More Than Meets The Mogwai

Thursday, October 23, 2008

HOUSE OF no FRANKENSTEIN (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)

In Universal’s 1944 all-star monster mash-up, Doctor Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) is one loony, escaped convict prone to colossal procrastination.

With hunchbacked accomplice in tow, played with abject desperation and reservation by J. Carrol Naish, Niemann promises both his unruly cohort and the thawed-out body of the Wolf Man (Lawrence Talbot in his human form, once again portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) that he’ll be more than happy to operate and play God, switching out their brains and swapping bodies, curing the former of his hideousness and the latter with his small problem of turning into a bloodthirsty beast when the moon is full (the details of exactly how he plans on doing so are never actually dispersed). Niemann only asks that this gruesome twosome continue to do his bidding for him, escorting their (stolen) wagon that brazenly advertises the skeletal remains of Dracula (John Carradine) each evening, allowing Niemann to enact revenge on those that locked him away, while spending the rest of his time unlocking Dr. Frankenstein’s scientific key for providing life into the limp carcass of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange).

One can only assume that Karloff’s calendar is close to, if not already, full -- as endless as his bag of excuses for both his hunchbacked co-escapee and his newfound lycanthropic pal.

While famous for the fact that no actual relatives of the Frankenstein clan turn up as characters (though Niemann’s positively obsessed by the family’s legendary exploits), the sheer volume of Universal Monsters on display is staggering, despite a cheat of an all-too-brief appearance by Dracula; quickly dispersed in favor of chugging along with its rollicking plot, the bloodsucker is given the short shrift in the way of an early demise, poked through the heart and left to desiccate after falling into a ravine before the half-hour mark.

What’s always struck me about HOUSE is its sensitive embodiment in its Igor characterization, here christened with the much more charitable name of Daniel. Much more than your standardized second-in-command goon, Naish is a wellspring of hurt and melancholia, specifically in his pining for Illonka (Elena Verdugo), the stray gypsy he saves from an abusive member of her former caravan. She accepts him for his physical shortcomings at first, but only until the more traditionally attractive (and recently defrosted) Larry Talbot joins their cause.

Karloff’s Karloff, professionally game and ominous with a fringe of shock-white hair fitting for his insane escapee; one can see him wince only briefly in his final bow-out, as he’s submerged in quicksand by the revived monster while torches carried by the ubiquitous mob burn brightly in the background, as they mill about the dilapidated remains of Casa de la Frankenstein.

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