Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man Was the Batman v Superman of the 1940s
Two iconic monsters made a mediocre movie and created the cinematic universe.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe. The DC Extended Universe. The Immortal Universe. The MonsterVerse. The Miyagiverse. Seemingly every modern property is part of a shared universe combining characters and stories from different series. While Marvel’s massive success is clearly the impetus for the current gold rush, the origins of the cinematic universe can be traced back to one goofy Universal monster movie released 80 years ago.
The first of the so-called “monster rallies,” Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man isn’t a top-tier movie from the golden age of Universal monsters, which includes classics like Tod Browning’s Dracula, James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and Karl Freund’s The Mummy. The screenplay, by The Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak, is ungainly and lopsided, heavily favoring one of the title characters. The direction by Roy William Neill lacks the sophistication of masters like Browning and Whale. The performances are stiff and awkward, and the promised battle between two iconic creatures doesn’t occur until a few minutes before the movie ends.
Yet there’s an undeniable thrill to watching the birth of a long-running Hollywood tradition, even if it was inspired by typical studio greed. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man establishes several hallmarks of the modern cinematic universe, functioning as a follow-up to two separate movies, weaving together supporting characters from multiple franchises, and serving as part of a longer ongoing narrative. It’s a sequel to both 1941’s The Wolf Man and 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, with some minor alterations to make the two movies fit together.
We begin with the resurrection of the presumed-dead werewolf Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), pioneering the retcon along with the cinematic universe. Grave robbers raid Talbot’s crypt on a flimsy pretense, and when the full moon shines onto his seemingly dead body, he returns to life. Apparently the werewolf curse also grants Talbot near-immortality, and the plot is driven by his longing for the release of death. It’s an appealingly morbid focus for a largely silly movie, and Chaney’s soulful performance as the haunted Talbot is easily the movie’s greatest strength.
Talbot winds up in a hospital, where he recounts much of the plot of The Wolf Man to a doctor and a police inspector, then escapes to track down the Romani woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), whose son passed the werewolf curse to him. “I want to die, too,” he pleads with her. “Won’t you show me the way?” Maleva’s solution is to locate Dr. Frankenstein, who is rumored to have discovered the secrets of life and death. It’s not clear which Dr. Frankenstein she’s hoping to find, since by this point there had been four Frankenstein movies with three different mad scientists from the Frankenstein family, but never mind that.
When Talbot and Maleva arrive in the village of Vasaria, they find no Frankensteins, but Talbot stumbles upon Frankenstein’s monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen in an ice block like Captain America. The revolving door of Frankensteins and monsters in previous movies meant that Chaney himself was the most recent actor to play the monster, but after efforts to have him play both Talbot and the monster were abandoned, Lugosi took his place.
Best known for playing Dracula in Browning’s film, Lugosi also played the werewolf who infected Talbot in The Wolf Man. But he’s a poor fit for the monster here, lumbering around with the stiff-armed gait that’s become shorthand for Frankenstein parodies. He’s also poorly served by the movie’s continuity baggage, as it attempts to follow up on the ending of The Ghost of Frankenstein.
The monster ended that film with a brain transplant that gave it the ability to speak but left it blind, which explains why Lugosi spends all of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man stumbling about. There’s no mention of the blindness, though, partly because all of Lugosi’s lines were eliminated after negative reactions to an early cut. He just groans and lurches, without explanation.
The difficulty of piecing together various narrative threads is another common problem for cinematic universes, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man faces it again when it has to rustle up an actual Frankenstein, settling on the haughty Baroness Elsa Frankenstein. Ilona Massey replaces The Ghost of Frankenstein’s Evelyn Ankers in the part, but despite Elsa’s references to her father and grandfather, she’s a poor substitute for the well-known archetype of the crazed, obsessed scientist.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man brings in Dr. Frank Mannering (Fredric Knowles) to take on that role, but he’s no more compelling than Elsa is, and his motivations for hooking Talbot and the monster up to the old Frankenstein machines are pretty thin. The real motivation, of course, is to put the creatures in a position to fight, but the eventual tussle is underwhelming. And to think there wasn’t even an internet for viewers to complain about it on.
Later crossover movies, from Alien vs. Predator to Captain America: Civil War, would take better advantage of the possibilities for superpowered battles. But it all starts here, in this rudimentary yet groundbreaking piece of hokum.