Lon Chaney Jr. occupies an odd spot in the Universal Monsters pantheon. Of course we know him as The Wolf Man, but he also has a history as something of a utility player for the studio, taking over iconic roles after their originators had moved on. He took stints as both Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula after Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, respectively. Hell, he even played a mummy for a time (although this was in a separate franchise from the one Karloff made famous). His game of monster musical chairs hit its peak in 1943, when two franchises came together in Universal’s first foray into a crossover event, Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
While Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man represents the first sequel to The Wolf Man franchise, it’s the fifth(!) film of the Frankenstein series. So while Lawrence Talbot has been resting (re: dead) for several years between films, the poor Monster has been through the wringer. Most folks know about his ill-fated creation and attempt at companionship, but future installments don’t leave him faring much better. At the end of Son of Frankenstein he’s knocked into a pit of sulfur, only to be revived in Ghost of Frankenstein looking a lot like Lon Chaney Jr. (it was at this point that he took over the role). By the end of Ghost, The Monster has essentially been possessed by Bela Lugosi’s murderous Ygor when his brain is transplanted into The Monster’s body.
Which leads us to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which starts with a couple of gravediggers poking around Lawrence’s crypt where they find his body oddly still fully intact. When they remove the wolfsbane that had surrounded his body, they discover that he’s not quite so dead as everyone had thought. Vicious maulings ensue, and Talbot is desperate to find a way to do himself in once and for all before he can hurt anyone else. His quest reconnects him with Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the traveler who explained his lycanthropy in the original The Wolf Man. She agrees to help him get to the village of Vasaria, the home of a certain doctor she’s heard to have discovered the secret to reanimating the dead. In a bit of logic reminiscent of “if she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood,” Lawrence and Maleva hope that perhaps this ability to resurrect the dead means he may have discovered the secret to killing that which cannot be killed.
Alas, when they arrive they find little other than the ruins of a castle and a town of disgruntled villagers who at this point don’t want to even hear the name Frankenstein, of whose lineage only Elsa (Ilona Massey) remains. For obvious reasons, she wants nothing to do with the family business and is primarily just looking for a way to unload the castle and be out of Vasaria.
To make matters worse, Lawrence’s arrival coincides with the full moon, so the villagers have a whole new monster on their hands. The inevitable mob forces a wolfed-out Lawrence into the castle ruins, and when he comes to later, he searches the grounds and, of course, stumbles on The Monster encased in ice. Now, this is where things get particularly interesting, as The Monster has been recast once again: this time as Bela Lugosi. There was talk of having Chaney Jr. play both The Wolf Man and The Monster, but that idea was scrapped when it was deemed too difficult to pull off. So I suppose it makes sense that the role would go to the actor whose character is supposed to have possessed The Monster anyway.
The issue is that if you haven’t seen Ghost of Frankenstein (or done a Wikipedia search like I did) you might not know that by the end of that movie, The Monster has been rendered blind and powerless. This makes for an interesting viewing experience if you don’t know that Lugosi’s awkward bumbling is a deliberate character trait rather than just bad acting. Initial versions of the movie actually included dialogue from The Monster that reminds the audience of his condition, but test audiences balked at the notion of The Monster talking with a Hungarian accent.
Confusing character choices aside, there’s really more to like about this film than not. Decades before the failed attempt at a Dark Universe, it’s fun to see that Universal actually pulled it off in this iteration. This is especially true considering the premise started as an off-handed pitch from writer Curt Siodmak during a lunch break. To his surprise, the idea grew legs, and this film would kick off a handful of movies that would combine different iterations of The Wolf Man, The Monster, and even Dracula.
What makes Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man work so well is that while the logic behind bringing them together is tenuous at best, the film does a good job of combining each franchise’s themes, particularly in their take on how we view the “monstrous.” For The Wolf Man, Lawrence’s relationship with his canine alter ego is all about how we battle our own inner demons. You can’t help but feel for Lawrence, who would have finally found some peace if not for those meddling graverobbers. Now he’s back on the monthly murder train, and you can tell at this point he just wants to be done with the whole thing.
Then there’s The Monster, a creature that’s always served to hold a mirror up to our own cultural ugliness. While The Monster has lost most of his sympathetic aspects now that his mind is that of awful guy Ygor, he still works well as the evil we vilify while ignoring our own misdeeds. In this case, the blinding obsession for knowledge so ingrained in the Frankenstein family is passed on to Dr. Manning (Patric Knowles), the physician initially tasked with trying to help Lawrence who, in the film’s climax, nearly dooms the whole town when he decides he wants to see Frankenstein’s experiment through. Naturally, this means restoring the sight and superhuman strength of a body controlled by the mind of a killer.
And let’s not forget the poor villagers. On one hand, they’ve been through quite a bit, what with the frequently recurring Monster problem. On the other hand, they’ve really developed a bit of a NIMBY attitude about pretty much everything, giving any newcomers the side eye and developing a bit of a “mob first, ask questions later” philosophy. And for those folks who complain that horror has gotten too political, I think it’s important to remember that in 1943, director Roy William Neill casts Rex Evans as Vazec, a drunken, belligerent lout who also just happens to be the spitting image for Teddy Roosevelt.
Now, as a film based on a premise half-jokingly pitched by a writer who needed a new car, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was never going to be counted among the iconic Universal Horror films like its predecessors. But initial motivations aside, Siodmak, Neill, and company managed to create a film that provided a template for combining cinematic mythologies into a single narrative. People’s opinions on the film’s long-term impacts on the industry will certainly vary, but as a standalone product, I’m pretty happy about this particular monster mash-up.