Sunday, April 17, 2011

Saturday, September 12, 1970: House of Frankenstein (1944) / The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Synopsis: In Neustadt prison, mad scientist Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) are unexpectedly freed when a wall of their cell collapses during a violent thunderstorm. The two happen upon Lampini's traveling horror show, which boasts as its main attraction the skeleton of Count Dracula. Neimann and Eric quickly murder Lampini and his driver and take their places. Niemann has been obsessed with proving the genius of Dr. Frankenstein and he sets out to the village where the Monster was created.

Niemann discovers that the skeleton of Dracula is authentic when he removes the stake that had been thrust through the vampire's heart. The skeleton promptly transforms into the Count (John Carradine).

Threatening to replace the stake if Dracula doesn't do his bidding, Niemann sends the vampire out to kill the three men who had him imprisoned: Strauss, Ullman and Hussman. Dracula kills Hussman but dies before he can dispense with the hated Strauss and Ullman.

Reaching the village of Vasaria, they encounter a band of gypsies. Seeing a gypsy woman Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) being abused, Daniel saves her and, smitten with her, asks her to join them.

Later, examining the ruins of Frankenstein Castle, Niemann and Daniel discover the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. Niemann realizes that the Monster can be revived, and he plans to place the Monster's brain in Lawrence Talbot's body; Talbot's brain in Strauss' body, and Ullman's brain in the Monster's body. But discovering that the Ilonka has fallen in love with Lawrence Talbot, Daniel wants his own brain placed into Talbot's body....

Comments: If this were Turner Classic Movies, and I were Robert Osborne, I would now be strolling toward you across a tastefully-appointed living room set, promising you a special evening of films starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and Elena Verdugo. Chaney and Verdugo appear in both of tonight's features, in analogous roles: Chaney as a guilt-ridden lone wolf, and Verdugo as a sweet, hapless young woman who vies unsuccessfully for his attention.

But TCM this isn't, and Robert Osborne I certainly am not. And if the person who programmed Horror Incorporated for the night of September 12, 1970 was even aware that two actors from House of Frankenstein would be seen later that night in The Frozen Ghost, we'll never know.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to ask for so much attention to detail. So let's chalk it up to coincidence, and give tonight's first movie a second look. I offered some notes on House of Frankenstein when it was first broadcast, and seeing it again hasn't improved my opinion of it.

I admire Boris Karloff's portrayal of Dr. Niemann, at least in the early going when he is a revenge-oriented fugitive scientist (which, of course, was exactly the character he played last week in The Invisible Ray). Later on, when he dons the white lab coat and decides to swap out brains like computer hard drives, his character becomes almost preternaturally boring. Meanwhile, Lon Chaney, Jr. seems unhappy with his billet and nearly gets lost in the jumble of this oddly-structured movie.

Actually, lots of things get lost; numerous characters enter and exit the film without their storylines ever intersecting, motivations shift around in order to conform to various plot demands, and in the end even the movie poster gives up and simply declares that House of Frankenstein is "History's Weirdest Household!".

No argument here. Imagine the fights over the bathroom each morning! Now that would have made an interesting movie.

I will give points to House of Frankenstein for its inventive finale, in which everyone manages to get killed in the last couple of minutes. You don't see efficiency like that from Hollywood anymore.

Elena Verdugo was a character actress whose dark complexion often landed her in "exotic" roles of various types. Like most of the roles afforded women in those days (well, in these days too) her character is essentially window dressing, but Verdugo projects an innocence that makes her a credible love interest for Daniel, and we feel sorry when she is killed off. Verdugo worked steadily through the 1940s and 50s, but found her greatest fame on television, where she played nurse Consuelo Lopez on the long-running series Marcus Welby, M.D.

Karloff and J. Carrol Naish play off each other pretty well, and once again I have to give Karloff credit for his consummate professionalism -- you never get the feeling that he's bored or uninvolved in the action, even when he's playing a character that he's essentially played many times before.

Of course, Universal's Frankenstein franchise was on its last legs by this time, and the Monster, which had been played with great sensitivity by Boris Karloff in the first three features, had been handed off to other horror-film stars in successive entries. So indifferent were their performances that for this go-round the producers decided not to cast an actor in the role at all, and stuntman Glenn Strange stumbled around under the makeup. He was actually better than Lugosi and Chaney in this role, but of course that isn't saying much.

The Frozen Ghost

Synopsis: Alex Gregor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a successful stage hypnotist who's got it all: sold-out live performances, a national radio show and a knockout assistant named Maura (Evelyn Ankers), to whom he is engaged. Performing as "The Great Gregor", his act is to first put Maura in a trance, then have her read the minds of astonished audience members.

One night a loud-mouthed drunk heckles Gregor, who gamely invites the man up to the stage. Gregor offers to hypnotize the guy and have him answer questions from the audience, just as Maura did. But the drunk is uncooperative and as Gregor stares into his eyes he angrily wishes the man were dead. Instantly the drunk keels over -- stone dead!

Gregor is mortified and turns himself over to the police. But the coroner states that the man was a heavy drinker with a heart condition, and the death is ruled the result of natural causes.

This does not satisfy the morose mentalist, who spends the night walking the streets, muttering "Death....death!" over and over.

So distraught is Gregor that he breaks off his engagement with Maura. His manager George Keene (Milburn Stone), sensing his meal ticket needs a little R&R, urges Gregor to stay at a relaxing place in a remote area for a while, and Gregor accepts.

Inexplicably, everyone agrees that there's no place in the world more relaxing than a wax museum, and Gregor moves into Madame Monet's, which is a sort of mansion with living quarters upstairs and wax sculptures on the main floor. He gets to know the people living there: owner Valerie Monet is assisted by brilliant wax sculptor and freelance kookenheimer Rudi (Martin Kosleck), and Valerie's general dogsbody Nina (Elena Verdugo).

As the weeks go by Gregor begins to feel more himself again, but seems only dimly aware that young Nina has developed a crush on him. Finding out about this, Valerie Monet, who had been nursing a crush of her own, is furious. She and Gregor argue, and Monet suddenly collapses to the floor. Hours later, Gregor finds himself standing down by the waterfront, with no idea of how he got there. He learns that Monet has vanished, and that her scarf is in his coat pocket....

Comments: Let Carrie Fisher complain about being overshadowed by her famous parents. I suspect that Lon Chaney, Jr. had a worse time of it.

The legendary silent film star Lon Chaney had often told his son Creighton that the young man wasn't cut out for a career in film. After Chaney pere's death, Creighton began pursuing film roles in defiance of his father's wishes, but success eluded him. It wasn't until he reluctantly adopted the stage name of Lon Chaney, Jr. that he began to get noticed.

One can only imagine how that felt, to want to prove his father wrong, to prove that he could make it on his own merits, and yet need his father to get a leg up in the business. I suspect that all the success Lon Chaney, Jr. enjoyed never quite took the sting out of having to trade on his father's name in order to make that success possible.

And maybe it's my imagination, but I feel I can see that frustration in the man's performances -- and a good example is tonight's second feature, The Frozen Ghost. So far, we've seen four of the six Inner Sanctum mysteries. Our second feature tonight is a repeat of The Frozen Ghost which, like all the entries in this film series, stars Lon Chaney, Jr.

Inner Sanctum Mysteries run along a fairly predictable groove. Chaney portrays a decent, put-upon fellow, who at some point is accused of murder. The central mystery is whether or not Chaney's character is guilty.

There are other common elements to the Inner Sanctum films*. The protagonist is always successful, and young women always find him attractive, though he seems rather oblivious to it. In two of the films he breaks off his engagement with his fiancee because he assumes she is only going forward with it reluctantly; in two others, he has blackouts during which the victim is murdered -- blackouts that occur without benefit of alcohol, a blow to the head, or a history of such episodes.

Such a convenient blackout features prominently in The Frozen Ghost.

The movie begins with Alex Gregor's mentalist act. Well, it isn't his mentalist act. Gregor is a hypnotist, not a mentalist. See, what he does is hypnotize Maura, then she does the mentalist act. But it turns out that he can hypnotize anyone, and have them read minds.

At one point Gregor says that he's had his mental powers all his life. But how would he know, if he had to hypnotize someone to find out?

Well, it's kind of complicated. This is too bad, because his stage show is broadcast to a national radio audience. The announcer stands at stage left, murmuring a lugubrious play-by-play into the microphone:


Now Gregor the Great is leading a member up to the audience up to the stage....he's going to place the man into a hypnotic trance....


Sir, please sit down and try to relax.


You ain't gonna hypnotize me, ya two-bit Houdini!


Hold still, please! The process can't work if you're agitated!


Remember, folks, Gregor the Great can't read minds, he hypnotizes people so that they can read minds....


This is all a bunch of hokum, if you ask me!


Nobody asked you!


This member of the audience appears to be inebriated and uncooperative....

If I were sitting at home listening to this, I'd probably be yelling, "Martha, for gosh sakes, what is this junk you're listening to? Ain't Duffy's Tavern on yet?".**

After the obnoxious drunk dies, Gregor is certain that he's responsible -- so certain that even after the coroner rules that the death was due to natural causes, he wanders the streets all night, muttering to himself that he's a murderer.

This seems a bit much, even for someone in show business, and when he breaks off his engagement with Maura (he doesn't want her to marry a murderer out of a misplaced sense of obligation) there's no escaping it: the guy is a serious drama queen.

This is supposed to set us up for a big payoff later. Gregor is unsure if he is really a murderer, and then he has a blackout and Valerie Monet disappears. We're supposed to wonder if Gregor really did it.

But it doesn't make any sense to wonder this, because Gregor's m.o. has already been established: he kills with his mind and then turns himself in to the police, whether they believe him or not. If he killed Valerie Monet with his mind, why would he then drag her body down to the waterfront and dispose of it, then blot out the memory? Wouldn't his overweening sense of responsibility prevent him from doing such a thing?

Oh well, Gregor is really just doing double duty here. He's both the protagonist and the red herring. It had to be that way: the Inner Sanctum Mysteries were pretty low-budget affairs.

Neverthless, the much-maligned Lon Chaney, Jr. does a good job leading the cast, and Martin Kosleck steals every scene he's in as nutty wax sculptor Rudi. And as for Elena Verdugo -- well, this is her night, isn't it?

THE FROZEN GHOST hasn't been released on DVD, but VHS copies are available through Alibris


*With the exception of Strange Confession, which was structured somewhat differently than the others.

**Implausible dialogue is simulated. You can hear Duffy's Tavern Thursday nights on this NBC Blue station. Consult your local listings for times and frequencies.


kochillt said...

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE FROZEN GHOST, like last week's double feature, were shot back to back, from April to June 1944. John Carradine's Dracula actually gets a better workout than the other monsters, and I've always adored Elena Verdugo, whose ancestors once owned the property where Universal City still exists. THE FROZEN GHOST has a diverse female cast, with underrated Tala Birell working on a better mounted feature than the usual poverty row movies she'd been mired in at the time (THE MONSTER MAKER). Martin Kosleck makes his feature debut at Universal, and later appeared with Chaney in THE MUMMY'S CURSE. Chaney himself, entering his final year at the studio that exploited his horror stardom, occasionally seemed lost at times, as his addiction to the bottle became more apparent in his increasingly bloated face (the closeups of his eyes don't help).

Post a Comment