Last year when I refreshed this we were just 12 days away from what was one of the strangest Thanksgiving days in American history. All over the country, people were encouraged to avoid the traditional large family gatherings, especially if travel was involved due to the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Even football games were played in empty stadiums. This year, I’m hearing we are going to be back to pre-pandemic Thanksgiving travel levels. I’m not sure how I feel about that. If you do travel to see loved ones, please be safe and careful.
I spent 10 years in the United States Navy and I remember having to give up numerous holidays. I had a Thanksgiving dinner or two while at sea aboard the USS Saratoga (CV-60) aircraft carrier. I lived in Iceland for the better of three years and celebrated the holidays with friends there. I worked in professional football for 20 years. I spent plenty of holidays on the road, including a few Thanksgivings in Dallas. Maybe my experiences over the past 34 years have desensitized me to not being part of a large family gathering this time of year.
Last year, our traditions were upended, our gatherings were curtailed or cut out all together, vacations were put off or scaled back, people were and are still out of work, businesses were hit hard.
I do get nostalgic this time of year. I can’t help it. Regardless of world events. I now live in the Pacific Northwest where we do have seasons. It’s cold and wet and I love it. I grew up in western New York where we had four seasons. This is as close to that weather I’ve been in more than 20 years. I always enjoyed traveling for work this time of year – places like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Chicago were always a treat this time of year.
I grew up thinking my Aunt Carole’s (my father’s only sibling) house was out in the country. The drive out to Scottsville, New York, seemed to take forever. It was picturesque as we drove past the horse farms that lined the road. For some reason I always took note of the rambling white fences that paralleled the road through Pittsford. As we approached the turn off, empty fields and barns dotted the landscape. The topography, architecture, and open spaces cried country. Sometimes Dad would take the expressway, I always preferred the scenic route.
The house had once belonged to my grandparents, whom I never knew. My father’s father died in 1959, and my grandmother passed away in 1966, three years before I was born. My grandmother bequeathed the house to her two children – my father and his sister. I don’t know the whole story (it’s really not important) but Dad didn’t want to live in the house, my aunt ended up with it and lived in it with her husband, my Uncle Freddy, for the better part of her life.
The driveway wasn’t paved. A basketball hoop that hadn’t felt the touch of a net in years (if ever) was loosely attached to the front of the rickety detached garage. There was well water. Eventually a pack of the meanest shepherd mix dogs I’ve ever known took up residence in that garage and adjacent fenced-in yard. You had to walk up a small embankment to get to the well-worn path to the house. I say path because the sidewalk that led away from the house went straight out to the road and did nothing for you if you were coming from the driveway.
My parents and I would carry our dishes to pass, mostly my parents carried them, and I was a lazy ass who couldn’t be bothered with such things as a child. Aside from pies, the only dish I remember Mom making was a sweet dressing made with prunes and apples. Mom made a great pie crust, however, her apple pie filling left a little to be desired. Apple pie filling isn’t supposed to be gray, is it? Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just could have … looked better (?). My aunt made a great apple pie filling that looked the part, golden honey. One year Mom and Aunt Carole combined forces … oh, man, was that a pie. I am partial to apple pie. I hate pumpkin pie, absolutely hate it.
More on pie later.
We had a rather old-fashioned, misogynistic (almost chauvinistic) kind of Thanksgiving, my four first cousins and I. My aunt and her three daughters – Tammy, Debbie and Shari – toiled in the kitchen with some help from Mom, as we menfolk settled in for a day of feasting and watching football. Aunt Carole would tend to the bird, which I am sure routinely tipped the scales at 22 pounds or more. Dave would arrive later after working much of the day. School friends, later boyfriends and girlfriends, then husbands/wives, and kids would join us for dinner.
My father, my uncle, my cousin David (when he wasn’t working), my mom and I (and later other invited guests), eagerly awaited the feasting while watching the Detroit Lions in their annual Thanksgiving matchup. It’s been a tradition for the Lions since 1934. The now unwatchable Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had already been watched at one house or the other, or we would switch over to football in the middle of it. For whatever reason, I always rooted for the Lions no matter who they played. I still do.
I was a finicky eater as a child. And to this day, there are certain Thanksgiving staples I don’t like. I won’t touch cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes (yams) or squash. Just give me turkey, mashed potatoes with butter, salad, soft fresh rolls, and mom’s sweet dressing and I was a happy boy. David would pile his plate a mile high at least three times. My aunt’s army of at least a dozen cats circled like sharks while awaiting the leftovers.
Then there was pie. Apple. Mincemeat. Lemon meringue. Key Lime. Pumpkin. Oh boy, was there pie.
Eventually, we’d settle down and watch the Lions, and maybe we’d catch some of the Dallas Cowboys game (while Uncle Freddy napped in an easy chair), have more turkey or pie. I never knew the Cowboys game was much of a Thanksgiving tradition (it has been since 1966) – I would learn later that they were as much of a tradition as the Lions. My cousins and I sometimes ended the day with board games. If I was feeling adventurous, and the ground was covered with snow, I’d go sledding in the dark and careen through the scrub brush.
We’d have as few as eight or nine, and as many damn near 20 for Thanksgiving dinner. As I got older, many of us took up smoking as a habit and we’d crowd on the enclosed porch (healthy) if it was too cold to smoke outside.
The house itself had a distinct aroma (like old furniture and books), it was charming in some parts, dilapidated in others. It always seemed to be organized chaos. It certainly had something after the wood-burning stove was installed in the living room. Sometimes it felt like a sauna, even in the dead of winter. If it got cold, my uncle would just throw another log in.
All four parents are gone now, they all passed away within a few years of each other in the mid- to late-2000s. All that’s left of those Thanksgivings are memories. We didn’t take many photos of those events, despite my father’s shutterbug tendencies. I couldn’t find any pictures of Thanksgivings past in my collections. There could be slides somewhere, I’m still a little bit of a lazy ass. Maybe my cousins have some.
We weren’t rich people – far from it. Lower middle class if I had to put us in a tax bracket. We certainly were not the embodiment of the Norman Rockwell painting. But we did it this way every year with very few exceptions. As I mentioned, I was in the Navy for 10 years, so I missed some. But when I did get back and attend, it was like I had never left.
Say what you want about what we did or how we did it. These were our Thanksgivings. We enjoyed them and each other.
I reset the trip-o-meter on a 1997 drive from my parents’ to my aunt’s house. I had to know how far it was. I had driven out there a few times on my own as an adult. I still thought of it as the “country.” As I got older, it became less and less rural and more and more suburban. To me, that’s the saddest part aside from the dissolution of the get-togethers altogether.
Nine miles. An online driving directions site says just over 13. Not quite over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house or somesuch.
You know what? I’ll always remember it as a drive in the country to Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house. Those fences and horse farms will always line Route 31, that barn a few hundred yards from the corner of Scottsville Road and Chili-Wheatland Townline Road will always signal the turn.
Those were our Thanksgivings and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I miss them, I have to admit.
Not that long ago I wrote a piece about the Universal Monsterverse, the first true cinematic universe in film history. As I was investigating Universal’s stable of monsters, human and otherwise, I started to take note of those creatures or creations that had fairly complete character arcs. So, I thought I would take a whack at the four characters with the most complete throughlines – Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Kharis the mummy, and Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man.
I am a big fan of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and every year I look forward to their lineup of horror films in October. Hammer Films would be the closest to Universal when it comes to the sheer number of horror movies produced, especially when it comes to remakes and reboots of Universal’s monster movies. One night during their Friday Night Frights last month, host Dave Karger introduced Hammer Films’ The Mummy from 1959. Karger mentioned that it was a remake of the 1932 film, The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, from Universal.
I started watching the movie, which I had never seen, and immediately recognized the Banning name given to Peter Cushing’s character. I had recently rewatched 90 percent of Universal’s monsterverse and I realized Hammer’s film is actually a remake of The Mummy’s Hand from Universal in 1940. Of course, because I was a historian of some variety and am a history buff, and I have no problem setting the record straight, I tweeted this to Mr. Karger and he kindly thanked me for the info.
I often thought of Dracula as a stand-alone (it wasn’t) and didn’t realize that The Mummy truly was just that. Some have argued that The Wolf Man didn’t get a proper sequel, but I would argue that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is just that.
So, this all got me thinking. What were the throughlines, what were the arcs for these iconic characters? What were the sequels, how did it all tie together? And the funny thing is, they all seem to end with legendary comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Here are the links to the five pieces. Drop me a comment if you’d like to see me tackle other characters from the Universal Monsterverse.
If you’re like me, you probably own many of these films on DVD, either in the eight-movie box set, or in the Legacy Collection box sets, or some combination thereof. If you don’t, or if you’re missing some, you can find just about all of them streaming on Peacock (NBC Universal/Comcast/Xfinity), and some on TCM.
UPDATED! When I started this I really thought that Frankenstein’s monster had the most complete story arc in the Universal Monsterverse. I was wrong. It’s Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. After Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, Universal went back to literature for an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains in 1933. In 1935, Universal tackled werewolves with Werewolf of London starring Henry Hull.
Werewolf and vampire mythology are intertwined in central European folklore and many scholars believe that Bram Stoker borrowed quite a bit of lycanthropy to craft his character of Count Dracula. Werewolves were a natural progression for Universal horror films.
Werewolf of London – 1935
Again, I only mention this movie because it kicked off a sub-genre like The Mummy did and featured quite a few interesting elements, including an origin story. Hull stars as Dr. Wilfred Glendon, a renowned botanist. On a trip to Tibet, he is attacked by a werewolf. Upon his return home, he eventually becomes a humanoid wolf-like creature. Valerie Hobson (Bride of Frankenstein) stars as his neglected wife Lisa. Glendon starts attacking and killing the local populace as a romantic rival for his wife’s affections goes to the police to try to figure out what’s happening. Warner Oland stars as Dr. Yogami, who just happens to be the werewolf who attacked Glendon in Tibet.
This is an interesting movie that sets many standards for werewolf films to come. The make-up effects, the mannerisms, the tortured soul … all become common tropes in later movies. Jack Pierce contributed here long before he created Lon Chaney, Jr.’s look six years later.
The Wolf Man – 1941
Lon Chaney, Jr., stars in 1941’s The Wolf Man. Coming off 1939’s Of Mice and Men, Chaney plays Larry Talbot, the son of the local lord, Sir John Talbot played by Claude Rains. A troupe of gypsies comes to town and Larry escorts two local lovelies, Gwen and Jenny, to the festivities. A fortune-teller named Bela, played by Bela Lugosi, is actually a werewolf, and while trying to save Jenny, Larry is bitten. In turn, he becomes a werewolf on the next full moon. Jack Pierce’s makeup effects for the first transformation scene are second only to Rick Baker’s work in American Werewolf in London.
Talbot’s father eventually kills his son with his son’s silver-handled walking stick, or so he believes. Ralph Bellamy (The Ghost of Frankenstein) and Patric Knowles (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) also star.
Talbot is tortured. He knows he’s becoming a monster and nobody will believe him. He doesn’t want to hurt people but he knows he’s cursed and can’t help himself. Although this movie was made well into the Universal monster catalog, 10 years after Dracula, it is one of the most iconic and it led to a pretty complete character arc for Larry Talbot.
Many can argue that The Wolf Man never got a proper sequel, and I would argue that it did, with the next film. The title is a misnomer.
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man – 1943
in 1943, Chaney returned as Larry Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Lionel Atwill now plays the mayor, Bela Lugosi is Frankenstein’s monster, Maria Ouspenskaya returns as Maleva, and Dwight Frye plays a concerned citizen. Patric Knowles (The Wolf Man) also stars as Dr. Mannering. Ilona Massey plays Elsa Von Frankenstein, who appears with Talbot and Mannering in one of the oddest scenes in the entire monsterverse, the Vasaria wine festival.
This is every bit a sequel to The Wolf Man. The fact that the Frankenstein monster gets equal billing shouldn’t take away from that fact. The story transcends marketing gimmicks and centers on Talbot.
Talbot is in search of a cure for his lycanthropy and he turns to Maleva for help. They find their way into Switzerland on the hunt for Dr. Frankenstein, who Talbot thinks can bring about his true death. He’s a tortured soul who wants to die rather than go on living and killing people. Talbot is devastated to learn that Frankenstein is dead. He ends up befriending the monster in hopes the creature (Bela Lugosi) can help him find Frankenstein’s notes. He comes across Dr. Mannering who tries to help Talbot, to no avail, and The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster duke it out before a local bartender blows up the dam which sweeps them away in a flood.
House of Frankenstein – 1944
In 1944, Universal released House of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff plays Dr. Gustav Neimann, Lon Chaney, Jr., returns as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, John Carradine is now Count Dracula, Lionel Atwill is Inspector Arnz, and George Zucco plays Bruno Lampini, who runs a traveling side show.
Deranged Dr. Niemann escapes from an asylum with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel. They murder Lampini and Niemann masquerades as Lampini’s brother. Niemann recruits Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster for an elaborate revenge plot. The film takes place near the fictional villages of Frankenstein and Vasaria.
Neimann and his assistant find the monster and Talbot frozen in the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, and promises to help Talbot find a cure for his lycanthropy. A gypsy girl Niemann has picked up along the way takes a shine to Talbot, angering Neimann’s assistant Daniel. The gypsy girl eventually shoots Talbot in his werewolf form with a silver bullet.
We all know the folklore but Talbot has been “killed” with silver before and we see how that turned out.
House of Dracula – 1945
House of Dracula in 1945 featured John Carradine as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr., as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, Lionel Atwill as police inspector Holtz, Onslow Stevens as Professor Edlemann, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster.
Talbot finds his way to Edlemann who believes he can help Talbot with a bone dissolving serum that would reduce swelling in his brain and alleviate the lycanthropy. Talbot jumps into the ocean and ends up in a cave where he finds Frankenstein’s monster. Eventually, Edlemann’s treatment works and cures Talbot, or so we’re led to believe.
She-Wolf of London – 1946
If I am going to mention Werewolf of London, I must include She-Wolf of London, starring June Lockhart. Directed by Jean Yarbrough and written by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker, a young woman is convinced she is a murderess and the victim of a family curse. More psychological thriller than monster movie, it still falls under the Universal horror umbrella.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – 1948
In 1948, Universal teamed their monsters with an iconic comedic duo in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Lon Chaney, Jr., returns as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, Bela Lugosi plays Dracula for only the second time on the big screen, and Glenn Strange returns as Frankenstein’s monster.
Abbott (Chick) and Costello (Wilbur) play shipping agents in Florida who are commissioned to deliver the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to a museum. Talbot calls from London to warn them to no avail. Upon delivery, Dracula awakens and revives the monster. He has designs on giving the creature a new brain, Wilbur’s. Dracula spirits the monster away while Abbott and Costello are left on the hook for the missing exhibits. Costello’s Wilbur is the object of affection for Dracula’s assistant, Dr. Sandra Mornay, who is using Wilbur to further Dracula’s scheme.
Talbot arrives in Florida and tries to help Wilbur and Chick and stop Dracula all the while battling his werewolf condition. Dracula and the Wolf Man fight, the two end up killing each other, or so we are led to believe, as the Wolf Man grabs Dracula in bat form and jumps out of a window.
Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man Story Arc:
Larry Talbot is bitten by a werewolf, becomes a werewolf, is killed by his father who bludgeons him with a silver-handled walking stick, searches for a cure with Frankenstein’s help, eschews Dr. Mannering’s assistance, befriends the monster before battling it and dying in a flood of raging water and rubble, is shot with a silver bullet, jumps out a window and finds the monster again, then is cured by Dr. Edlemann (or so we are led to believe), and eventually jumps out of a window to his death with Dracula as a bat.
Lon Chaney, Jr., is the only actor in the Universal stable to play one singular monster throughout an entire franchise. He is also the only one to have played every single monster – Frankenstein’s monster, Kharis the mummy, Count Dracula, and The Wolf Man. He played Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man in five films.
Henry Hull: Werewolf of London, 1935
Lon Chaney, Jr: The Wolf Man, 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, 1943 Lon Chaney, Jr: House of Frankenstein, 1944 Lon Chaney, Jr: House of Dracula, 1945
June Lockhart: She-Wolf of London, 1946
Lon Chaney, Jr: Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, 1948
I loved Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man, I thought he was wonderful. His character was a little voyeuristic and quick to fall for Gwen Conliffe, who was engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). However, his nuanced and complicated relationship with his father is the key to this story. As Talbot travels along the arc, what I believe to be a descent into madness, he becomes whiny, agitated, fidgety. Unlike Rains in The Invisible Man, Chaney doesn’t do a very good job of losing his mind.
I watched a 1956 film not that long ago in which the main character becomes a werewolf through scientific experimentation. None of the folklore is present. However, the make-up effects were eerily reminiscent of Jack Pierce’s work. Clay Campbell was clearly influenced. First transformations have been a theme ever since Henry Hull howled across the screen in 1935. Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf, David Naughton in American Werewolf in London, and of course Chaney in The Wolf Man were all great ones.
Great werewolf films are rare. I think there are probably truly five remarkable werewolf movies, and The Wolf Man is one of them.
With the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Universal had tapped into the psyche and pocketbooks of moviegoers. They were eager to capitalize on their newfound success in the burgeoning horror genre.
Universal once again turned to literature, well to a novelist anyway, but went much further back than Dracula’s supposed age for mythology. But what we have to understand here is that this original film, The Mummy, is a stand-alone. I bring it up to make that distinction and to herald it as the dawn of a sub-genre. Make no mistake, the movie never got a sequel, it is a stand-alone.
The Mummy – 1932
Egyptology was a field of much interest by the 1920s. Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. So, a tale based on ancient Egyptian folklore seemed to be a natural fit for a horror film. After all, the ancient Egyptians were known for their burial rites and beliefs about the afterlife. That sounds like Gothic horror to me. Based on an original story by novelist Nina Wilcox Putnam (yes, that Putnam, bookworms) and screenwriter Richard Schayer, The Mummy plays like a reconstituted Dracula.
Boris Karloff stars as Imhotep, a high priest who is embalmed alive because of a forbidden love affair with Princess Anck Su Namun. The film begins in the tomb of Imhotep as the mummy is resurrected by an unwitting member of an expedition who reads from the Scroll of Thoth. The junior archaeologist goes insane as he watches Imhotep’s mummy shuffle off into the night. Edward Van Sloan (Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, and Frankenstein) plays Dr. Muller, an expert in the Egyptian occult. Muller cautions his companions, including the leader of the expedition, Sir Joseph Whemple, about raiding the tomb.
Ten years later, we’re introduced to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a half-Egyptian who may or not be the reincarnation of Anck Su Namun. A queer Egyptian gentleman named Ardath Bey (Karloff) arrives and bewitches Grosvenor. David Manners (Dracula) plays Whemple’s son Frank (who discovered Anck Su Namun’s tomb with the Ardath Bey’s help), who instantly falls in love with Helen/Anck Su Namun. Bey, with the help of a Nubian servant, played by Noble Johnson, who goes on to play the leader of the native tribe in RKO’s King Kong a year later, hatches a plot to reunite Anck Su Namun’s soul with her earthly body using the Scroll of Thoth. All who oppose Imhotep/Ardeth Bey meet with grisly ends and only an Egyptian god can stop him.
In many ways, The Mummy is a retelling of Dracula right down to the casting of Van Sloan and Manners. The opening credits are set to the same piece of music from Swan Lake as Dracula. The major difference here is the love story between Imhotep and Anck Su Namun, whereas there was no love story involving Count Dracula.
The real, historical Imhotep was a renaissance man, an architect, a physician … Karloff turns this Imhotep into a memorable monster in ways only Karloff (and make-up genius Jack Pierce) could. The funny thing about his character is that he is only wrapped in mummy bandages for the first few minutes of the film. His appearance the rest of the time as Ardath Bey is truly a masterful make-up job by Pierce.
The Mummy’s Hand – 1940
Universal kicked off their true mummy franchise with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940. The film starred Dick Foran as Steve Banning and Wallace Ford as Babe Jenson. George Zucco (House of Frankenstein) plays the priest Andoheb. This time the mummy’s name is Kharis and he’s played by Tom Tyler. The make-up effects for the close-ups of the mummy’s face are truly terrifying, with black soulless eyes and an expressionless death stare. Kharis is the guardian of the tomb of Princess Ananka. He is kept alive by generations of priests of Karnak who use a concoction derived from extinct tana leaves, and now Andoheb has been summoned by the high priest to answer this calling.
Banning and Ford learn the location of Ananka’s tomb, and thanks to funding from a kindly magician and his skeptical daughter (who falls for Steve), mount an expedition. Death and mayhem ensues as Kharis is reanimated with tana leaves tea and goes to work on the expedition. Jenson shoots Andoheb and Banning eventually defeats Kharis by setting him on fire.
There are many interesting elements to this film and you can see where later filmmakers drew inspiration from this and The Mummy. What I find fascinating is the attempt to create folklore. The temple at Karnak is one of the most famous finds in Egyptology but there is no cult of Karnak. It is a place, not a person. However, his mythology sets the foundation for the entire quartet of films.
I had an interesting exchange with Dave Karger of Turner Classic Movies on Twitter not too long ago. They played Hammer Studios’ The Mummy from 1959 as part of their October Friday Night Frights lineup. Karger mentioned The Mummy’s Hand was a sequel to Karloff’s The Mummy. Because I’m a jerk, I corrected him. He took it the right way and thanked me.
The Mummy’s Tomb – 1942
Coming off 1941’s The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr., signed on to play Kharis the mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb in 1942. Dick Foran reprises his role as Steve Banning, although aged some 30 years now. He and his family have settled in Massachusetts and Steve sits around telling stories about that time he and his buddy Babe and his future wife fought a mummy.
The priests of Karnak, now called Arkam, are still determined to bring about the deaths of anyone who desecrated Ananka’s tomb, and Andoheb (George Zucco) returns as the high priest who dispatches his charge, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) and Kharis to exact revenge. Kharis is “destroyed” when the local townsfolk set fire to Banning’s house and Bey is shot by the local sheriff.
I have three major issues with this film. There is a major flashback sequence when Steve tells his family the story of the discovery of the tomb on Ananka. The second is the casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. Anyone could have played Kharis. I could have played Kharis. I don’t understand the change of Karnak to Arkam. If you’re going to create mythology and folklore, stick to it.
The Mummy’s Ghost – 1944
John Carradine (Bride of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula) stars as Yousef Bey, another priest of Arkam, and Lon Chaney, Jr., is back as Kharis. George Zucco returns as high priest Andoheb. After Mehemet Bey’s defeat, Yousef Bey is dispatched to Massachusetts to bring Kharis and Ananka home.
Anaka is reincarnated in the body of a woman named Amina (Ramsay Ames), who spends a lot of time wandering around aimlessly. A Professor Norman is involved and he brews the tana leaves that help Kharis reinvigorate. Yousef Bey decides he wants Amina for himself and hatches a plot to make her immortal and claim her. Kharis doesn’t care for this none too much and dispatches Yousef Bey with impunity. Kharis carries Amina/Ananka off to the swamps of Massachusetts. Yes, the swamps of Massachusetts. That’s where the star-crossed lovers sink into a bog.
What I find interesting is the attempt at continuity and the continuation of the Karnak/Arkam mythology. There’s a consistency here that’s not found in many of the Universal horror franchises. Of course, that all goes out the window in the next movie.
The Mummy’s Curse – 1944
Boy, they were just churning these out, two Kharis mummy films in 1944 alone. Universal must have bought stock in Johnson & Johnson’s gauze and bandage division. This film makes absolutely no sense. All of a sudden we are transported from the wilds of Massachusetts to the swamps of Louisiana, with no explanation. From what I can tell, this film supposes the previous two were set in Louisiana, not New England.
Lon Chaney, Jr., is back as the mummy Kharis. A labor dispute has broken out because the workers draining the swamp fear there are mummies in the bog. They’re not wrong.
Ragheb of the Arkam cult and Dr. Zardad meet up with Kharis, brew some tana leaves, and set out to bring Ananka (Virginia Christine) back to Egypt. Eventually, she is taken to the abandoned monastery where Ragheb has been hiding out. Ragheb kills Zardad, and Kharis brings down the house on top of himself and Ragheb, literally.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy – 1955
The venerable comedy team is now in Egypt and they end up running across “Klaris” the mummy (Eddie Parker) and the evil sect led by Semu (Richard Deacon) that controls and worships him. Abbott and Costello, who are given different names in the credits but go by their real names throughout the film, get caught up in what amounts to a murder mystery. They eventually strike it rich in the end and buy a club.
It’s another charming Universal Abbott and Costello horror-comedy. Vocalist Peggy King gives a wonderful performance of “Meet me in St. Louis” during a nightclub scene, and the boys have fun with their usual tricks and gags throughout. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came out in 1948, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man in 1951, and this was released in 1955. The Abbott and Costello films were the perfect bridge to the Creature from the Black Lagoon films which began in 1954.
I could go into more detail about the plots in the later films, but it’s better if you watch them yourself.
The Mummy Kharis’ Story Arc:
So, Kharis is awakened to fight those who have desecrated Princess Ananka’s tomb and defeated in Egypt, he’s brought to Massachusetts and is burned up in a fire at the Banning house, he returns in Massachusetts only to be lost in a swamp, he resurfaces in what’s supposed to be the same swamp in Louisiana (?) and is buried in the rubble of an old monastery.
Filmmaker Stephen Sommers tapped into quite a bit of Universal material for his first two mummy movies, The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). The names and characters of Imhotep and Anck Su Namun are brought back, their forbidden love affair is central to the plot. Sommers tries to stick to some actual ancient Egyptian folklore. The Mummy is a fantastic action-adventure film that pays homage to the Universal mummy franchise.
After taking that deep dive into the first-ever cinematic universe, the Universal Monsterverse, I decided to take a long look at the characters who were given complete story arcs. I started with Dracula, because that film was released first. It was appropriate to begin with the first horror “talkie” after a strong decade of theater-filling silent films. As I’ve mentioned previously, literature, Gothic horror in particular, was fertile ground from which Hollywood filmmakers could mine story material. With the success of a film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Universal turned to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.
Shelley doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her novel’s place in history. Many consider it a Gothic horror tale, and they aren’t wrong. However, I believe (as do many others), that she created the science fiction genre. This is another story we know, or think we know. I re-read the novel for the first times in years a few months ago and I had forgotten how immersive the story was when it came to the creature’s experiences, adventures and sensibilities. Very little time is spent on the creation of the monster, and as much as you sympathize with the creature, his homicidal nature wins out and he takes pleasure in his crimes and relishes his acts of revenge. So much of the novel is left out of the film, most notably the chase across ice floes in the Arctic.
Frankenstein – 1931
One of the more endearing aspects of the theater experience was the delivery of a prologue by Edward Van Sloan warning people of the possible shocks they might receive while watching the movie.
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels that it would be unkind to present this picture without a word of friendly warning … We’re about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you, it may shock you, it might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to, uh, well, we warned you.”
In the film, director James Whale and the screenwriters focused more on the making of the monster than the novel ever did. The story takes place in the fictional village of Frankenstein, where the family has ruled for decades. Henry Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, is holed up in a dilapidated castle with his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). Frankenstein has left his fiance Elizabeth (Mae Clark) and family in the lurch while he completes his “experiments.” Elizabeth and family friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) seek out the help of Henry’s college mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). Victor spends most of his time lusting after Elizabeth.
Waldman, Elizabeth and Victor travel to Henry’s hide-out during an incredible thunderstorm and insist Frankenstein give them shelter. The trio bears witness to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster as Colin Clive delivers one of the most iconic lines in movie history.
Backing up for a moment, Bela Lugosi (on the heels of Dracula) was tapped to play the monster. But for numerous reasons, from what I’ve found, he tanked the audition. Posters and promotional materials had already been printed up. A chance encounter between Whale and Boris Karloff in the Universal commissary led to Karloff’s casting as the creature.
Waldman stays to assist Frankenstein with the creature as Elizabeth and Victor return to the village. Fritz torments the creature with fire as Frankenstein becomes increasingly disenchanted with his creation. As the monster murders Fritz, Elizabeth and Victor return with Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein. Waldman and Henry cover up the murder and hide the creature as Henry collpases. His father, fiance and friend take Henry home as Waldman agrees to the undo the scientist’s handiwork. The creature awakens before Waldman can destroy him, kills Waldman, and escapes to the countryside.
Meanwhile, while Henry convalesces, plans are made for him to marry Elizabeth as the monster terrorizes the countryside. The monster drowns a little girl in a scene that had been removed and left out of the film for decades. Little Maria’s father carries her through the village in search for the Burgomaster and justice. The monster attacks Elizabeth in her bedchamber prior to the wedding, is chased off, and once again heads into the wilds of Switzerland. A manhunt ensues as Henry participates as if it wasn’t his own creation rampaging around. The chase ends at an old windmill that the villagers set ablaze. Henry is tossed off the windmill and his fall is broken by one of the blades. The creature is presumably destroyed as the windmill collapses. Frankenstein is carried home, and there are many fans who believe he died in this scene. I am not one of them.
Jack Pierce created the make-up effects for the monster and created an iconic look. The appliances took agonizing hours as Karloff sat in the make-up chair. The set pieces were stark and bleak and did a wonderful job setting the atmosphere. In no other Universal Monsterverse story arc did more actors get recast in other roles as the sequels rolled along.
Karloff is masterful as the monster as he is able to act and emote despite the make-up and prosthetics and costume. The monster’s reveal is one of the greatest moments in cinema history. As Lugosi did with Dracula, Karloff turned in a character-defining performance for all-time.
Bride of Frankenstein – 1935
It took four years to get this sequel made and James Whale reluctantly agreed to direct, but only if he had complete creative control.
Karloff and Clive reprise their roles as monster and creator, Mae Clark is replaced by Valerie Hobson (Werewolf of London) as Elizabeth, E.E. Clive plays the Burgomaster, which had been played by Lionel Belmore, and Dwight Frye returns but plays a nefarious character named Karl.
After an elaborate prologue starring Elsa Lanchester that is supposed to depict the birth of Mary Shelley’s novel, Bride of Frankenstein picks up right where Frankenstein left off, at the windmill. Una O’Connor plays Minnie, an annoying servant in the Frankenstein household.
A husband and wife lingering at the windmill discover the monster is still alive while Henry is carried home. After an encounter with Minnie, the monster runs off to wander the countryside. There are many great moments while he does this, including the telephone pole forest and a fantastic symbolic shot of the monster and a crucifix. When we return to the Frankenstein estate, it’s revealed that Henry has indeed survived.
While Henry convalesces from his fall from the windmill, we learn he and Elizbeth are now married and are planning to leave the area. Another mentor and colleague from Henry’s past, Professor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) shows up on his doorstep. Pretorius tries to convince Frankenstein to join him in his own monstrous experiments, but Henry refuses. Pretorius eventually befriends the monster and uses the creature to kidnap Elizabeth as incentive to create a mate for the monster.
Elsa Lanchester is revealed as the Bride in another great horror cinema moment and the female creature rejects the Frankenstein monster out of hand. He is distraught and sends Henry and Elizabeth off while he pulls a lever that is the lab’s self-destruct mechanism. The entire castle and half the mountain explode, presumably killing the monster, Pretorius and the Bride.
Karloff’s monster talks in this film with limited dialogue and Pierce works his make-up magic once again with the monster and the Bride. Pretorius’ creations are delightfully creepy and Dwight Frye’s Karl character gets chucked off the top of the lab by the monster. Frye has now played three characters killed by Universal monsters – Renfield, Fritz and Karl. Lanchester’s Bride is the only Universal monster who does not commit a murder.
One of the great scenes of the film is the monster’s encounter with the blind hermit. This scene is a seriously condensed version of the creature’s hidden observation of a family in the novel. John Carradine, who goes on to play Dracula in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, plays one of the hunters who chases the monster off.
This is not only the best of all of the films in the Universal Monsterverse, it’s considered one of the best movies of all-time.
Son of Frankenstein – 1939
Somewhere along the line between Bride of Frankenstein and 1939’s Ghost of Frankenstein, Henry and Elizabeth brought two sons into the world the conventional way (as far as we know). Basil Rathbone stars as Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein and Josephine Hutchinson plays Elsa, his wife. Karloff plays the monster for the last time. Lionel Atwill joined the Universal monster stable at this point as Inspector Krogh. Lionel Belmore and Michael Mark return to the franchise as different characters. Bela Lugosi, who turned down the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film, joins the cast as Ygor.
Ygor was hanged at some point in his life and is now a permanently disfigured hunchback. He finds and befriends the Frankenstein monster, who has somehow survived the events at the end of Bride of Frankenstein. The Frankenstein family has returned to the ancestral home in Switzerland and the locals are none too happy about it.
While trying to clear the family name, Wolf falls prey to his late father’s scientific inclinations and revives the monster. Ygor uses the monster, who can no longer talk, to exact revenge on the jurors who convicted him and sent him to the gallows. Krogh is a one-armed police inspector. His artificial arm replaced the one the monster ripped out some years earlier. This character is famously parodied in Young Frankenstein, as is the dart game with Wolf.
The monster does show some humanity when he refuses to kill Wolf’s young son. Wolf knocks the monster into a sulfur pit and then packs up his family and leaves Switzerland. There was much rejoicing. Ygor is presumed dead from a gunshot fired by Wolf.
Lugosi’s performance as Ygor is nuanced and tremendously convincing. As good as he was as Count Dracula, this was probably the best performance of his entire career.
Ghost of Frankenstein – 1942
The Ghost of Frankenstein was released in 1942 with Lon Chaney, Jr., starring as the monster. Ralph Bellamy (The Wolf Man, 1941) also appears in this film along with Lionel Atwill (Inspector Krogh in the previous film) as Dr. Theodore Bohmer. Cedric Hardwicke stars as Henry’s other son, Ludwig Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi returns as Ygor (presumed dead in the last film) and Evelyn Ankers plays Ludwig’s daughter Elsa.
For whatever reason, the “Von” in the Frankenstein name has been dropped for this film. Aside from the inexplicable survivability of the monster, this is where continuity starts to go off the rails.
After the townspeople are allowed to blow up Castle Frankenstein, the monster is freed from his sulphur pit tomb and discovered by Ygor.
The ghost of Henry, also played by Hardwicke, (Colin Clive died in 1937) implores his son to give the monster a good brain. As part of a convoluted plot, eventually, Ygor’s brain is put into the monster as Atwill’s Dr. Bohmer is the heavy in this film. Ygor, now the monster, kills Ludwig but goes blind, and ends up trapped in the destroyed chateau.
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man – 1943
Lon Chaney, Jr., who played the monster in the previous film, returns as Larry Talbot/The Wolf man in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Lionel Atwill, Dr. Bohmer in Ghost of Frankenstein, now plays the mayor. Bela Lugosi, who played Ygor in the last two Frankenstein pictures, is now the Frankenstein monster. Maria Ouspenskaya (The Wolf Man) returns as Maleva, the gypsy, and Dwight Frye plays a concerned citizen. Patric Knowles (The Wolf Man) also stars as Dr. Mannering. Ilona Massey plays Ludwig’s daughter, the Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.
This movie is more of a vehicle for Larry/Talbot than the Frankenstein monster. I’ll cover that in detail when we get to The Wolf Man. We’re back in the village of Vasaria for this one as Talbot is now on a quest to cure his lycanthropy. Eventually, he comes to believe the monster, who is blind and cannot talk once again, can help him find Ludwig Frankenstein’s notes so he can find the secrets to life and death and effect his own demise.
Dr. Mannering catches the monster-making bug and returns the monster to full strength. The monster, who is no longer Ygor for some odd reason, regains his eyesight and takes on the Wolf Man in a battle royale. If he is still Ygor, he’s brain damaged at this point. They are presumably killed when a dam is blown up by the local barkeep and the castle is swept away in a flood.
The funny thing here is that Lugosi played Ygor for two films. Ygor had his brain transplanted into the monster’s cranium in Ghost of Frankenstein, and spoke as Ygor through the monster. When Lugosi returns as the actual monster in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, director Roy William Neill and screenwriter Curt Siodmak really swung and missed here. Instead of developing the Ygor-as-the-monster pathology, Lugosi just stumbles his way through the movie until his fight with the Wolf Man.
House of Frankenstein – 1944
In 1944, Universal released the second “mash-up” film of their monsterverse with House of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff plays Dr. Neimann, Lon Chaney, Jr., returns as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, John Carradine is now Count Dracula, Glenn Strange is the monster, Lionel Atwill is now Inspector Arnz, and George Zucco plays Professor Bruno Lampini.
The deranged Dr. Niemann escapes from an asylum with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel. They murder Lampini and Niemann masquerades as Lampini’s brother. Niemann recruits Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster for an elaborate revenge plot. The film takes place near the fictional villages of Frankenstein and Vasaria, both thought to be in Switzerland.
Neimann and his assistant find the monster and Talbot frozen in the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. As for the monster’s part in this film, he kills Niemann’s hunchback assistant, and then carries Niemann off to the marshes and the two presumably die after sinking in quicksand.
Strange adds something to the monster in his portrayal, a stoicism, a grace, and seemingly more morality than seen before. The fact that the monster was actually Ygor has been completely abandoned and forgotten at this point. Strange plays the monster more like Karloff did in the first film.
House of Dracula – 1945
House of Dracula in 1945 featured John Carradine once again as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr., as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, Lionel Atwill as police inspector Holtz, Onslow Stevens as Professor Edlemann, and Glenn Strange returned as the Frankenstein monster.
Dracula claims to want a cure for his vampirism, yet has designs on Edlemann’s nurse. Edlemann becomes infected with Dracula’s blood and turns into a monster himself. Talbot continues to seek a cure for his lycanthropy and believes Edlemann can help him.
As for the monster, he is found by Talbot in a cave that presumably connects to the marsh with the quicksand, Edlemann revives him and the monster once again tussles with local police, townspeople and the Wolf Man. As we’ve seen all too often by this point, the monster is trapped as a burning castle that falls down around him.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – 1948
By the late 1940s, Universal had bled their stable of monsters dry and decided to squeeze more money out of the franchise by teaming them up in a comedy with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Bela Lugosi finally returns as Dracula, 17 years after the original film. He’d like to give the Frankenstein monster, played once again by Glenn Strange, a new brain and he’s selected Wilbur (Costello). Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is wise to Dracula’s plan.
Abbott (Chick) and Costello play shipping agents in Florida who are commissioned to deliver the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to a museum. Dracula awakens and revives the monster. Dracula spirits the monster away while Abbott and Costello are left on the hook for the missing exhibits. Costello’s Wilbur is the object of affection for Dracula’s assistant, Dr. Sandra Mornay, who is using Wilbur to further Dracula’s scheme.
Talbot arrives in Florida and tries to help Wilbur and Chick and stop Dracula all the while battling his own Wolf Man issues. Dracula and the Wolf Man fight, and the two end up killing each other.
As for the monster, at the end of the film he chases Joan Raymond (an insurance investigator) and Professor Stevens (Sandra’s colleague) and Wilbur and Chick onto a pier. Wilbur and Chick escape via rowboat while the others set the monster on fire.
To summarize the Frankenstein’s monster story arc:
The funny thing that has happened over the years is that Dr. Frankenstein and the monster have become synonymous. When we say, “Frankenstein,” most people think you’re referring to the monster. I’ll make the distinction here because Dr. Henry Frankenstein, the creator, was only part of two films as the actor who played him, the man who uttered the famous line, “It’s ALIVE!” Colin Clive, died two years after Bride of Frankenstein.
The monster is created from spare body parts and brought to life and “dies” as the windmill he is holed up in is burned to the ground. He survives only to be rejected by the mate created especially for him, and pulls a self-destruct lever in the lab thus destroying the castle and himself. The monster is found and rescued by a convicted criminal, a hunchback named Ygor, and is revived by Henry’s son Wolf, who eventually knocks the monster into a sulfur pit while protecting his own son from the monster. Ygor finds the monster after it is freed from the sulphur by an explosion, and Henry’s other son, Ludwig, puts Ygor’s brain into the monster’s head and eventually the monster goes blind. The monster is boosted to full power by Dr. Mannering and regains his eyesight in time for a battle royale with The Wolf Man and the two are killed in a flood when a bartender goes rogue and blows up the local dam. The monster is found and revived by Dr. Niemann. He eventually carries Niemann off and the two drown in quicksand. He is then found some time later by Larry Talbot in a connecting cave, takes on everybody and is killed in a burning, collapsing castle. The monster is then revived by Dracula, who wants to give him a new brain, and is eventually burned to death on a pier.
Whew. I think I got it.
The first two films are straightforward Gothic horror science fiction movies, but the plots get thicker and more convoluted as the series goes along. The big disappointment is what happened to the Ygor-monster character. Bela Lugosi could have done so much as the monster with Ygor’s brain, but instead they dropped that element in short order. From that point on, the monster is not much more than a mindless, unwitting pawn. That doesn’t mean the portrayals were bad, or that the monster wasn’t given pathos and some memorable moments. That just means the filmmakers could have done so much more. We accepted the departure from the novel as the films took on a life of their own, but the plots got more and more confusing, and other actors chewed scenery.
I also wonder what kind of film we could have gotten if Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein were one movie. Elements of the novel are present in both, and I think it would have been epic if the films had been one complete story. Then again, we wouldn’t have the two spectacular films we have today.
Boris Karloff: Frankenstein, 1931 Boris Karloff: Bride of Frankenstein, 1935 Boris Karloff: Son of Frankestein, 1939 Lon Chaney, Jr.: Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942 Bela Lugosi: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, 1943 Glenn Strange: House of Frankenstein, 1944 Glenn Strange: House of Dracula, 1945 Glenn Strange: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948
One thing we can tell for sure, the conclusion we can draw, every doctor or scientist who got involved could not resist the urge, the pull to play God and experiment with the monster in his or her own way. And that truly is the moral of the story after all, isn’t it?
As Edward Van Sloan put it in the prologue, “… the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.”
And that can be said not only of Henry Frankenstein, but his sons Wolf and Ludwig, Professor Pretorius, and Drs. Waldman, Mannering, Neimann, Edlemann, and Mornay as well.