The Budget Sequels
The Ghost of Frankenstein (March 1942) and Chaney’s performance marked the transition of Frankenstein’s Monster from Karloff’s confused, hurt, and occasionally dangerous creature seeking some kind of human connection to the slow, clumsy, blank-faced killing machine he would remain in many people’s imaginations from then on. (People who see Karloff in the first two Frankenstein films are often surprised by how lithe and expressive the Monster was initially.)
Now that Universal had Chaney, Tom Tyler was given his walking papers (shuffling papers?) after a single performance as the Mummy. Lon was duly wrapped up into his least-favorite character and staggered through increasingly bored performances in The Mummy’s Tomb (October 1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (July 1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (December 1944). On-set sources say he had a flask of gin wrapped into his mummy bandages by the costume department, with the tip of a drinking tube near his collarbone. If nothing else, he was a creative engineer of ways to get his daily intake. He did create the Mummy’s well-known gait, based on the damage the monster sustained by Tyler’s incarnation in Hand…left arm cradled against his chest, left leg dragging.
And who better to play Count Dracula than the lumpy, pot-bellied, double-chinned Lon Chaney? Universal’s commitment to putting Chaney into all of its monster roles reached its ludicrous limit when the hilariously miscast Chaney donned the cape and fangs in Son of Dracula (November 1943). The title is a head-scratcher — most of the time, the movie seems to think that the leading character is the Count himself. (Anyone suggesting the 61-year-old Lugosi should reprise his role would have been laughed out the room, but Chaney is even more risible.)
What’s frustrating is that this had the potential to be a pretty good B-level horror flick. It’s based on an original story by Wolf Man scribe Curt Siodmak, and its setting among the old plantation houses of Tennessee gave it an eerie, swampy, Southern Gothic atmosphere. It boasted the first on-screen bat-to-man transformation. Long-suffering Evelyn Ankers gamely returned for a third go-round as Chaney’s on- and off-screen victim.
Well over a year before Son of Dracula splattered onto the screen, Curt Siodmak off-handedly mentioned a funny idea for a title to producer/director George Waggner …Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man. Waggner took him seriously…
“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man”
Lon Chaney was Universal’s in-house horror star, and had already played both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Was it possible he could play both at the same time? He insisted he was up to the challenge. Director Roy William Neill, a veteran of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone, considered the possibility. With a liberal use of doubles and a little trick photography, he decided it could be done. But it would inflate the budget, and Chaney’s reliability was questionable. Universal nixed the idea.
The next option was someone who was a big name in horror, and whose salary would not break the bank. To Universal, that could only mean one thing — get Bela. This would actually neatly tie in with the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, where the Monster received Ygor’s brain. It was a logical development that he should speak with Ygor’s voice. (Not that Universal ever cared a fig for continuity, it would just be a happy coincidence.) Would Lugosi take on the role of the Monster, that he had so famously turned down over a decade before? Lugosi was in no position to turn down high-profile work. He would soon turn 60 and had recently begun self-administering morphine to ease the pain caused by sciatica. So Bela subjected himself to the rigors of Jack Pierce’s Monster make-up at long last. (“For the money,” confirmed his wife later.)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in March 1943. The first half is all Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, resurrected by grave-robbers working under a full moon, and desperate to find a final cure for his lycanthropy, or at least the sweet relief of a permanent death. He believes the secret is to be found in the journals of Dr. Frankenstein (?!), and sets off to find the doctor, or his notes. For some reason, after perishing in a laboratory fire in his previous appearance, the Monster is found by Talbot frozen in a block of ice under the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. The Monster (mostly blind and speaking in Ygor’s voice in the original script) is run-down and of little help.
Ilona Massey takes over the role of Elsa Frankenstein from Evelyn Ankers, so for anyone still desperately clinging to the notion that the name “Frankenstein” should never be applied to his Monster, I guess this is the Frankenstein Larry Talbot meets. (Lionel Atwill appears as the local mayor.) In due course, Talbot runs across a scientist who decides to — you guessed it — restore the Monster to full strength. And he decides to do it on the night of a full moon. Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster do indeed duke it out, before being swept away by floodwaters released by vengeful, torch-bearing villagers.
For anyone watching closely, the Monster is played by stuntmen Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins almost as much as by Lugosi, who simply wasn’t up to the rigors of the more physical aspects of the role. Also, someone made the executive decision — once the movie had been entirely shot — that the Monster speaking in Ygor’s gruff, thickly-accented voice just didn’t work, and had all of his dialogue cut out (very clumsily in places.) Along with it went any reference to the Monster’s semi-blindness, and his explanation for how he ended up in ice. As the film now plays, there’s no reason for Lugosi to always have his arms held stiffly straight out in front of him, which became essential to all bad Monster imitations forever into the future.
Two monsters good…three monsters better?
Universal horror was now strictly second-tier. Juvenile Saturday matinee fodder. In the words of Adam Roche writing in A Universe of Horror, “Gone were the subtle chills of the Laemmle era, replaced forever by the lumbering crashing of an arms-outstretched Monster…Whereas the films of the thirties had been gothic nightmares…these ‘Creature Features’ were cheap, slick and artless.”
It wasn’t long before Universal decided to up the stakes on its monster teaming. Someone coined the term “monster rally” and it stuck. (It’s certainly a more accurate description of what’s happening here than the rather lofty idea of a “shared cinematic universe.”) Now Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man would be joined by Count Dracula in House of Frankenstein (December 1944), bringing the vampire’s film series into the fold.
And Karloff was back.
Not as the Monster. He had vowed never to play him again. Karloff would take the mad scientist role. Again, Bela Lugosi was not even considered for Dracula. Instead that role went to a 38-year-old American character actor who had been kicking around the fringes of Universal horror for a decade or so. John Carradine had made a brief appearance in The Black Cat, and in Bride of Frankenstein he was the hunter who ends the Monster’s forest idyll with the blind hermit. He had just completed a co-starring turn as a villainous high priest in The Mummy’s Ghost. Now he would take on one of Universal’s most iconic monster roles. Lon Chaney returns as Larry Talbot, cheated out of eternal rest when he’s revived by the criminally insane Dr. Neimann (Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish, like Carradine an incredibly prolific character actor.)
Three big-name monsters appear in the film, but are not really integrated all that well. Carradine’s Dracula is an emaciated, mustachioed fop, often with a top hat tipped at a rakish angle and no hint of a Transylvanian accent. He is relegated to the B-story, an otherwise unrelated revenge plot of Neimann’s to eliminate the man who put him in prison. Dracula is out of the picture before the other two even appear. The poor Monster remains inert on a slab for most of the film, until Dr. Neimann — you guessed it — revives him to full strength, at which point he begins wreaking his usual havoc. No acting skills required. The Monster is played here by Glenn Strange, a 6’5” cowboy “bad guy” and veteran of dozens of western serials. He fondly remembers Karloff giving him advice on how the play the Monster, but if that’s true, he didn’t follow it, doing the now-typical smashing and lumbering.
So…Dracula has crumbled to dust before the main story really gets underway, the hunchback is defenestrated, Talbot is taken down by a silver bullet, and the Monster carries Dr. Neimann right into a patch of quicksand, where both perish (well, at least one perishes.) All in a quick and compact 71 minutes. Lionel Atwill was in there somewhere, too, as a police inspector (again). So goes House of Frankenstein.
Once again, ol’ Larry was only able to stay dead for about a year. House of Frankenstein was naturally followed by House of Dracula (December 1945). Chaney, Carradine, and Strange were all back in harness as the monster trio, but Karloff could not be persuaded to return to the series. A shaggy-wigged Onslow Stevens does his best in the central role of the scientist, attempting to cure Dracula of his vampirism and Talbot of his lycanthropy, at both’s request. Literally no attempt is made to explain their resurrections this time. They just show up at Dr. Edelmann’s door. Not at the same time — that would have been weird. Speaking of weird, House of Dracula’s twist is that the hunchbacked assistant is a woman.
The comatose Monster is discovered in a cave, his arms wrapped around a skeleton. (Presumably Dr. Neimann’s — the only reference to the previous movie. I guess if you sink in quicksand you end up in a cave.) Edelmann, gradually turning evil due to a transfusion of Dracula’s blood, decides to — you guessed it — revive the Monster to full strength. The Monster, once the pinnacle fright of the early horror era and also a character of pathos and depth, is reduced to a few minutes of staggering around before being trapped in a burning laboratory. Some of the footage was recycled from Ghost of Frankenstein. Dracula has once again crumbled to dust long before the actual climax, although he does have more to do in this film which bears his name. The good news? Larry Talbot seems finally cured of his lycanthropy at the end of this one (which ends the official series.) And Lionel Atwill appears as a police inspector.
There really was nowhere to go from here. Half-hearted attempts were made to add the Mummy and/or the Invisible Man to a possible future story, but none of these made it past spitballing sessions in Universal’s scenario department. Horror movies in general were taking a downturn in the immediate post-war years, and Universal’s old-fashioned fairy tale style was even more dated and out-of-touch.
The first shared cinematic universe consisted of: Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. Only the last three were made under the aegis of a shared universe, the others belong retroactively. And now it was over.
Well, not quite.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Straight man Bud Abbott and comic Lou Costello paired up in the waning days of vaudeville and old-school burlesque shows, doing quick-paced dialogue sketches such as “Who’s On First.” They were well-suited for radio, then Universal offered them a film contract. After a huge hit with 1941’s Buck Privates, they cranked out films with exhausting regularity. By 1947’s The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap, Abbott & Costello — one-trick ponies with a limited range even at their best — had worn out their welcome with cinema audiences.
Then someone got the bright idea of throwing the comedic duo into a monster rally. No one considers Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) part of the official story canon of the Universal monsters (such as it was), but it was a huge success, and featured Lon Chaney donning the fur one last time as the Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange in his third go-round as the Monster.
And Bela Lugosi as Dracula!
You read that right. Universal finally brought the actor back to the role that made him famous after his agent badgered the studio shamelessly (and he definitely needed the jet-black hairpiece this time). Although he had played other vampires from time to time, this is only the second time Bela Lugosi appeared in his signature role as Count Dracula on a cinema screen. And he was great! All the monsters played it straight, Abbott & Costello were quite funny, and soon they were meeting every spook and ghoul in the Universal stable until everyone was thoroughly tired of them again. The duo split a year after meeting the Mummy in 1955.
The Creature and Shock! Theater
The 1950s was a new era for horror, reflecting an updated set of societal fears in the atomic age. A lot of the horror films at this time had heavy sci-fi overtones, and featured radiated mutants, aliens, and giant ants. Universal managed to add one more classic monster to their collection — the “Gill Man” from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). Would the Gill Man have appeared in the new Dark Universe? Nothing was announced, but I don’t see how they could have resisted. I would certainly go see a modern, super-scary remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, wouldn’t you? Maybe they’ll still do it even though the “DU” is no more.
As I stated on the first part of this series, few people actually watch the Universal Monster movies themselves anymore. They are “cinematic cast-asides for niche audiences,” as Tom Weaver put it in his authoritative work Universal Horrors. But their impact throughout pop culture resonates loudly to this very day. How?
Television, of course. Regular TV broadcasts began in big cities around the time Abbott & Costello were schticking and double-taking their way through meeting the monsters. By the mid-1950s, a television could be found in almost every middle-class home across the country. And local independent stations were hungry for content.
Shock! Theater was a package of 52 Universal horror films offered to TV syndicators in October 1957. The content included the original Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy mixed in with a random collection of their sequels and unrelated thrillers like The Spider Woman Strikes Back. A second package, Son of Shock!, added twenty more films the following year. These turned up on late night television fairly consistently for the next twenty-five years or so, often introduced by a local TV market’s comedic, costumed “horror host.” Young Baby Boomers staying up late on a summer night absorbed large doses of Universal horror.
These frequent TV airings are responsible for the “monster craze” that gripped pop culture — especially kids’ pop culture — until the early 1970s. Cereals like Count Chocula, TV shows like The Munsters, songs like “The Monster Mash,” fan magazines, model kits, comic book adaptations, and trading cards firmly embedded Universal monsters in the popular consciousness.
Although a little too young to catch the most intense wave of the craze, I do remember the shelves of the library’s children’s section fairly groaning with battered, well-thumbed books about old horror movies well into the 1980s. In the days before video rentals and streaming, if you missed your favorite monster flick on TV, you could check out a book from Crestwood House’s “Monsters” series. Each book in the series focused on a different monster, gave plot synopses of the original movie and its key sequels, along with behind-the-scenes production details, all packaged in hardback with a distinctive Halloween-ish orange-and-black color scheme.
They’re collectors’ items now, with some used copies going for triple figures on Amazon. Sadly, tomes on old horror flicks seem to be gone from the kids’ section of the library. I checked. (Not for too long. No one wants a middle-aged man lingering alone in the kids’ section of the public library.)
So the Universal monsters are a little reduced these days, but not in danger of being totally forgotten any time soon. That’s why the Dark Universe seemed like such a good idea.
Epilogue: What Became of…?
“Uncle” Carl Laemmle died in 1939, three years after being ousted from the studio he founded. “Junior” Laemmle never worked in film production again and became something of a recluse, dying in 1979, exactly forty years to the day after his father.
Bela Lugosi’s fame had completely faded by the 1950s, compounded by a crippling morphine addiction. He was reduced to appearing in the atrocious productions of professional exploiter Edward D. Wood Jr. for a few hundred bucks. (Don’t let Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Ed Wood as a sunny, optimistic naif in the 1994 movie fool you. The real Wood was a shifty opportunist who knew exactly what he was doing.) He went into rehab to kick his opiate habit in late 1955, but his alcoholism worsened. He died of a heart attack in 1956. Dracula director Tod Browning’s career derailed after making the controversial Freaks for MGM in 1932, featuring a cast of genuine human deformities. He directed his last movie in 1939, and died in obscurity in 1962. Helen Chandler’s alcoholism forced her into early retirement in 1937, and she was badly burned in an apartment fire in 1950 caused by passing out with a lit cigarette. Still in the throes of addiction, she died in 1965 at 59. Dwight Frye, so memorable as mad-as-a-hatter Renfield (and Fritz the hunchback in Frankenstein), complained of being typecast, only being offered parts as “lunatics and imbeciles.” When the second world war came around, Frye was kept out of the military by a congenital heart defect, to his patriotic disappointment. He aided the war effort by working night shifts as a tool designer at the Lockheed aircraft factory. The heart defect proved fatal when Frye went into cardiac arrest while on a public bus in 1943. Edward Van Sloan retired in 1950. His nephew remembers him watching Dracula on TV and chuckling over how dated and hokey it was, changing the channel to The Danny Thomas Show long before it was over. He died in 1964. David Manners quit film acting and returned to stage work. Finally fed up with the superficiality of an actor’s life, the intellectual Manners quit the business altogether and dedicated the rest of his life to writing about religion, philosophy, and metaphysics. He died in 1998 at the age of 98. Dracula cinematographer (and Mummy director) Karl Freund entered the world of television in the early 1950s. While working on I Love Lucy, Freund was credited with inventing the three-camera set-up that is still used for live audience sitcoms today. He died in 1969.
The original Frankenstein director Robert Florey cranked out almost fifty films in the twenty years after being ousted from Frankenstein, none of them of any distinction. He was a reliable journeyman with no particular style of his own who finished movies on schedule and on budget. He ended his career in TV, directing episodes of everything from Wagon Train to The Outer Limits. He died in 1979. James Whale found it hard to work under the creative restraints of “New Universal” after the Laemmles’ forced exit. He made his last film in 1941. His shrewd investments meant he could afford a comfortable retirement in Pacific Palisades, becoming an avid painter. He had a series of strokes in 1956. Depressed over his failing health, Whale committed suicide in 1957. Boris Karloff continued to work steadily in films, on stage, and on television. He was Captain Hook in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan, and was nominated for a Tony for his role in the Joan of Arc play The Lark. He returned permanently to England in 1958, flying back to Hollywood a few times a year. He narrated the animated holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966. Even as his health became precarious, the workaholic Karloff kept at it. His last project was a series of four low-budget horror movies made for a Mexican production company. Karloff filmed his parts for all four at the same time in Los Angeles. His footage was then sent to Mexico City where it was integrated with the main footage shot by the Mexican crew and cast. At this point, when not on camera, a bent and frail Karloff was reliant on a wheelchair and oxygen tank. He died in 1969 at 81. Colin Clive’s system was so ravaged by his severe alcoholism he was susceptible to various illnesses. He contracted tuberculosis and died in 1937 at the age of only 37, two years after Bride of Frankenstein. Jack Pierce was let go by Universal in 1946, and worked as a freelance make-up artist for various low-budget movies and early television shows. His last steady gig was Mister Ed. He died in 1968. Marilyn Harris, who played the doomed little Maria, retired from acting upon her marriage and remained in anonymity until her death in 1999.
Invisible Man Claude Rains continued a loose association with Universal horror by appearing in The Wolf Man and starring in the studio’s lavish sound remake of The Phantom of the Opera in 1943 (a part Lon Jr. was said to have desperately wanted). He had a long and distinguished career in films, being featured in classics such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, and Lawrence of Arabia. He died in 1967. Rains’ leading lady in The Invisible Man, Gloria Stuart, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1998 for her role as “old Rose” in Titanic. She published her autobiography, I Just Kept Hoping, in 1999, which detailed her numerous affairs. (One reviewer said the book should have been called I Just Kept Humping.) She died in 2010 at the age of 100.
Elsa Lanchester frequently toured with her one-woman cabaret act, and had a long-running career as a supporting actress specializing in oddball characters. She made several memorable appearances in live-action Disney movies of the 1950s and 60s, and died in 1986. Ernest Thesiger built an impressive supporting-part resume filled with eccentric noblemen, and was very active in the Embroiderers’ Guild, before dying in 1961. Henry Frankenstein’s two cinematic sons, Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke, were Hollywood’s go-to whenever a “distinguished Englishman” was called for. Hardwicke seemed to specialize in supporting roles in sweeping epics such as The Ten Commandmants and Around the World in 80 Days. Rathbone became cinema’s pre-eminent Sherlock Holmes, playing the master detective over a dozen times. Hardwicke died in 1964, Rathbone in 1967. Despite being a fixture in Universal horror as town officials and police inspectors, Lionel Atwill was one of early Hollywood’s most notorious libertines, hosting many whispered-about sex parties. His nickname was “Pinky,” and we probably don’t want to know why. He was finally brought up on morals charges while filming Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Orgies weren’t technically illegal in the 1940s, but the exhibition of pornographic material was. They couldn’t get the main accusation to stick, but Atwill was convicted of perjury. He wasn’t totally blacklisted, but was relegated to minor movie roles thereafter. He died of pneumonia just a few years later, in 1946. Donnie Dunagan, who played four-year-old Peter Frankenstein, voiced the fawn in Bambi in 1942 before leaving show business. He became the youngest drill sergeant in the Marine Corps in the 1950s, and is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He retired with the rank of major, and is still living in California at age 84. Son director Rowland V. Lee retired in the early 1940s, having bought up many acres of picturesque ranch and forest property. He made a fortune leasing it to production companies as a filming location for many years, then sold it to developers at a healthy profit. He died in 1975.
Only three years after his single turn as the Mummy, Tom Tyler was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis, which severely limited his mobility. He died in 1954 at the age of 50.
Lon Chaney Jr., despite his alcoholism and unpredictable reputation, continued to work steadily in supporting parts across various genres through the 1950s. By the 60s, he was mostly alternating between low-budget westerns and lower-budget horror films. He made numerous guest appearances on TV westerns such as Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, and Have Gun, Will Travel. His final film was the grade-Z schlockfest Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971, Chaney filmed his role in 1969), in which he played a mute henchman. Chaney Jr. was an invalid in his final years, in and out of hospitals frequently, dealing with emphysema, cardiovascular disease, throat cancer, cirrhosis, and gout. His heart finally gave out in 1973, and his body was donated for research. Supposedly, the USC medical school has kept his liver and lungs preserved as an example of what a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking can do to internal organs. Chaney’s sparring partner, Evelyn Ankers, became known as “Queen of the B’s” due to her frequent appearances in low-budget thrillers. She retired from the screen in 1950 at the ripe old age of 32, and lived happily in Hawaii until her death in 1985.
Universal’s third Dracula, John Carradine, worked…a lot. His background was in Shakespearean theater, but his Wikipedia filmography lists 232 feature films roles (his own count was “around 300”) — and that’s not counting his copious television and stage work. He appeared in everything from Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath to The Fiend with the Electronic Brain and Satan’s Cheerleaders. (The second half of his filmography does tend toward low-budget horror.) After siring a younger generation of Carradine actors, David (Kung Fu), Keith (an Alan Rudolph fixture), and Robert (Revenge of the Nerds), and via Keith, producing granddaughter Martha Plimpton, Carradine died, probably exhausted, in 1988.
The final inhabitant of the Universal Frankenstein’s Monster’s boots, Glenn Strange, went into TV westerns after his stint in horror movies. He was most memorable in the recurring role of Sam the Bartender in the long-running Gunsmoke. Strange died in 1973, two months after Lon Chaney Jr., with whom he frequently crossed paths as they filmed their television oaters on the ranches and backlots of southern California.
The main Universal monster movies (and their sequels) are availabe on Blu-ray, and have been packaged as “Legacy” collections. There’s individual sets for the Phantom, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, and the Gill Man, covering pretty much every film mentioned here. Or if you want to drop a hundred clams, you can get all 30 films as one big collection.
If you want the four non-Frankenstein Karloff/Lugosi collaborations, they’re available as the Universal Horror Collection, Vol. 1, but the Blu-ray set comes in at over 50 bucks — pretty steep for four old movies, at least two of which are of dubious quality. If you’re OK with slightly lower picture resolution, the same four movies are on DVD as Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi 4-Movie Horror Collection for $9.99. And of course, they’re all streamable for a few bucks per viewing.
The Holy Bee has once again stood on the shoulders of giants to put together his little essays. The real research, interviews, and all-around heavy lifting were done by the guys who wrote these four books in particular.
Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd ed. by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas.
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank.
A Universe of Horrors: The History of Universal’s Horror Movies and the Men who Made Them by Adam Roche
Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror by Michael Mallory.
Get them all if you have a serious interest in the topic. (The Legacy of Horror one pictured below is a particularly lavish, coffee-table style thing.)