying, but then the Monster wonders off into the town and Ludwig is brought face to face with his father’s creation……….

 The Ghost Of Frankenstein is usually regarded as the first of the poor Frankenstein movies, the point at which the series turned into shallow ‘B’ movie entertainment with little attempt at artistry or even originality.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a review which doesn’t claim the movie is a significant drop in quality from the first three, but, in one of many unusual opinions coming from this writer who certainly does not feel that he has to follow the crowd, I slightly prefer it to Son Of Frankenstein, which was stunning in terms of set design and staging but otherwise was rather average and even a little dull.  The Ghost Of Frankenstein may have been made quickly, cheaply and with no attempt at artistry whatsoever, but it’s a more entertaining movie.  It moves well and the story is certainly more interesting and eventful.  Unfortunately it has a certain Lon Chaney Jnr as the Monster, after Karloff had had enough, and after three stunning performances by Karloff, the difference in acting skill is obvious even after only a few seconds.

Chaney was signed up midway through the filming of The Wolf Man, the studio keen to create another horror star, and Karloff just not interested any more.  The initial script by Eric Taylor was surprisingly ambitious.  In it, Ygor used Wolf von Frankenstein, returning from the previous movie, to create a group of vengeful creatures made from folk rejected by society, led by the Monster.  Probably because it was rather close to Freaks which had caused so much controversy in 1933, and probably because it would have raised the budget too much, Taylor’s script was overhauled by Scott Darling, who drastically simplified the story, though retained its overall structure.   The job of direction was given to Erle C. Kenton, who in 1932 had been responsible for the ‘almost as controversial as FreaksIsland Of Lost Souls, though this new film was strictly formula, with nothing that would even partially irritate the censors.  Still, it seemed to be what people wanted; despite some of the worst reviews of the series yet, the film was a box office hit and it was certain that more would follow.

Ghost gets off to a cracking start, with the attack on Frankenstein’s castle, though the eagle-eyed will spot several cast members from Son as some of the villagers; a fair attempt at continuity, one might think, until one remembers that their characters are actually supposed to be dead!  The image of Ygor, sadly playing his flute in front of where the Monster is buried, is rather touching and the ensuring action, replete with Ygor hurling rocks down at his attackers, is handled with sharp edits. It seems that Kenton is bringing a considerable spark to the movie, though directorially that’s about as notable as it gets.  When the Monster is revived, he stumbles out into a fantastic graveyard set, replete with the jagged trees and fog that we love, but this use of a previous set is the only real attempt at Gothic atmosphere, with the sets generally being functional and smooth in nature.  Of course this and ensuring entries were made quickly so there was little time for creative design, meaning that this kind of thing would only show up sporadically in future.  There is some good work though on a rooftop set, resembling something from a fairy tale, and Ludwig’s laboratory has some cool additions, though why a place like this would have things like a gas chamber is beyond me.  Overall the brightness of this entry is a nice change, but diminishes much of the atmosphere.

Still, the first half of Ghost is fast paced, quite exciting and gives the Monster more to do than all of Son.  His major scene is when he wonders into Vasaria and is befriended by Cloestine a young girl.  When bullies kick her ball onto the roof of a house he retrieves it for her, but makes the mistake of taking the girl up with him and his appearance soon arouses hostility from the other villagers.  After this, the Monster is put on trial, and all this raises some interesting moral questions, but the interesting pathways and Bride Of Frankenstein pathos suggested by these scenes are not really followed through, and after this the Monster is restricted to Ludwig’s laboratory and is mostly comatose.  This is a shame, because the portrayal of the Monster, who here only commits violence when attacked, is very sympathetic.  It also means that around half way through the film takes a nosedive, and, while still reasonably enjoyable, never really recovers until the climax, where a heavily signposted plot twist enables to Monster to speak, a scene which has some power.  Sadly though the Monster is given nothing to do after this point as the torch-wielding villagers turn up again and it all ends in predictable fashion.

As is evident, the script does have a few good ideas but also rehashes situations from the previous three Frankenstein films and logic, as it increasingly would be in this series, is totally absent, aside from Henry, here called Heinrich, having a previously unheard-of second son.  There is an interesting scene, which seems added in just to justify the film’s title, where Ludwig is visited by the ghost of his father, though he’s not played by Colin Clive but by the same actor playing Ludwig, Cedric Hardwicke.  We are also treated to a brief flashback montage from Frankenstein showing the Monster’s creation, but it means again that the potentially interesting element of the script are just not given enough time, and I don’t just mean those involving the Monster.  I would have liked to have seen more of Bohmer, Ludwig’s devious assistant who was once his teacher but was relegated to  the position of assistant when he committed a dreadful medical blunder, the nature of which we can certainly guess.

Chaney, sporting makeup that is similar to Karloff’s but tapes down the eyes somewhat, just isn’t in Karloff’s league, and just seems like he’s sleepwalking most of the time, with no real attempt to humanise the Monster.  It’s obvious he didn’t care for the role; at one point he ripped the headpiece from his head creating a gash in his forehead, causing production to be shut down for two weeks.  It’s interesting though that it seems that Chaney’s Monster, and the ones to follow, seem to be the most imitated, with the outstretched arms.  Cedric Hardwicke is reasonable as Ludwig but Bela Lugosi is again striking as Ygor, delivering his lines with real relish, though he seems to have had his teeth replaced since Son.  His overacting is appropriate, but it seems to have influenced the performance of Evelyn Ankers, straight from The Wolf Man, who is laughably hammy.   Oddly, Ghost boasts one of the greatest scores of the whole franchise; it’s almost nonstop, but would probably work as a descriptive symphonic work separate from the film, so well does it tell the story with its many themes and exciting thrill music. A particularly memorable bit of scoring is when the Monster meets Cloestine, where his rumbling tuba theme is contrasted with a playful theme describing her innocence.  The Ghost Of Frankenstein, overall, is just an exercise in marking time for the series and really suffers from its second half being considerably weaker than its first half, but it has some good things in it and it certainly works as solid ‘B’ movie fare!

Rating: ★★★★★★½☆☆☆



Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 1856 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*