Read Part 6: House of Frankenstein
Zombos Says: Good
House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula are situated within short walking distance of each other and their inhabitants use the same narrative roads to tell their stories. The furnishings are also similar, albeit a bit sparser in Dracula's house. But Larry Talbot is still here, Frankenstein’s creation is still in need of a jolt, and the battle between supernatural ambiguity and scientific clarity, begun in 1931’s Dracula, ends here with scientific reason ultimately winning, illuminating the irrational monsters of Universal’s horror pantheon from their primal darkness with the enlightening tools of science.
Taking a quick walk around House of Dracula’s façade, most genre buffs and critics would find it a lesser structural composition than Frankenstein’s house, although the rooms are basically the same. Also the same are the hunchbacked assistant’s role—although shockingly pretty and demure this time (Jane Adams), unlike the murderous Daniel in that other house—and once again the impotent Monster (Glenn Strange) is accidentally uncovered to await another jump start to his electrodes from the quintessential and ubiquitous electrical apparatus always at hand for just that purpose. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is here, too, showing up unexpectedly at the front door—you may recall he died in House of Frankenstein—and Dracula returns—although he died, too—showing up just before dawn to ask for help; but only one of them is sincere in his need for a cure.
It’s this medical help both werewolf and vampire receive in House of Dracula that makes this movie a pivotal and historically important notation in the transition from the supernatural horrors of the 1930s and 1940s to the scientific hubris (and its subsequent faux pas), and the technological fears of space alien confrontations and mass biological infections of the 1950s and 1960s sci-horror cycle.
Most compelling for this transition is Larry Talbot’s cure from lycanthropy through surgery, and the discovery that Dracula’s “disease” is caused by parasites in his blood; a theme to be expanded on in later vampire movies and fiction. Like versatile duct tape, “the miracle of medicine,” as Dr. Edelmann says, becomes the multi-use fix-it for conditions formerly considered primeval; cursed afflictions beyond practical understanding or abatement by conventional means, now understandable and curable by peering through a microscope and mixing chemicals in test tubes.
There’s a neatly executed budgetary and esthetically pleasing grace to be found in Erle C. Kenton’s staging of House of Dracula’s spook show drama, embellished by Dracula’s animated metamorphosis from bat to man, and the near operatically executed sequence of Dracula’s deception and subsequent destruction by sunlight, to foster a greater appreciation and reconsideration of its merits and position within the Universal Horror Mythos.
To be clear, yes, there’s a giddy abandon regarding plot tidiness—just how do Dracula and the Wolf Man come back to life after House of Frankenstein?—and common sense--just how does the Monster look so damn clean and tidy after swimming in sandy muck for so long?—to warrant some derision. But taken as a whole, when scenes are considered in relation to the movie’s breezy, theater play-like storyline (which rubs scripting elbows so close to House of Frankenstein they squeak) and contrasted against the requirements of the Hays and studio offices, and the impotence of the classic monsters compared to the ruthless efficiency of Dr. Edelmann’s ( Onslow Stevens) homicidal serial killer alter-ego, a curious thing happens: you can begrudge a few allowances for immortal monsters wearing immortal clothing and bats hanging from clearly visible wires; there’s simply so much more to think about.
For instance, why are Dracula and the Wolf Man without bite in this movie?
The only onscreen murder is committed by Dr. Edelmann after he’s intentionally infected by Dracula’s parasitic blood. Larry Talbot’s transformations end before he can visibly chew on anyone and Dracula—pardon me, Baron Latos—dons his silly top hat and opera cape to woo Ms. Morelle (Martha O’Driscoll) with more gusto than shown for his thirst for blood.
Lon Chaney Jr. may be dressed in Yak hair and putty, but that’s all there is to show us he’s the Wolf Man. When he transforms in the prison cell, rattles the bars half-heartedly, then falls asleep! what are we to make of this? Did the censors interfere with the Wolf Man’s ferocity, or did the presence of rational science strip him of his wolfhood? In the cliff side cave where Dr. Edelmann searches for him after he tries to commit suicide, he attacks but again fails to draw blood. His sudden transformation back to human form conveniently leads to the Frankenstein Monster’s discovery. At no time is Larry Talbot a real threat. Neither is Dracula. And especially, neither is the Monster.
Surprisingly, John Carradine, when sans hat and cape, presents an imposing vampire this time out, aided by Gothically-toned encounters with Ms. Morelle. Her piano music, turning from romantically poetic to darkly troubled when Dracula appears, provides one of the more engrossing effects of the vampire’s formidable supernatural underpinning. Like his magical glowing ring in House of Frankenstein, he wields it to seduce his desired bride. Ms. Morelle becomes intoxicated by its troubling, foreboding, yet strangely compelling sound.
Yet Dracula’s sinister sexual intensity has been stripped away as much as his devilish prowess. And this is the second time he’s left his coffin—his only refuge from sunlight—where it could easily be found (in House of Frankenstein he left it in the care of Doctor Niemann; smart move, there.)
Let’s recall who ultimately defeats him and Frankenstein's Monster, shall we?
Dracula, seconds after seeking safety in his coffin from the morning’s light, is efficiently pushed and pulled into the sunlight, to quietly fade away when Dr. Edelmann opens the lid; so he’s defeated by a man of science and medicine (in spite of his infection from Dracula through a blood transfusion, but not turned into a vampire through a neck bite). The Monster, finally recharged and ambulatory, is quickly and easily stopped with flammable chemicals enthusiastically deployed by Larry Talbot; so he’s defeated by a man, formerly cursed with lycanthropy, but now medically cured. The monstrous other, that dangerous and abnormal thing to be feared in every horror movie, novel, and story, and often cited by more sociological theory-prone genre buffs, is succinctly dealt with in House of Dracula using practical means. Even Dr. Edelmann’s Mr. Hyde-like alter-ego is quickly brought to heel by Talbot using a handgun; the last old monster to be cleansed from the new world, not by cleansing fire or wooden stake or evil-erasing silver, but by an ordinary bullet.
Let’s tally it up, shall we?
Talbott shot Dr. Edelmann dead and killed the Frankenstein Monster.
Talbott was cured of his supernatural affliction by an operation to relieve pressure on his brain.
Talbot lived, werewolf free. Of course, he became the Wolf Man again for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein--no explanation given--but for now he's happy.
Watching him look at the full moon without changing into the Wolf Man is a fulfilling climax to his journey to find true death in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, then to find a cure in House of Frankenstei, and then a better cure in House of Dracula.
Before this, monsters weren't cured, they were to be feared and exterminated as promptly as possible. When Talbott forces Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill) to lock him up so he doesn't kill anyone, his transformation brings pity from Dr. Edelmann and tears from nurse assistant Milizia, not fear. And when Dracula introduces himself to Dr. Edelmann and requests his help in finding a cure, the doctor isn't scared or even a little worried. Instead he poo-poos the whole notion of vampires, although he seems to know the folklore quite well, and then consents to take on the challenge after discovering Dracula is suffering from a blood infection. Just like that!
From doctors pushing past the boundaries of God's domain (Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), to doctors misguided by an intoxicating taste of mastery over nature (Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), to doctors unwavering in their scientific hubris (House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), the message is simple: it's not about the monsters outside, but the monsters within, and the strength of their power comes from fear.
But there were worse things than imagined monsters and worse fears to be generated from a society carrying torches constantly without realizing it. With the not-of-this-world threats of classic monsters supplanted by the realistic technological and sociological ones springing up from world war and the grim dawn of the Hiroshima Age, our nightmares could no longer hide behind folkloric, superstitious terrors from an ancient world; they danced uncontrollably at the periphery of our imagined armageddons.
What remained for Universal's now rendered harmless bogey men would be a final sendup in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and a rebirth as "friendly" monsters, sparked by a generation of monsterkids looking for safety, and their imagination's comfort from the sturm und drang of an increasingly insensible and unfriendly world as the nuclear horrors of the 1950s take the spotlight, followed by the 1960s, where a peeping tom, a few zombies eating Pennsylvania, and a wizard of gore are about to bring the terror inside the home.
And yet there's one more monster rally to hold, one more jolt for the Frankenstein Monster to take, and one more chance for Bela Lugosi to don his Dracula cape. It’s also one more chance to look the classic fears of another world squarely in the the face and laugh, asking is this what I was afraid of?
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