The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 1: the 1940s & 50s


If there's anything better than a monster, it's more monsters, right?

Yeah, you'd think so, wouldn't you?  Well, it's a good thing you're pretty.

Big monster dust-ups are some of the best-worst things in film history.  The idea is almost always thrilling, but sadly the execution of the idea is frequently disappointing, if not outright craptacular.  They seem to be at their best when they're part of a fresh universe created from whole cloth, rather than a catch-all for recycled and/or public domain properties.  Since they're so often thrown together as a quick and easy cash-in, they bear all the loving craftsmanship that typically accompanies the term "quick and easy cash-in."

And yet... and yet there is just something undeniably exciting about the things that go bump in the dark bumping into each other.  How will it change their dynamic?  Do multiple monsters mean more monster screen-time?  Who would win in a fight?

I don't mind telling you; my criteria here is kind of vague.  At first I was just looking at the Universal Monster crossovers, or anything that co-opted the public domain origins of those characters.  Universal Pictures had big, big hits with the now classic Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, but also the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyl & Mr Hyde, Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy, This Island Earth and of course all manner of sequels and other horror movies.  Other filmmakers grew up with these movies running on TV, and would later pay tribute to them and/or exploit them in their own work.  While I don't want to just throw in everything that has more than one kind of monster in it, I do want the ones that feel like they are, for better or worse, tapping into that lineage.

I also have many of Godzilla's bigger throw-downs.  Some of them do, in fact, cross over with other characters, and the series has had such longevity in its own right that they do kind of feed on that same thrill of recurrence and magnification.  I think the experience of reading this article will convey to you the continuity of excitement that comes from having a house full of monsters.

And so, please enjoy... the Monster Mash-Ups.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man - 1943
Written by Kurt Siodmak
Directed by Roy William Neill

Featuring: The Wolf Man & Frankenstein's Monster

This is where it all began.

The now legendary 1931 Frankenstein had spawned three sequels including the equally legendary Bride of Frankenstein.  1941's The Wolf Man had also been a big hit for Universal, and its screenwriter jokingly pitched the producer the idea of bringing them together, which almost backfired on him, and where would we be now?

The film really belongs to Lon Chaney's Wolf Man far more than it does Frankenstein.  As a fairly direct sequel, it opens with Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) escaping from his crypt and going on the road to find relief from his curse.  The Wolf Man has always been kind of the runner-up to Dracula and Frankenstein, but he's really the most interesting character of the three.  Frankenstein's monster is misunderstood, and Dracula is just plain bad, but Talbot is tormented, and it gives him the strongest motivations of the lot.  Talbot seeks out the old gypsy woman who understands his condition, and together they journey to find the brilliant scientist who has been doing earth-shattering work in the subject of life and death; Dr. Frankenstein.  Once they get to Frankenstein's village, however, they discover that he has been killed... and stir up the fear and loathing of the villagers.  Searching the ruins of Castle Frankenstein for clues about the late doctor's work, he discovers the monster frozen in ice.  Once thawed, the monster guides him to Dr. Frankenstein's hidden cache of notes, but his personal diary is still missing, which leads Talbot to enlist the aid of his heir, the lovely Baroness Elsa Frankenstein in the hopes that she still has his diary.

The film works pretty well while it maintains its focus on Talbot/the Wolf Man.  The Frankenstein parts are not as good.  Due to the nature of the character, the monster just isn't that strong of a protagonist.  It's one thing when he's misunderstood, but he doesn't really have a stake in things here and his motivation suffers.  What's more, the character has become more convoluted the further he's gotten from his origins.  And frankly, the make-up is lazy and Bela Lugosi plays him far more campy than Karloff did in the first couple films.  It's by no means a great film, but it has some good parts in it, and it planted a seed of something that would grow and mutate in ways that its creators never could have imagined.

The Return of the Vampire - 1944
See link for writing team
Directed by Lew Landers

Yikes!  This one almost got away from me!

It stars Bela Lugosi as a vampire who is not Dracula, but Armand Tesla.  He went and got himself staked in 1918, but the German bombing of England during WWII knocked the stake out of his heart and he reconstituted to seek vengeance upon the people he was trying to kill in the first place.  Jerk.  What makes this a Monster Mash-Up is that his faithful manservant is a mild-mannered werewolf.

I truly wish I could tell you more, but I have, as yet, been unable to see the movie.

House of Frankenstein - 1944
Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Featuring: The Wolf Man, Dracula & Frankenstein's Monster

A direct sequel to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein has precious little Frankenstein in it, but it does bring a bit of Dracula into the equation.  No, the Wolf Man is the lead monster again, although the movie truly belongs to Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff), a criminal scientist obsessed with continuing Frankenstein's work.  Having escaped from prison, he and fellow inmate/hunchbacked sidekick "friend Daniel" go undercover in the assumed identity of a -- ahem -- recently deceased sideshow operator offering a cabinet of terrors.  It just so happens that his skeleton of Dracula actually IS the skeleton of Dracula, and once Niemann removes the stake from its ribs, the vampire reconstitutes in a jiffy (although as a gray haired and mustachioed John Carradine rather than Bela Lugosi, who somehow got scooped out of TWO roles he'd played in this film).  Dracula helps Niemann settle a few old scores, then promptly gets himself dusted by the rising sun.

Niemann and Daniel, meanwhile, investigate the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, discovering both the Monster and the Wolf Man frozen in the subterranean ice cavern.  Talbot springs back to shape right away and gets back to a bust schedule of brooding.  This is, of course, like an aphrodisiac to the gypsy dancing girl upon whom Daniel's eye had fallen.  The Monster, however, remains unconscious and in poor condition.  Talbot leads Niemann to Frankenstein's diary, and they all set off for Niemann's castle to get down on some mad science.  The Monster remains unconscious until the dramatic climax, but everyone else is in conflict, each with their incompatible agendas, and let us not forget the villagers.  Villagers always have a burr up their butt about something, don't they?

House of Frankenstein keeps things going and ramps them up from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.  The performances are stronger, thanks largely to Karloff's Niemann, J. Carrol Naish as Daniel and the bubbly gypsy girl Ilonka played by Elena Verdugo.  There's a new actor & makeup job for the Monster, which helps too.  Carradine's Dracula is a disappointment, however, although we don't get much of him.  I suspect that will change in House of Dracula, but then again, judging from the distribution of screen time in House of Frankenstein, he could just appear on a postage stamp licked by the Wolf Man.

House of Dracula - 1945
Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Featuring: The Wolf Man, Dracula and a glimpse of Frankenstein's Monster

The third and final Universal monster crossover vamps (no pun intended) on the same component parts that made up the first two.  The central character is, once again, really the scientist that ties them all together.  Dr. Edelmann is initially contacted by Dracula, who for reasons not explained, managed to get himself reconstituted in the years since the events in House of Frankenstein.  Dracula claims to wish to be freed from his curse, although it isn't really clear whether this is his true purpose, of if he's merely trying to get over with Edelmann's buxom blonde nurse.  Edelmann tells him that he'll need some time to prepare the treatment, so Dracula disappears until the middle of the movie.  Meanwhile, Lawrence "Wolf Man" Talbot shows up, also in inexplicably good health and looking for a cure.  Unwilling to face another full moon as the wolf, Talbot throws himself into the ocean, but washes into a cave in the cliff face.  When Edelmann goes down to find him, they discover a mud flow carrying the skeleton of House of Frankenstein's Dr. Niemann and the unconscious Monster.  So HIS whereabouts are explained, but it's a pretty dopey and unlikely scenario.  Edelmann is less unhinged and obsessed than the previous films' doctors, but even he feels the strong temptation to revive Frankenstein's creation.

Dracula drops by around that time to seduce the nurse and Edelmann decides he'd better up the dosage, which for some reason involves a transfusion of his own blood... which has to be direct... and he has to be unconscious for it.  Go fig.  During the transfusion, Dracula wakes up and reverses the flow, then leaves.  Edelmann finds Dracula's coffin and opens it to sunlight, and that's the last of THAT plot thread.  Unfortunately, the transfusion begins to transform Edelmann into a vampire and his decision-making skills take a nosedive.

Frankenstein's Monster isn't revived until literally the last 2 minutes of the film.  Talbot may have gotten his happy ending.  This time out, the hunchback is Edelmann's cute brunette nurse.  And the creepiest critter of the lot is a sallow faced villager.  Given that House of Dracula is a fairly nonsensical remix of the same elements from the first two, it's probably just as well that Universal didn't build any more Houses.  They were out of ideas.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein - 1948
see link for writing team
Directed by Charles Barton

Featuring: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man & the Invisible Man

The first of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's "Meet" movies is also their most jam-packed.  It features Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster.  Lugosi and Chaney, of course, originated those roles, and Strange played the Monster in both of the "House" movies.  Obviously, it's a pretty silly movie concerning a couple of schlubby baggage handlers who just happen to receive shipment of Dracula's coffin and Frankenstein's corpse, but I'll let you in on a little secret -- it's at least as good as the straight-faced trio of crossovers that preceded it.  In fact, depending on what you value in the films, I could easily say that it's much better.  The story is cornball, but so were all the others, and A&C do it with so much humor that less time is wasted on overwrought drama.  Moreover, the monsters have WAY more screen time than in any of the other monster mash-ups.  Heck, Frankenstein gets more screen time here than he did in all three of the other crossovers combined.  You really can't overstate value of having Bela back as Dracula either.  John Carradine was... okay, but Bela IS Dracula and vice versa.  When he started putting the hypnotic whammy on Costello, I totally geeked out.  Most of the comedy holds up pretty well, although that depends on the how willing the viewer is to allow it to exist within its own context.  Anyone who complains about Abbot & Costello but admits to laughing at Scary Movie is someone to remove from your friend list.  The only downside to A&CmF is that it created the template for the classic monsters in goofy comedy and wanna-comedy.  The madcap mayhem and chases toward the end really brought Scooby-Doo to mind, and that just shouldn't happen.

Horror and Sci-Fi monster movies really went through a lot of changes in the 1950s.  The classic monsters became passe, and the whole enterprise became a much lower budget, lower respectability business.  Giant radioactive creatures were on the rise, so at first I didn't have anything to represent monster mash-ups in the 50s, but these two just barely squeak through.  Toward the later 50s, England's Hammer Films studio took up the cause of the classic creatures, but with a seriousness that eschewed the camp of crossovers.

How to Make a Monster - 1958
see link for writing team
Directed by Herbert L Strock

Featuring: a teenage werewolf & a teenage Frankenstein's monster

I had heard of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, (largely because it starred Michael Landon and was a Trivial Pursuit question) but I didn't realize that the studio, American International Pictures, had also released I Was a Teenage Frankenstein the same year, much less that the both had a sequel in How to Make a Monster, the following year.

The story revolves around a make-up artist for "American International Studios" who discovers that he's being phased out when the studio he helped to enrich with his monsters has decided to shift their focus to musicals.  He uses his monstrous creations and the power of hypnosis to exact his revenge.  Sounds pretty "meta" if you ask me.

I have, as yet, been unable to view this film.

Plan 9 from Outer Space - 1959
Written & Directed by Edward D Wood Jr

Featuring: grave-robbing aliens, Vampire Girl and ghouls (zombies)

Notorious and uproarious, the badness is most glorious!  Ed Wood's "masterpiece" has been dubbed "the Worst Movie Ever Made."  It's not, but not for lack of trying.  Wood filled a box with his passions, shook it up, and Plan 9 is what came out.

The story isn't completely nonsensical, nor is it completely stupid, but between the two of them, they pretty much keep things covered.  Aliens come to Earth.  The dead rise.  There are some pretty (unintentionally) hilarious scenes, but they don't necessarily add up in any context.  Wood managed to wedge in a number of future cult figures, or perhaps they became cult figures for having been in Plan 9.  TV mentalist Criswell delivers the opening monologue.  Elvira's role model Vampira appears as a "Vampire Girl" despite no real connection to vampires in the film.  Bela Lugosi gets one last posthumous credit via footage that Wood shot with vague intentions and worked into Plan 9.  His character is played in other scenes by an actor holding his cape over his face.  And then there's Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson...  I don't have anything to say about that.  He's just there.

It's been a long time since I saw Plan 9 itself.  I've mostly recovered.  I'm far more willing to watch Tim Burton's Ed Wood.  He captures the experience so well that they blur together in places.  You really get all you need that way, without the impatient discomfort of watching Plan 9 itself.

Continue reading with The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 2: the 1960s!

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