Long before FREDDY VS. JASON, ALIENS VS. PREDATOR, or even KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, Universal Pictures revolutionized franchise horror by pitting two of their most famous, frightening creatures against one another in one epic film. When werewolf Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is revived by the rays of the moon after his tomb is plundered by thieves, he seeks the help of old gypsy women Maleva, who takes him to the castle of Frankenstein in hope that the infamous scientist might have some insight into how to end Talbot’s tortured existence. While the mad doctor himself is dead, his monstrous creation remains frozen in the caves beneath the ruins. Talbot frees the monster and soon, with the help of a concerned doctor and the heiress to the Frankenstein legacy, sets out to unlock its creator’s secrets.
A lean, intelligent screenplay by Curt Siodmak makes FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE WOLFMAN one of Universal’s finest horror outings. The first half of the film is a faithful and direct follow-up to THE WOLFMAN (1941), detailing Talbot’s resurrection and agony over his unwilling immortality. The grave robbing scene is scary and tense, and great performances by Chaney, Patric Knowles (as Doctor Mannering) and Dennis Hoey (Police Inspector Owen) give the early proceedings considerable emotional depth, lending weight and credibility to a plot that could easily have become a one-note gimmick. Chaney again elicits a great deal of sympathy from the audience, his Wolfman almost assuming the role of protagonist by the final reel. The action moves along at a nice clip so there is little time to get bored or question the pseudo-science once the monster is found and the Frankenstein portion of the story begins. Ilona Massey, Maria Ouspenskaya, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye and Lionel Atwill round out the excellent cast, all doing a fine job here.
Bela Lugosi finally assumes the role he once turned down, the Frankenstein monster, but he is probably the least effective of all the actors who played the part during the 30s and 40s. He is too short and a bit pudgy, and his thick Hungarian accent reportedly lead to all of the monster’s dialogue scenes being removed. This undermines the performance severely, since the monster was rendered blind at the end of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), but no reference to his blindness is left in the film. As a result, Lugosi appears stiff and clumsy rather than menacing. Hopefully someday, Universal will release a restored version that includes the missing dialogue (if those scenes still exist).
Other than the confusion regarding the monster’s vision, continuity is surprisingly sharp here. As a direct sequel to two other films (only one of which was written by Siodmak), one would expect a few slips, but this movie gets the details right. This is one of the all-time best examples of how to make a sequel mesh seamlessly with its predecessors while still expanding and adding to the mythos.
The much-anticipated battle between monster and werewolf isn’t quite the savage affair it could have been. It comes in the final minutes of the film, as a drunken villager blows up a nearby dam and floods the whole area. Though exciting, this clash is far too short and is hurt by Lugosi’s stiff, awkward portrayal of the monster. Still, it is an unforgettable moment, the first time two screen horror legends would engage in hand-to-claw combat. Unlike many such meetings in contemporary cinema, this seminal monster melee comes at the end of a very smart, extremely entertaining film, so it’s difficult to be too disappointed by its brevity. FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN is still the standard by which “crossover” films should be judged, and in that respect it casts a long and imposing shadow.