Friday, 22 July 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part four - Rumble in the Castle

Stitch this - fur flies in the original monster smack-down

Lon Chaney jnr, having played the Monster and the Wolf Man in their previous solo films,
was originally slated to play both roles in this film.
The monster mash-ups I’ve looked at so far have involved generally amicable meetings of monsters.  Disagreements are inevitable, but that hasn’t been the core of either Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Monster Squad, or Bride of Frankenstein.  This first sequel to The Wolf Man and fourth to Frankenstein was set up purely by Universal t have it’s two most profitable monsters ‘throw down’.  Despite going on to arguably eclipse the other horror-nati, Dracula wasn’t given a franchise of his own by Universal (even the Mummy got his own film series)! I’ll speculate on the reasons for this when we look at our next film.

But the fact that poor Bela Lugosi never received the recognition which he deserved at the time is undeniable, and here we see him reduced to playing the Frankenstein Monster - in his sixties.  He had famously turned down the role in his hey-day, rightly deeming it ‘not sexy enough’, and so unknown actor Boris Karloff took the role and his own name to undying stardom instead.

Didn't your mother tell you never to thaw out Monsters you don't know?
Not only were Lugosi’s speaking scenes cut in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (at this point the monster has the brain of Ygor - also played by Lugosi in a previous instalment), but so was any reference to him being blind as a result of that transplant.  This renders Lugosi’s flailing movements a little puzzling to audiences, but did also set the template for the arms-outstretched ‘Frankenstein Monster walk’, forever.
Another theory for Lugosi's lines being cut was the studio's reluctance in having a heavily European-accented antagonist delivering scripted dialogue about world domination in 1943. 
Either way, the Lugosi is more often doubled by stuntmen in this film - particularly in the climactic battle.

Or open wolfsbane-filled coffins on the night of a full moon?
In the other corner, poor Lawrence Talbot finds that the werewolf curse he gained in The Wolf Man also appears to make it impossible for him to stay dead.
In a splendidly creepy scene, Grave-robbers get the fright of their lives when they break into Talbot’s tomb, allowing moonlight to shine into the wolfsbane-filled coffin.
Revived and more determined than ever to rid himself of the curse, he travels to Universal’s fairy tale Europe to once again seek help from gypsy woman Maleva who only offers spectacularly bad advice.  She recommends a certain doctor familiar with the secrets of life after death - and they journey together to castle Frankenstein.

The first part of this film - the ‘Wolf Man sequel section’, is as good as anything Universal ever produced.  Lon Chaney jnr is as one note as ever, but it is the perfect note for his tortured character.  It is only when he thaws out and befriends the weakened Frankenstein monster that the film seems to veer off the rails.

Larry Talbot and the Monster seem to get on, but his alter-ego takes exception.
I first saw this with friends at a legendary Sunday Horrors session in my youth, and it certainly entertained. A scene beginning with an excruciating musical number, cut short by Talbot understandably losing his temper and ending with him leaving the scene on a horse drawn cart with the Monster kicking wine barrels off the back, is comedy gold.  We had to include that it was some elaborate improvised sequence performed to pad out the running time.

Our irritating hero - who begins the film as a normal surgeon but seems to rapidly graduate to international detective and mad scientist, has equally confusing motives.  Instead of curing Talbot and draining off the Monster’s remaining energy as promised, he suddenly decides to supercharge Lugosi instead.

No-one seems to have their heart in it in this publicity still -
but at least Ilona Massey as Baroness Frankenstein looks
like she's toppled out of a Hammer film.
This seems to both revive the Monster’s eyesight and his libido as well, promptly, and understandably, carrying-off the rather delicious Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.  Larry is having none of this however, and thanks to the experiment being carried out on yet another night of a full moon, transforms and defends the lady’s honour in a brief, but enthusiastic, tussle with Lugosi’s stunt double.

It all kicks-off in the castle - art by Joe Jusko
The biffo is cut short when the local publican, looking disturbingly like Benny Hill’s character from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, dynamites the dam above the castle and deluges the battling beasts in mighty flood. Hopefully it also wipes out the asinine villagers and our dull doctor/detective as well.  (Are we really supposed to care more about these extras than the monsters?)
And no, I haven’t made any of this up.

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t love this film, because I do.  It is the original, definitive creature clash, rightly paid tribute to in the form of clips and music cues appearing in other movie matches to come - King Kong vs Godzilla, Freddy vs Jason and Alien vs Predator.

Universal itself was to repeat the multiple monster formula from here on, but sadly this film also sees the point at which the studio’s once prestigious Horror output dropped from A to B-movie status.

Marvel comics get in on the act in the early 1970s.

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