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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Multiple Monster Movies (originally published 10/97)

Genre films are, by definition, formulaic. When something works, it gets used again, with variations, and eventually it is incorporated into the formula. Horror films are certainly no exception. In fact, when a gimmick works in a horror film these days, it's likely to be repeated without even bothering to introduce variations (see "Friday the Thirteenth," parts I through VIII).

One of the tried and true tricks of the horror genre is the gambit of doubling up on the monster quotient. If one monster is scary, so the theory goes, two monsters in the same film ought to be twice as scary. And a movie just crawling with wall-to-wall monsters should raise the gooseflesh of even the most jaded fright fan. The NBC network will dust off this venerable premise yet again with its upcoming miniseries, "House of Frankenstein," which reportedly will feature a panoply of monsters, from vampires to the Frankenstein monster himself. If you're curious to see how this same gimmick was used when Granddad used save his nickels to go to the Saturday matinee, look for these titles on video.

"House of Frankenstein" (1944). Well, if you're going to steal an idea, don't be bashful about it, I always say. During the thirties and forties, Universal Pictures led the pack when it came to the horror genre. They established their dominance by releasing the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein" and the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula" in the same year (1931), and never looked back. At their height, the Universal stable of monsters included Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and all their relatives ("Bride of Frankenstein," "Son of Frankenstein," "Dracula's Daughter," etc).

When the family tree of the various fiends had been thoroughly explored, Universal turned to the idea of teaming them up. Their first experiment in multiple monsters, "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), was such a success that they were emboldened to expand the experiment. They began work on a project, tentatively called "The Devil's Brood," which would feature Frankenstein's monster, The Wolf Man, and Count Dracula. For good measure, they threw in Boris Karloff as a mad scientist. Karloff had long since given up on playing the monster that made him famous; that role went to Glenn Strange in this film. Needless to say, Karloff has a hunchbacked assistant, played by J. Carrol Naish, to whom he has promised a new and improved body in return for his faithful service. Prior to the film's release it was realized that a Frankenstein film without "Frankenstein" in the title would be a marketing blunder, so the title was changed to "House of Frankenstein."

"House of Dracula" (1945). Universal's sequel to "House of Frankenstein" once again teams Frankenstein's monster with both The Wolf Man and Dracula. In his human form as Larry Talbot, The Wolf Man approaches a famous surgeon to ask if his lycanthrope can be cured. This is nothing new - from the very first Wolf Man film Talbot's disgust with the creature he becomes has been a staple of his character. The twist here is that Count Dracula has also become weary of his vampiric existence. Seeking release from his undead state, he approaches the very same doctor who had already been consulted by Talbot. Improbable, you say? Hey, if you're looking for plausibility try a documentary.

In fact, plausibility is the least of this film's problems. The truth is that neither of the "House" films is a jewel in Universal's crown. Still, for fans of the genre they represent a fun farewell to a classic cycle of monster pictures rivaled only by the Hammer Films cycle of the fifties and sixties. Following "House of Dracula," Frank, Drac, and Wolfie went into mothballs for a time. Then, in 1948, they were dusted off and trotted out to scare the bejabbers out of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Universal's new box office mainstays, in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

After nearly a half-dozen successful comedy outings with Abbott and Costello, the Universal monsters were relegated to the vaults for good. Now, some fifty years later, NBC is going to the well again. Will we shiver, as the audiences of 1931 did, or just laugh along, as the late forties crowds did? It will be interesting to see.

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