Just over half of House of Frankenstein is glorious. Kenton’s direction is outstanding, the sets are imaginative, the actors are doing great. Beautiful photography from George Robinson. House is a scary movie, what with physically but downright evil Boris Karloff running the proceedings. What doesn’t work–like John Carradine’s “just okay” Dracula–gets smoothed out by unexpected gems, like Anne Gwynne and Sig Ruman. It all starts to fall apart when second-billed Lon Chaney Jr. shows up. It’s not Chaney’s fault, it’s just when exhaustion is setting in.
Well, except the general exhaustion accompanies some script problems. Edmund T. Lowe Jr.’s third act for House of Frankenstein is unmitigated disaster. If Kenton had embraced the chaos, maybe the film would’ve kept its momentum, but he tries to rein it in and fails. All of the subplots come up–with the exception of Carradine, who basically gets his own episode. That episode, costarring Gwynne, Ruman, Peter Coe and Lionel Atwill, is probably House’s best section. The sets aren’t the best, but it’s a creepy little story. And Gwynne, Ruman, Coe and Atwill are all pretty dang good, Ruman and Gwynne more so. But the other little stories, which Lowe and Kenton do succeed in establishing and encouraging throughout the busy picture… they don’t end well.
Karloff and Chaney suffer the worst. Karloff had almost half the picture to be amazing and then the second half reduces him to a bit part of a lame mad scientist. It goes from being a physical role to a sedentary one. Karloff is spellbinding in the physical parts. Standing around in a lab coat, he seems like he’s just cameoing. As for Chaney, he never gets a good part. He’s got good chemistry with Elena Verdugo, but she gets all the material. She’s quite good, but the film does just have Chaney standing around.
Verdugo’s part of both Chaney’s subplot and J. Carrol Naish’s subplot. Naish is Karloff’s assistant. Naish is pretty darn good in the film, because you want to like him, you want to be sympathetic. He’s kind of a creep though, so maybe it was a mistake to feel sorry for him. But then what does that rejection of sympathy say about you? Kenton and Naish have a great time with the character throughout the film and it even seems like he might get something to do, but no. The third act fail takes Naish down with it.
By the time Glenn Strange starts moving about as the Frankenstein Monster, the film’s completely derailed. Howe’s script can’t bring all the elements together right. The measurements are off. Simultaneously disappointing, the acting is nowhere near as good in the last fourth or so. The angry, thinly written (and acted) villagers in the second village can’t compare to Gwynne, Ruman and Verdugo examples of villagers. The frustrating thing about House is it seems to realize its collapsing. There’s a resigned air to the third act, which should help with certain storylines, like Chaney, Verdugo and Naish’s, but it doesn’t.
So it’s a disappointment. A glorious disappointment, with mostly great direction from Kenton, some excellent acting from Karloff, Gwynne and Verdugo, some decent acting from Naish and Chaney, wonderful production values (until the final act), and an occasionally ingenious script from Lowe. It’s a shame all the dim moments came together at the end.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Edmund T. Lowe Jr., based on a story by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Philip Cahn; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Paul Malvern; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Boris Karloff (Doctor Gustav Niemann), Lon Chaney Jr. (Larry Talbot), Elena Verdugo (Ilonka), J. Carrol Naish (Daniel), John Carradine (Baron Latos), Anne Gwynne (Rita Hussman), Peter Coe (Carl Hussman), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Arnz), Sig Ruman (Burgomaster Hussman) and George Zucco (Professor Bruno Lampini).