70 years before The Avengers regularly broke box-office records for The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal Studios had its own cultural juggernaut with the Universal Monsters. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff became immortal in 1931 as the titular and the oft-mistakenly-titular Dracula and Frankenstein respectively. Their individual box-office success made monster movies a cultural mainstay and paved the way for Universal Studios to expand their roster to include The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man.
This is exactly the model Marvel Studios followed when building to The Avengers. Start with the most straightforward character available and use him as the foundation. Dracula and Iron Man, both ambitious gambles that paid huge dividends. Step two is trickier because it involves investing in an unreliable green monster. Universal struck gold with Frankenstein but Marvel hit an early sophomore slump with The Incredible Hulk. If you don’t count Marvel going back to the well with Iron Man 2, then step three is pluck a supernaturally powerful cinema icon out of the myths of a foreign nation like The Mummy and Thor. Once you complete the team with Captain America: The First Avenger and The Wolf Man you’ve got yourself the makings of a team up film.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is technically the first Universal Monster team-up film, and you might think Monster Squad is the best monster team-up movie, but House of Frankenstein is where the shared universe expands and begins to direct the course fo the preceding films in the franchise. This is a crazy movie when viewed in the context of the shared universe. Taking place years after the events in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein begins with Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Monster all more dead than usual and it’s up to Boris Karloff to bring them all back to life.
That’s not a typo. Boris Karloff, the man made legend for his portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, does not play the monster in House of Frankenstein. Karloff plays Doctor Niemann, an escaped inmate listed as simply ‘Mad Doctor’ on the English movie posters. Niemann’s imprisoned with his hunchback assistant Daniel for experimenting with replacing a dog’s brain with a human brain. Niemann wants revenge for the 15 years he spent behind bars and lucks into assuming control over a traveling circus which just so happens to have the skeleton of Dracula as its main attraction. Yeah, it’s really Dracula’s skeleton, stuck in his coffin with a stake through his heart surrounded by the dirt of his homeland. Niemann knows that removing the stake will reanimate the vampire Lord and makes haste to do so. Undead once more, Dracula agrees to assist Niemann in killing his enemies. Oh but this is not Bella Lugosi reprising his famous role as Count Dracula, no the vampire is played here for the first time by John Carradine. His resurrection is short lived as the searing rays of sunlight disintegrates the Count to so much dust, forever mixing with the soil of a land not his own.
At this point, Daniel the hunchback wants to be a handsome man with a good body. With the unwavering confidence of the man who both brought back and rekilled Dracula, Niemann decides sets a course to Frankenstein’s castle or… house… where he expects to find secret documents to aide him in replicating the process which animated the monster in the first place. Well, what do you know, they succeed. In a mysteriously glacial cave beneath the castle, Niemann and Daniel find the bodies of the Wolf Man and the Monster entombed in nice clear blocks of ice (not unlike Captain America) waiting to be defrosted. It occurs to the Mad Doctor that these two creatures might know the location of the missing secret documents. That’s enough incentive for these two maniacs to start a huge bonfire in the rubble of a destroyed castle in the hopes of awakening two literal monsters without regard for their own safety… or you know… the safety of the missing secret documents.
The succeed in freeing both monsters and convince Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man played by Lon Chaney Jr., to assist them in their cause. He’s incentivized in no small part by the addition of a beautiful young gypsy woman to the team. Actually he doesn’t seem to care about her at all, but like all Lon Cheney Jr.’s characters from the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Larry Talbot is irresistible to women. This time I can’t blame her, she’s a young woman in the prime of her life and she’s suddenly surrounded by three eligible bachelors. One is a psychotic mad scientist, his hunchback assistant and a tall doughy man who turns into a murderous lycanthrope every full moon. We’d all make the same choice.
The Monster’s in shambles compared to the Wolf Man and it becomes Neimann’s goal to get him back in working order. Oh, you might be wondering who’s playing the Monster since Karloff is playing Niemann the Mad Doctor. Well it’s probably not Lon Chaney Jr. who’s already reprising his role as the Wolf Man, even tho he did play the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein. Gasp, could it be? Bella Lugosi played the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, if he isn’t playing Dracula then he’s at least playing the Monster… right? Wrong. He’s not in this movie! Look at the poster! He’s not listed. Some nobody named Glenn Strange played the Monster in this feature. Yeah, I know what a bummer. I looked him up and it looks like he had a meager career only appearing in 239 episodes of Gunsmoke. That’s like, almost a third. He’s the Scott Baio of Gunsmoke. Anyway, Lugosi isn’t in this picture. Which is a shame. You couldn’t have The Avengers without Robert Downey Jr. I mean, presumably we will have that the next time there’s an Avengers film, barring some sort of lame cameo or if Bobby wants to buy his dad a new island.
Back to the plot. Unbeknownst to Daniel, who’s furious that Neimann’s changed his mind and is no longer planning to put his brain into Talbot’s body, Larry is preparing to transform once again into the murderous Wolf Man under the light of the full moon. Daniel, furious that he’ll never use Larry’s good looks to win the affection of Rita the gypsy girl, goes rouge and attempts to murder Karloff with his bare hands in the laboratory. This invigorates and enrages the Monster who breaks his shackles and throws Daniel to his death through a castle window. Meanwhile a mob of torch wielding villagers approach the ruins of a castle that’s brought nothing but death and destruction to their lands. As the mob nears, the light of the moon beams into Talbot’s room transforming him into the wolf man yet again. But he’s in luck, Rita has crafted a silver bullet to end his torturous existence once and for all (he comes back in later films). She succeeds but not before the mindless Wolf Man kills her in turn.
The Monster flees the mob’s torches with Niemann in tow, eventually running the two of them from one lethal end to another. House of Frankenstein, the The Avengers of its day, ends with Frankenstein’s Monster dragging an objecting Karloff, his surrogate father (who feels more like a brother ya know?), to his death in an enormous pit of quicksand. And then the movie just ends. Karloff has his head just above water when the film fades to an end slate. That’s just how they did it back then.
House of Frankenstein is far more watchable than many of its preceding monster films like Dracula’s Daughter or Son of Dracula. It’s easy to see the care taken in the set design, cinematography and story development in House of Frankenstein. It’s not a script that’ll change your life but it’s impressive to see how Universal handled incorporating these otherwise mostly independent characters into a relatively coherent plot. Even if Dracula was shoehorned in. It’s a fun movie, check it out.
I’m left pondering the irony that despite setting the pace for shared universe film franchises like Marvel with their Universal Monsters, Universal Studios couldn’t replicate Marvel’s success when reanimating their monsters for 21st century audiences. Tom Cruise’s The Mummy seemed to kill all hopes of a Dark Universe but then again, Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man might be successful enough to save this newest iteration of the franchise. I certainly don’t know or claim to know, but If it was me, I wouldn’t have started a new franchise with the box-office equivalent of The Incredible Hulk.