House of Frankenstein

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(4/10) Universal’s House of Frankenstein sees Boris Karloff as a mad scientist hiring Dracula as a hit man, attempting to cure the Wolf Man and restart the Frankenstein monster. All while J. Carrol Naish’s hunchback is trying to bonk a gypsy girl who’s in love with the werewolf. While the nutty story can be entertaining, this 1944 film’s downfall is its contrived plot and structure. 

House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman. Produced by Paul Malvern. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 55/100. Metacritic: N/A. 

1944_house_of_frankenstein_001Quick! Give me the five greatest mad scientists of the forties! Did you say Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carroll Naish? Great, now you have them all in one film! This was the Universal’s second monster mash movie after the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), starring Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Lon Chaney also turns up in House, again as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The film is sometimes referred to as ”The House of Frankenstein” and sometimes without the prefix.

Of course, one name is conspicuously absent from the roster: Bela Lugosi – considering that Count Dracula makes an appearance in the film. But this time around he is played by John Carradine. The reason for his absence has been the topic of much speculation. Some have proposed that it was his appalling appearance as the Frankenstein monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man that made Universal shut their doors. But the problem with the monster wasn’t Lugosi’s fault, and Universal knew it. He was miscast, badly directed, badly scripted, badly doubled and almost edited out of the picture – and the studio knew it. They also knew he could do a good Dracula in his sleep, even if he was drunk or jacked up, as he increasingly was in the forties. This he gave proof of four years later in Bud Abbot and Lou Costello Meets Frankenstein. In fact, some early promotional material shows Lugosi’s name attached to House of Frankenstein. The real reason he isn’t in the film seems to be that at the time of filming he was touring with a stage production of Arsenic and Old LaceLon Chaney Jr. had played Dracula before, in Son of Dracula, but since he was stuck as the werewolf, the Shakespearean actor and Universal’s new favourite mad doctor, John Carradine, must have seen like a good replacement for Lugosi.

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Boris Karloff as Dr. Niemann and John Carradine as Count Dracula.

And considering how badly Dracula is treated in the film, it may be just as well that Lugosi stayed away.

For Universal, it was something of a jackpot to get Boris Karloff back to the franchise. Prior to the fall of 1944 he hadn’t been working for Universal since Black Friday in 1940, and after the reduction of the Frankenstein monster to more or less a prop in Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), he refused to play the part that he once created – also because he was avoiding to get typecast in the lumbering monster role, a role he did variations on in a number of films in the thirties, before again getting typecast as a mad scientist.

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Karloff with J. Carrol Naish as Daniel.

This time Karloff plays Dr. Gustav Niemann, initially almost unrecognisable in a big beard, who is stuck in a medieval dungeon along with his cellmate, the simple hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). Since this is the movies, lightning strikes the prison, releasing the two poor bastards, who escape and bump into a carriage transporting a mobile horror show, consisting of a driver/assistant and the master of the show himself, professor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco in what must be his smallest role ever in a horror film). Niemann orders the powerful Daniel kill Lampini and the driver, and a cut later we see a shaved and recognisable Karloff donning a stylish moustache, and Daniel in the driver’s circus costume.

As has been made clear from some elaborate exposition in prison and talking to Lampini, Niemann is on his way to Visaria, known in previous films as Vasaria, to kill some of the people that put him in jail. He is, naturally, guilty of conducting Frankenstein-like experiments, and conveniently enough Frankenstein’s ruined castle (that is Ludwig Frankenstein’s – the second son of Henry Frankenstein) is located in the same town as his tormentors. Once in possession of Frankenstein’s diary, he is convinced he can also make poor hunchback Daniel ”like other men”

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Frankenstein Castle on the hill.

Daniel insists on picking up the perky gypsy dancer Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) after she is abused by her master, and alls in love with her. She takes pity on him and his deformed body. Daniel and Niemann put up their show in town, and we are ready to begin ghouling.

Now we meet Burgomaster Hussman (Sig Ruman) and Inspector Arnz (Lionel Atwill) at a friendly game of chess. The burgomaster’s daugher-in-law Rita has decided that they all, including her husband Carl Hussman, the burgomaster’s son (Peter Coe) are to go downtown to see the horror show. Niemann, presenting himself as Lampini, shows them a skeleton with a wooden stick driven through the place where the heart once was, and assures them that it is the skeleton of Count Dracula himself. The burgomaster is more interested in this ”Lampini” whom he thinks he recognises, before Daniel lowers the curtain.

Absent-mindedly Niemann removes the stick, and lo and behold, Dracula materialises in the form of John Carradine. This Dracula is quite a wimp and promises to obey all Niemann’s commands if Niemann sees to the fact that his coffin is ready by dawn every night – since vampires perish in sunlight, as we well know. Doesn’t quit sound like the ”I who have commanded the armies of darkness” kind of Dracula we know, does it?

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Carradine as Dracula.

Niemann sends Dracula to kill Hussman, which Dracula doesn’t do. Instead has a nice cup of wine with the family, until he decides to seduce Rita with his Dracula powers, and rides off with her. When he sees the police chasing Dracula, Niemann ditches the coffin and buggers off, and Dracula is killed by the sunlight while clutching the lid of the coffin. The end. Um no, not really, we are only 30 minutes – or halfway – into the film. But that’s the end of Dracula, and now we move on to a completely different film.

Now Daniel and Niemann find the Frankenstein lab that burnt down in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review) and then flooded and destroyed in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Here they find both The Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster incased in ice in a cave. It is, as Niemann points out – glacier ice. Which would make sense if there was any glacier around, but to my knowledge glaciers don’t usually form in isolated caves. But they do in quite a lot of horror films in the forties. Niemann figures that the two monsters know where Frankenstein’s notes are so ”we will release them, and they will help us”.

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Karloff and Naish stumble upon Glenn Strange.

The first out of the ice is Lawrence ”Larry” Talbot (Lon Chaney), immediately settling into his ”woe is me” routine from the previous film, hulking and whining about how nobody understands him and it is horrible to become the Wolf Man. But he agrees to help, since Niemann is convinced that he can cure Talbot of his lycanthropy with the help of Frankenstein’s diary. Indeed they find the notes, but also dig up the Frankenstein monster, who isn’t alive, and load him on the carriage, and off they go to Niemann’s old lab.

Now the scene is set for a number of triangle dramas. The gypsy girl Ilonka falls in love with Talbot, making Daniel jealous. Talbot wants to be cured presto, because full moon. But Niemann had promised to help Daniel, so now he is doubly jealous. Niemann, on the other hand, wants to experiment on the Frankenstein monster first, in order to perfect his technique. For this purpose he has kidnapped one of his former tormentors, whose brain he plans to put into the noggin of the monster (why always these brain switcheroos?). Then the idea is, apparently, to put Daniel’s brain into Talbot’s body, or the monsters, or vice versa – I can’t really keep up with all the developments. But Talbot is impatient, again, because full moon, and ”No! No! I can’t through that again!” Boohoo slobber slobber. And once again, it is curious how nobody seems to be the least worried about the fact that there will shortly be a raving werewolf loose in the house.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and Elena Verdugo.

As a last resort, Larry informs Ilonka that the only way to kill a werewolf is by a silver bullet shot by someone who loves him. This despite the fact that the whole central premise of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was that a silver bullet does not kill a werewolf.

Of course, come midnight Talbot turns into a werewolf, attacks Ilonka, who shoots him with a silver bullet and they die in each others arms. Meanwhile, Niemann revives the Frankenstein monster (now played by the gigantic Glenn Strange). Daniel is pissed at Niemann, the monster is pissed Daniel and now there’s also a classic Universal horror movie mob outside the gates, understandably pissed at everyone involved for wreaking havoc on Visaria/Vasaria/Kronstadt/Frankenstein village for the n:th time. And this time the audience is on the mob’s side. Cue the usual ending.

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Glenn Strange and Karloff.

J. Carrol Naish does a wonderful job as the down-trodden and well-meaning outcast, just as he did as the ape-man in Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942, review). The acting is good almost across the board. Karloff does mad scientists in his sleep, and is clearly adamant about doing his best for the franchise he kicked off so brilliantly 13 years earlier. And despite his murderous schemes, he actually plays Niemann as a basically likeable guy – you actually want the sod to succeed right up until the end. Lionel Atwill is always good, and he is actually better at playing a bit eccentric nice guys than villains – even if he has quite a small role in the film. George Zucco is almost unrecognisable in a get-up that strongly brings to mind the original burgomaster in the 1931 film Frankenstein (review), and he even plays the role as if he wanted to do it as an homage. It is a small throwaway role, but remains memorable because of Zucco’s talent.

Universal’s real find in the film is 19-year old Elena Verdugo, as Ilonka, a petite, feisty girl who brings warmth and life to her portrayal of the simple, but kind-hearted gypsy. Verdugo lights up the screen every time she steps into the picture.

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Elena Verdugo grooming Lon Chaney behind the scenes.

The film was directed by Erle C. Kenton whose crowning achievement is the brilliant Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), but who dropped the ball on The Ghost of Frankenstein. He fares a little better this time, and the direction isn’t really a problem on this film, even though it has none of the Gothic beauty of the early Frankenstein movies. But he does create some moments of genuine atmosphere – most notably the scene with Dracula and Rita, and the end where Talbot and Ilonka are enshrouded in mist in their last embrace is also memorable. There are a few nice camera angles and Kenton isn’t afraid to get close up and personal with the actors, shoving the camera right up in their faces, creating some tense moments. He is good with a moving camera, but could have incorporated more of that.

Despite this being a B movie, it still has a decent enough budget to make for some pretty good sets (a lot of them probably reused from other productions), and Kenton is helped by veteran cinematographer George Robinson to make the most out of them. The crew is to a large extent the same as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – and of course makeup guru Jack Pierce is on board, again working double-time to make both The Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster. The monster makeup certainly looks better on Glenn Strange than on Bela Lugosi, and it looks from the short scenes where he is alive like Boris Karloff actually did some directing, as we again see a hint of the humanity that Karloff so beautifully bestowed the creature with. But unfortunately Strange can’t help but looking a bit like a big oaf, although he handles the physical performance well – again probably instructed by Karloff, as there are some of the trademark gestures of Karloff’s work. This is probably the best portrayal of the monster in the original franchise after Karloff abandoned the role. The only question I have is why they didn’t give the role to stuntman Gil Perkins, who is on board on this film, and actually carried out the part pretty well when he doubled for Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. He looked good in the makeup and actually had some acting experience. Glenn Strange we saw previously playing the lead as the werewolf/gardener in the super-cheap The Mad Monster (1942, review) alongside George Zucco.

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Producer Paul Malvern and Glenn Strange catching up on some reading.

Lon Chaney Jr. just wasn’t the actor his father was, and although he has his moments, he just looks like a clumsy amateur alongside actors like Boris Karloff and J. Carrol Naish. It doesn’t help that Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s script gives him idiotic whining lines through the whole film – making his trademark line ”No! No! I can’t go through that again!” I understand that he’s supposed to be a victim of his circumstances, but would you please give the man some backbone? And for the record, I never could learn to appreciate the wolf man makeup. Pierce clearly took his cue from the Hypertrichosis syndrome, rather than try to make Chaney look like an actual wolf – and then added something that looks more like a pig’s snout that a wolf’s muzzle, and then added a severe underbite. Just looks ridiculous. And then those crazy furry feet. There, glad I got that out of my system, I know the makeup is a brilliant piece of craftsmanship, and I don’t want to take anything away from the awesome Pierce, but I just always thought the wolf man looked absolutely stupid. And then he lumbered around in Chaney’s bulky frame, nothing like the lean predator he was supposed to be. Argh.

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Lon Chaney and Elena Verdugo.

The script is so full of plot holes and inconsistencies, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Even if we disregard the always inconvenient fact that monsters that are dead at the beginning of one film turn up alive in the next, there is much to choose from. One constantly awkward issue, starting with Son of Frankenstein, is the supposed indestructible nature of the Frankenstein monster, an issue I discussed at length in my review of The Ghost of Frankenstein. Remember in the first film, the Creature didn’t burn, but survived unharmed beneath the burning windmill. It was in Son of Frankenstein that the hunchback Ygor explained the seemingly inexplicable survival of the Creature after its apparent suicide in Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) with the fact that it is “indestructible”. Nevertheless, it supposedly died when pushed into a pit of boiling sulphur at the end of that movie. In The Ghost of Frankenstein this plot point reached moronic levels, as the script constantly kept referring to the fact that the creature couldn’t be injured or killed, yet the central premise of the movie was that Dr. Frankenstein Jr. was going to drug the monster, cut it open and remove its brain. Please someone explain – how can you drug and dissect an indestructible, immortal monster? In Ghost we’re supposed to accept that the monster burns to death, even though previous films established that fire doesn’t harm him. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man the Frankenstein castle floods and collapses. In House of Frankenstein Niemann digs the monster out of a block of ice, just as Ms. Frankenstein and Mr. Talbot did in Meets. But a central plot point in House is that its “tissues have been damaged” by the ice. WHAT?! He survived at least three fires, a boiling sulphur pit, flooding, crushing and two bouts of freezing – and now he suddenly has a frostbite?! The same thing goes for the ever-changing nature of the Wolf Man’s mortality, not to mention Dracula’s constant resurrections.

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Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney.

And don’t even get me started on the metaphysics of brain transplants in the Frankenstein franchise – it’s a bog you’ll never get out of. The ever-changing geography of Frankenstein country is another source of mystification.

These are just the inter-franchise inconsistencies of House of Frankenstein. The film has plenty of its own. Why, for example, does Niemann go so awkwardly about killing his enemies, when Daniel seems perfectly capable of strangling them all? Why doesn’t either Niemann or Talbot think of restraining the Wolf Man before he turns? And why does Daniel draw a pentagon when he is supposed to be drawing a pentagram?

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John Carradine, Anne Gwynne and Peter Coe.

Despite the shortcomings and inconsistencies of the script, there’s actually a pretty good plot buried beneath the pile-on of clichés and absurdities. Remove the Frankenstein monster and Dracula, and you would have had a pretty decent Wolf Man sequel. Or, conversely, remove all of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein material, and you would have had an interesting Dracula sequel. The main problem with House of Frankenstein is that it is, in essence, two different films crammed into a single narrative, with a forced and completely unnecessary addition of the Frankenstein angle. If you watch the first half of the film as a standalone feature, it’s perfectly fine. The second half is way too cluttered, but still a decent B reel. But both half together feel – well, exactly like someone made two different films and then decided to edit them together on top of each other. One reason for the odd dualism of the movie may be the fact that screenwriter Edward T. Lowe, Jr. worked from a story by SF legend Curt Siodmak. Siodmak, of course, wrote the original Wolf Man film in 1941 and penned Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which more or less has the same plot as the second part of House of Frankenstein. My guess is that Siodmak’s original story omitted Dracula altogether, and the studio heads ordered Lowe to correct this mistake. Studio hack Lowe had previously co-written the hilarious The Vampire Bat (1933, review) and would go on to write the script for House of Dracula (review).

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J. Carrol Naish, Elena Verdugo and Lon Chaney.

All this said, House of Frankenstein has a surprisingly good reputation, with many preferring to the previous and the final instalments of the franchise. But for the love of Dracula, I cannot understand how Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind grades his films. Once again we have a movie which, quite objectively, is a middling affair at best, one which falls several rungs below not only the three original Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but also some of the earlier sequels – a fact which Rosengren acknowledges. Before giving House of Frankenstein 4 our of 5 stars. How did that happen?! Admittedly, Rosengren isn’t alone. AllMovie also rates House of Frankenstein as a 4/5-star film, with Richard Gilliam praising the cinematography, the atmosphere and the acting.  Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum is likewise enthusiastic, giving the picture 3.5/5 stars. Lovell generally goes against the grain, as he rates Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, at 4/5, higher than Son of Frankenstein (3/5), and concedes that “I don’t think House of Frankenstein is quite as good as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, myself. However, House of Frankenstein is definitely one of the best Universal horror movies of the 40’s.” Granted, I’ll agree with the latter statement, but that really isn’t saying a lot.

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Boris Karloff, an unusually thin John Carradine and J. Carrol Naish.

Derek Winnert awards House of Frankenstein with 3/5 stars, and Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews follows suit with the equivalent, 6/10 stars. Quoth Davidson: “Despite being the first Hollywood film to include Frankenstein’s creature, the Wolf Man, and Count Dracula in the same narrative, House of Frankenstein fails to employ each monster in a satisfactory and complementary fashion. That being said, the combined talents of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and J. Carrol Naish redeem this offering from the one-note gimmick that inspired it.” TV Guide goes for a middle-of-the road approach, rating the picture at 2/4, and Richard Scheib at Moria also gives it 2.5/5. According to Scheib, the Frankenstein franchise had “descended from finely crafted works of Gothic melodrama to formula works that replayed the same limited plots involving a new member of the Frankenstein family resurrecting the creature and the villagers burning the lab to the ground at the end”. He continues to say that “in his own crude way, Erle C. Kenton evinces a certain atmosphere”, and that “the scenes with the revived Dracula are the best in the film”, and I would agree.

J.P. Roscoe at Basement Rejects turns the praise down a notch, awarding the film only 4/10 stars. The same goes for Andrew Wickliffe who gives House of Frankenstein 2/5 stars at The Stop Button. Wickliffe writes: “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. […] 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.”

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John Carradine, Anne Gwynne and Peter Coe.

I suppose the amount of enjoyment you get out of this film depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for some brainless monster fun, this is a pretty enjoyable romp. It’s competently, atmospherically filmed and the acting is solid for the most part. It constantly keeps busy, even if much of the plot is highly confusing. However, if you like the script and dialogue of your films to have any sort of quality, then you might want to give this film a pass.

Elena Verdugo was born in Paso Robles in California, and despite the fact that she often got to play señoritas, gypsies, ”natives” and oriental harem girls, her family had resided in California since the 18th century, when they moved there from Spain. In fact, Univeral’s studio lot stood on land that was once granted by the Spanish crown to a Jose Maria Verdugo, Elena’s ancestor.

A dancer since childhood, she spent her teens in small roles as dancing girls, until she was picked up by Universal, who had noticed her in tiny roles in two recent Paramount films, for House of Frankenstein. She played over 20 films in the forties and early fifties, mostly as an ”ethnic” woman, which paradoxically meant she had to wear a wig, since she was a natural blonde. Apart from House of Frankenstein, her most prestigious film role was in a supporting part in the A film Cyrano de Bergerac starring Jose Ferrer and Mala Powers in 1950. In the fifties she gradually moved into TV and radio. She was the first Latin woman to play the lead in a major TV series in 1952-55 when she played Millie Bronson in Meet Millie. She is best known, though, as the kindhearted nurse Consuelo Lopez in the popular series Marcus Welby, M.D, that ran from 1969 to 1978.

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William Edmunds and Elena Verdugo.

For her role on Marcus Welby M.D. she was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1973, an Emmy in 1971 and 1972, and won an Image Award in 1971. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Verdugo passed away in 2017, at the very respectable age of 92.

Bela Lugosi allegedly never forgave Lon Chaney Jr. for ”defiling” his Dracula role in Son of Dracula, in which Chaney was clearly miscast (although Hollywood loves making up these rivalry stories, so they should be taken with a grain of salt). At least, he needn’t worry about the dignity of the role in John Carradine’s hands. Although he has no help at all from the script, and does the role very different from Lugosi, Carradine brings his absolute best to the table, hamming it a bit at times, but so did Lugosi, but playing a very dignified count. I do like that he doesn’t put on any silly accent, but plays the role very naturally in his own Thespian delivery. One of the best scenes of the film is where he seduces Rita with a magical ring. We do deplore the flapping rubber bat, but the scenes of him turning from a bat to a man – done as an animated shadow on the wall – is pretty neat for the time. It’s just such a shame that the screenwriters didn’t have much respect for the character.

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Elena Verdugo, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe and Lon Chaney Jr.

Anne Gwynne as Rita Hussman was – like so many of the B stars at the time – a former model who became a Universal staple in the late thirties and had a moderately successful career as leading lady or ”the other woman” in westerns and a few thrillers and horrors in the forties, and had a few guest spots on TV in the fifties. She played a substantial supporting role in the third Flash Gordon serial in 1940, had a brief appearance in an episode of the serial The Green Hornet (1942, review) and played the lead in the cheap horror sci-fi western Teenage Monster in 1958. She is quite good as the lively and head-strong Rita in House of Frankenstein, but the script gives all of her best material in the beginning of the film, after which she disappears. Busty Gwynne was also a popular pin-up model among American soldiers in WWII.

Peter Coe was born Peter Knego in Yugoslavia and trained as an actor in England before moving to Hollywood in the mid-forties. His role as Carl Hussman was one of his first, and was followed by one of his biggest in The Mummy’s curse. He plays the role with a lot of energy and sincerety, but his career never really went anywhere and he spent most of it playing ethnic bit-parts in both A and B films and TV series. He was a good friend and drinking buddy of cult director Ed Wood, and Ed Wood actually died in his home in 1978.

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The pitchforks come out.

In a small role we see one of our old favourites, German-born film director, stage actor and bit-part player Frank Reicher, best known as the captain in King Kong (1933, review), who also appeared in The Devil-Doll (1936, review), The Invisible Ray (1936, review), Dr. Cyclops (1940, review) and Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review). As an extra we also meet prolific bit-part hack Gino Corrado, not known for appearing in films like Gone with the Wind (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942).

Janne Wass

House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman, Frank Reicher, Gino Corrado. Music: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau. Cinematography: George Robinsin. Editing: Philip Cahn. Art direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina. Set decoration: Russel A. Gausman, A.J. Gilmore. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: William Tummel. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Stunts: Billy Jones, Carey Loftin, Gil Perkins. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal.

 

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