As Universal Studios' monster franchises were winding down during World War II, the studio tried to raise the ante and staunch the draining creativity from the properties by putting out movies that featured almost all of the creatures either teaming up or fighting each other. Three movies at the tail end of the Universal cycle form a nice trilogy: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945). While these movies are far from scary, and appear very cheaply made, they are well-paced fun, and I find I get the same enjoyment out of them today that I got when I saw them on the afternoon movie show when I got home from school. My favorite of the three is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy: House of Frankenstein.
In a gothic prison, a guard delivers a meal to a cell, only to have a hand reach through the cell door opening and clamp around the guard's throat. The camera pans to reveal Boris Karloff with a Rasputin-like beard demanding, "Now will you give me my chalk?" The guard complies.
Scrawled on the inside of the cell are many formulas and drawings, as Karloff's Dr. Niemann is trying to recreate the brain transplant experiments of Dr. Frankenstein. And he promises Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), his hunchbacked, Igor-ish cell mate, a perfect body if he can only get ahold of Frankenstein's records. As if responding from some divine power, lightning suddenly strikes the prison, leaving a hole through which the prisoners can escape.
As Niemann and Daniel leave the prison, they discover a small carnival wagon train belonging to Professor Lampini's Chamber of Horrors stuck in the mud, and they exchange their assistance for a ride. The Chamber of Horrors happens to feature as its star attraction the skeleton of Dracula, complete with wooden stake through the heart. Niemann decides that Lampini's show will make the perfect cover for his plans to seek revenge on those who had him imprisoned, and he orders Daniel to kill the Professor. All together, Niemann has something like three plans to fulfill: getting revenge, finding Frankenstein's notes, and returning to his lab for his own experiments.
Niemann pretends to be Professor Lampini, and following a show, he removes the stake and revives Count Dracula (John Carradine). The two make a deal: Dracula will do Niemann's bidding, and the doctor will take care of the vampire's coffin home. Carradine is not a great Dracula--he's better at playing mad scientists and wild men. Of course, his Dracula gets much worse in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, which is among the worst movies ever made. His hypnotic gaze especially over the top.
Dracula enacts one piece of revenge for Niemann, killing a burgermeister who helped send him to prison. Dracula also attempts to seduce the young bride of the burgermeister's son, but he is soon found out and run out of town. However, during an exciting carriage chase, Dracula is killed, as the sun rises before he can return to his coffin. Only thirty minutes into the movie, and Dracula is already dead. In fact, the first half of the movie forms a complete story in itself, giving this movie an episodic feel.
Niemann and Daniel escape the town and head for the next stage. Luckily, the area roadsigns helpfully point out that "Frankenstein" is only 1km away. Along the way, though, the pair stop to watch a gypsy dancer, named Ilonka, perform, and Daniel quickly falls in love. He later rescues her from a thrashing when she won't give all of her earnings to her boss. He then places her unconcious body onto their wagon and takes her with on their journey to Castle Frankenstein.
Or what's left of it. In the previous film, the castle was virtually destroyed in a flood, and both the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) were left frozen in an underground cavern. Niemann finds the notes and the creatures, who will now factor in to his elaborate plans for further revenge. That plan: take the two monsters back to his own laboratory and then transplant the brains of his two remaining enemies into the bodies of the creature and the Wolf Man.
Meanwhile, Ilonka falls in love with Larry Talbot, the human guise of the Wolf Man. It seems, though, that she falls in love with him primarily through process of elimination: he's not a hunchback, nor is he an obsessed mad scientist or creature made of the parts of various corpses. With those choices, she picks the guy who only turns into a murderous monster a few days out of every month.
Together, Ilonka and Larry make a plan of their own: the Wolf Man has recently killed a girl from the village, and if he ever attacks Ilonka, she must be prepared to shoot him through the heart with a silver bullet. On the next full moon that evening, he does attack her, and she shoots him, but not before he gives her a fatal bite wound. Then, in a rapid series of events, Daniel almost kills Niemann, but the creature throws the hunchback out of a window before he can finish the job. Meanwhile, villagers seeking the Wolf Man have noticed the activity at the formerly deserted castle. The creature then carries the incapacitated Niemann out of the castle, past the torch-bearing villagers, and into a handy pool of quicksand. The End.
This movie is nothing if not efficient. It's a lean 71 minutes, and it jams in a lot of plot at a very fast pace. In fact, there isn't a lot of downtime in the movie, and it probably takes longer to summarize it than to watch it. Leonard Maltin's Film Guide describes this movie as "tough to dislike," and I think that sums it up well. It's preposterous and disjointed, but it doesn't slow down long enough for the audience to worry about its deficiencies. At worst, the movie leaves the audience wanting more of the same, and luckily Universal delivered more with House of Dracula, which reunited Carradine, Chaney, and Strange as the holy trinity of movie monsters.