Wahay! The first of the Universal monster mash-ups! It's a good 'un too, although in fairness I enjoy all of them. This one has Lon Chaney Jr again in a direct sequel to his original The Wolf Man (1941), while oddly enough Bela Lugosi is taking over the role of Frankenstein's Monster from Lon Chaney of all people. This was Universal's fifth Frankenstein film, with Boris Karloff having played him three times and Chaney once. Apparently he was originally going to play him here too, which would have meant playing both of the film's headline monsters at once. Sounds crazy to me. In the end the producers came to their senses and realised what this would mean in terms of make-up and schedule demands, so gave the role to Lugosi.
There's an irony here. Lugosi had been offered the Monster in the original 1931 Frankenstein, but turned it down as beneath him and thus gave his horror rival Karloff his big break. Lugosi ended up always getting second billing after Karloff, irrespective of the respective size of their parts, and didn't take it well. His career went downhill to the point that when he died he was starring in Ed Wood films, not helped by his medical problems. He had sciatica and got addicted to painkillers, which was already an issue when he made Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. He was exhausted, ill, addicted and 60 years old. A lot of what's on screen in this film isn't Lugosi at all but stunt men or stand-ins, which doesn't help the continuity of his performance. What's more, test audiences laughed at his Monster's Hungarian accent, so all his dialogue scenes got chopped out of the movie.
Unsurprisingly after this Universal was disinclined to reuse Lugosi. All things considered, it's not easy to judge his performance here. There's not much of it left! For example, it was this film that created the popular image of a clumsy stiff-legged Monster with arms outstretched, but the explanation of this got cut. Lugosi's Monster is nearly blind! There are actually plot reasons for this, harking back to the previous film, Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). In fact it's rather clever to use Lugosi here, not to mention ironic in that he also played the original werewolf (called Bela!) who bit Lon Chaney Jr and infected him in the first place back in The Wolf Man.
Strangely though, most of the named cast had appeared in one or another of this film's direct prequels, The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein. That's true of Patric Knowles, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dwight Frye and Harry Stubbs, with only two-and-a-half of them still playing the same role. The only newbies are Ilona Massey, Dennis Hoey, Don Barclay and Rex Evans and there's an oddity even among them. This film is directed by Roy William Neill, it's the man behind all of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films. The Frankenstein series had already used the actors behind Sherlock Holmes, Mrs Hudson and a Moriarty, but Neill sticks in Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) in exactly the same performance! Only the name is different: Inspector Owen, supposedly from Cardiff, although Hoey isn't worrying about petty details like that. He'd also play an Inspector Pierce in She-Wolf of London (1946).
Anyway, I was talking about Lugosi. Is he any good? He manages a few sinister facial expressions, but his Monster is pretty much what it would always be after this: a lumbering lump. There would still have been mileage in exploring its character rather than just its image, but one doesn't get the impression that Universal was thinking along those lines. Nevertheless it's hard to call Lugosi bad on this scant evidence and I'd have loved to see those deleted dialogue scenes. The continuity links from Ghost of Frankenstein could have been fascinating. Besides, one can hardly lambast anyone else's acting in a film that contains Patric Knowles. "I can't do it. I can't destroy Frankenstein's creation. I've got to see it at its full power." Oi, Patric! You can't underplay lines like that! They require vim.
All in all, this is much more a Wolf Man movie than it is a Frankenstein one. It's certainly a better vehicle for him than any of the other Universal team-ups, with the werewolf being played so hard for scares that they arguably end up almost hinting at the traditional link between lycanthropy and vampirism. I'd never seen that done before. We begin with Larry Talbot in a coffin, having been killed at the end of The Wolf Man so convincingly that they buried him. Lon Chaney Jr.'s waistline suggests that despite having been entombed for four years, he hasn't been skipping his meals. Then we have the fact that, as usual, the Wolf Man's victims are described as having had their throats bitten open and their jugulars severed.
Lon Chaney Jr. fans might be interested to see him wearing a cowboy hat at the reins of a horse, bringing to mind his more mainstream roles in films like High Noon. It's also noticeable that there's nothing specifically wolf-like in his performance. Larry Talbot certainly has a temper, but even when he loses his rag and starts shouting at people, it's fuelled by despair rather than anything darker. Nevertheless it's still interesting once or twice to see an occasional air of menace to Larry Talbot. He's slightly grimmer and angrier here than in his later films. Meanwhile as for his Wolf Man... that's not a wolf. That's an ape, I'm telling you. Look at the way he hunches and lollops. Unfortunately Were-Chimps don't yet seem to have caught on in the popular imagination, so a wolf he'll have to be.
This is an unusually faithful sequel even by Universal's standards, going so far as to bring back Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy Maleva. She's great. There's a young rational doctor who's fine except for that aforementioned failure when it most mattered to go over the top and down the other side. We also meet yet another of the Frankenstein clan (as promised in the title), although this one seems relatively well-balanced, being young, female and attractive. Having seen her father and grandfather bring destruction upon their own heads, she seems to have firmly discarded any scientific aspirations.
There are production curiosities, the most bizarre being a musical number. Yes, that's right. Larry Talbot is as nonplussed as you are. I loved the wonderful old-fashioned telephone which needs winding up with a handle. I also like the relationship between Talbot and the Monster, which of course ends in chaos when the Wolf Man sees the biggest target in the world and naturally goes apeshit. I had to laugh. Then there's that mysterious hand sticking out of the snow when Talbot is looking for the Monster in the ice. The cinematography doesn't make a big thing of it. It's just quietly there in the background. Talbot doesn't even seem to notice it. "Aha, the Monster," we think as the audience... but it's not. The Monster's somewhere else, entombed in solid ice. No, that's some other sucker's hand hanging down there and neither Talbot nor the Monster spare it a glance.
In what's presumably a bizarre tribute to Elsa Lancaster from Bride, this is the third consecutive film in the series to introduce a new member of the Frankenstein family called Elsa. The first one was Wolf's wife, the second was Ludwig's daughter and this one is the new Baroness, another sibling for Wolf and Ludwig. Leaving aside the fact that she's being played by a different actress, she isn't either of the previous Elsas because the first had a different family background while the second was a granddaughter of Clive's Frankenstein, not a daughter.
Overall, this is exactly what you'd expect from a classic Universal horror film. It's hardly even as scary as an episode of Doctor Who, but it's a solid piece of black-and-white hokum, full of verve and style. These things are quality. The Wolf Man may not be a very convincing wolf, but he looks considerably less silly than many of his cinematic successors. Have you seen the Howling series? Werewolves on the silver screen. There's a curse there, I'm telling you. This film is unfailingly wholehearted, it looks great and it's thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Another easy recommendation.