October 2, 2013

What Might Have Been: The Universal Monster Rally You Never Saw

When the Metzinger Sisters at Silver Scenes put the call out for participants for their Imaginary Film Blogathon, I experienced a flashback (the cinematic kind of course -- I hardly ever drop acid anymore). I saw a skinny, pasty-faced 10 year-old-boy wearing a Dracula cape and directing a motley assortment of neighborhood kids in short plays based on the Universal monster rallies he'd recently seen on the late night horror show (specifically Gravesend Manor, central Iowa's Saturday night horror fest broadcast by WOI Channel 5, and hosted by Malcolm, the Duke, Esmerelda and Claude). The plays were held in my parents' garage, with the garage door used as a very noisy curtain. The audience consisted of extremely patient, slightly bemused parents, with a few semi-curious siblings and friends also parking their butts in the folding chairs.

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Scenes
As you can imagine, this was in a place and time far away and long ago: a.) neighbors actually knew each other and would hang out together; b.) adults would occasionally find the time to sit still for the nerdy neighbor kid's monster movie-inspired plays; and c.) garages were still used primarily for parking cars vs. storing a lifetime's worth of accumulated junk, and could therefore easily be converted into a makeshift theater.

Alas, from those promising beginnings I failed to become another Steven Spielberg or George Lucas (or even a Joe Dante for that matter), but from time to time over the years, I've thought about what I might do with a Universal monster mash-up. Frankenstein meeting the Wolf Man was a revelation for the 10-year-old me. (At the time, I wasn't the sharpest pencil in the box -- I wondered why Bela Lugosi was listed in the credits but didn't seem to appear in the movie. It took me some time to realize it was dear Bela under all that Frankenstein monster make-up!) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a tasty appetizer, but the chefs at Universal outdid themselves with the sumptuous feast of House of Frankenstein! (On the other hand, House of Dracula, while certainly moody and atmospheric, left a taste in the mouth like Tuesday leftovers. Can you tell it's getting close to dinner time as I write this?)

For a kid who's very, very into monsters, two in the same film is great, but three classic monsters is sublime. Sometimes, more is indeed more, and the best recipes come from piling on the ingredients: starting with a base of Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man, throw in Boris Karloff as a mad, vengeful doctor, add the gaunt, debonair John Carradine as Dracula, and you've got the perfect monster stew! (Yep, it really is getting close to dinner time.) Sure, the various plot lines don't coalesce very well, and the monsters don't really meet up with one another, but there's just something very satisfying and likable in the attempt to merge three classic monster universes. And for those of you who like a side dish or two of pathos with their monster main course, I challenge you not to shed a tear for the lovelorn hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) or the tragic gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) who loves a wolf man. (Okay, I'm taking a break and getting something to eat…)

Centers of the abnormal brain
(Alright, I'm back.) I know that as a responsible adult, I'm supposed to revere Universal's classic monsters of the '30s and disparage the make-a-quick-buck kiddie matinee monster rallies of the '40s, but as a lover of B's, I can't bring myself to be that high-minded. Frankly, the original Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy are slooooowwwww-moving and sleep inducing compared to the frenetic, wacky energy of the rallies. One of the greatest horror movies of all time, The Bride of Frankenstein, is essentially an intellectual exercise in spite of its B horror trappings. In contrast, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein engage the cheesy fun center of the brain. And that's not a bad thing, as I've tried to demonstrate with this blog.

Make no mistake, cheesy fun is hard to pull off. Like good comedy, it requires a delicate balance. Try just a little too hard, and you've got something that's patently artificial and just plain bad. Did the producers of Universal's monster rallies of the '40s fail miserably? Look at it this way -- these films have been issued on VHS and DVD multiple times, are still in print, and have been rated by thousands of fans and analyzed by hundreds of reviewers on sites like IMDb. Glenn Strange, the B western actor who donned the Frankenstein monster makeup for several of the rallies, over the years has become the iconic monster, more so perhaps than Boris Karloff. Not bad for throwaway kids' stuff, huh?

So, it is only with the deepest respect for the later films that I try my hand at conceptualizing a Universal rally that might have been. Mixing and matching monsters is no easy task. Naturally, any similarity in what follows to an actual B movie is purely coincidental.

Poster for the monster rally that never was: Chamber of Horrors (1944)
Now Playing: Chamber of Horrors (1944)

Pros: Brings together neglected and underrated Universal monsters in an atmospheric setting
Cons: Script is a confusing mess (okay, so I'm not a screenwriter!)

Directed by George Waggner
Cinematography by George Robinson
Cast: Henry Hull (Kruller), Claude Rains (Cedric Griffin), Evelyn Ankers (Isabel Lewis), Turhan Bey (Eric Iverson), Martin Kosleck (Peter Hoffman), Bela Lugosi (Ahmet), George Zucco (Andoheb), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Kharis), Acquanetta (Ananka)

In their comprehensive and cheesily fun survey of Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 (McFarland, 2nd Ed. 2007), Tom Weaver and John and Michael Brunas note that the penultimate monster rally, House of Frankenstein, had something of a shaky start:
"On June 7, 1943, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Universal was developing a new shocker entitled Chamber of Horrors with an all-star cast of goons including the Invisible Man, the Mad Ghoul, the Mummy and 'other assorted monsters.' George Waggner was named as the ringleader of this three-ring circus of horrors. The cast read like a who's who of cinemacabre: Karloff, Chaney Jr., Lugosi, Lorre, Rains, Zucco, Hull and … James Barton (!). Chamber of Horrors never saw the light of day."
(However, the film that was eventually released as House of Frankenstein did get the green light in the summer of 1943 under the working title The Devil's Brood.)

Tom Tyler as the Mummy
"Hey, where's my invitation to the House of Frankenstein?"
I've always loved Universal's Mummy movies (as well as Hammer's), and I feel badly for dear old Kharis that he never got invited to any of the rallies. As described, Chamber of Horrors has a completely different cast of monsters from the two House rallies. It sounds like after Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the studio execs wanted to give their other franchises a shot in the arm (and in the case of the one-shot The Mad Ghoul, possibly make it into a franchise). The 10-year-old kid that still occupies a good portion of my brain was tempted to just throw the Mummy into the pot with Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man, but I decided to stick with the concept as originally reported -- although I've played around with the cast somewhat. Here goes!

The story: In the Egyptian desert, a uniformed Nazi SS officer, Kruller (Henry Hull) stands at the opening of a newly excavated tomb, interrogating an old local dressed in a traditional robe and wearing a fez. Andoheb (George Zucco), High Priest of Karnak and protector of ancient secrets, is surrounded by soldiers, but he is unnaturally calm. "Your people have betrayed you and led us to Princess Ananka's tomb," he tells Andoheb. "It's all over-- you might as well turn over the Scroll of Life to us as well. We will find it with or without your help!"

"For defiling Ananka's tomb, you and your men will be cursed for a thousand lifetimes," Andoheb responds defiantly. "The Scroll will never end up in infidel hands like yours!"

Henry Hull
Kruller nods at his men, who grab Andoheb and take him off camera. As a shot rings out, we see a face peering out from behind a large rock near the tomb (and it looks a lot like Bela Lugosi!). Schiller motions his men: "pack up the tomb's contents and ship it to Berlin. The Princess herself will come with me."

Cut to the sleepy college town of Mapleton, New York, where an inquest into the bizarre death of Dr. Alfred Morris is being held. On the witness stand, concert pianist Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) tells a weird tale of how the seemingly kindly Dr. Morris exposed her fiance Ted to an ancient Mayan poison gas, turning him into a living dead man and mindless slave to the mad doctor. Worse still, Ted had to have regular injections of fluid from fresh human hearts to keep going. After her testimony, Isabel and her new boyfriend, debonair Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey) are approached by a strange, rat-faced little man who introduces himself as Peter Hoffman (Martin Kosleck), a researcher with the newly opened Museum of Metaphysics and Ancient Sciences. When Hoffman insists that Isabel knows more than she's telling and tries to grab her arm, Iverson steps between the two and advises the strange man to get lost. Regaining his composure, Hoffman apologizes and invites the couple to visit the museum. Fade out.

Night. The camera slowly zooms in on what looks to be a deserted house. The night wind moans through the gnarled branches of the trees surrounding the house. Close-up of the front door, and a nameplate: Dr. Alfred Morris. The doorknob starts turning by itself. Inside the house, a chair is knocked over by an invisible body, and another door opens by itself. We see a large room set up as a laboratory. Beakers are brushed aside by an invisible arm, file cabinets open by themselves and disgorge their contents, and finally, a cabinet door flies open and a test tube seems to float through the darkened room.

Martin Kosleck
Cut to another night shot, where Hoffman is entering the gate in front of a large, ramshackle mansion. A sign over the gate reads "Museum of Metaphysics and Ancient Sciences." As he walks up to path to the house, a shadowy figure observes him from a hiding place behind a gnarled old tree. The wan light from the house illuminates his face, and we see it's the same man who watched Kruller and Andoheb at the excavation site. Hoffman proceeds into the house, passing by bizarre tableaux with wax figures depicting ancient Egyptian burial rites and blood-curdling Mayan sacrifices. He touches an ornamental dagger hanging on a nearby wall, and a secret door creaks opens to reveal a passageway.

Cut to a large, underground laboratory lit eerily by torches. Kruller, now dressed in civilian clothes, is hovering over an open sarcophagus. He looks up momentarily as Hoffman enters from the steep, narrow stairway. "It's all coming together now Hoffman!" he says triumphantly. "First we stole Griffin's invisibility formula from the British, who had forgotten it even existed! Then we recovered Morris' secret for creating the living dead from right under the noses of these ignorant townspeople. And we're close -- very close now -- to discovering the Egyptian secret of eternal life!"

"Berlin will be very pleased," Hoffman responds. "Ah yes, Berlin…" Kruller says with a smirk, "we'll keep all of this to ourselves for right now… at least until the final piece is in place." Hoffman frowns. "Do you think it wise that we openly advertise ourselves with this museum? Won't it attract suspicion?" "That's the beauty of it Hoffman! We're hiding in plain sight, and scholars with knowledge of the esoteric arts are coming to us, unwittingly giving us the information to uncover these dark secrets. To them it's all an academic exercise, good for a scientific paper or two. But it will be Germany that will reap the rewards! We'll create whole armies of invisible soldiers, turn our enemies into living dead slaves, and while we're at it, help ourselves to eternal life courtesy of the Egyptians!"

As he finishes his speech, Hoffman's eyes widen in horror. Both men look down at the sarcophagus, where a moldering, bandaged body is slowing sitting up. After emitting a low moan, the mummy slowly and painfully lays back down. "Don't be such a mouse Herr Hoffman," chides Kruller. "I administered the tana leaves to the princess, but by themselves, they can only animate the body for a moment or two. It's the Scroll of Life that we need. We'll find it eventually. But for now, we'll concentrate on Prof. Morris' discoveries. Our test subject here," nodding at Ananka's mummy, "might still be revived with fluid from the hearts of some, shall we say, volunteers.

Bela Lugosi
Cut to the ruins of the Banning house (site of the fiery climax of The Mummy's Tomb). The lurking man previously seen shadowing Kruller is standing just outside the charred foundation of the house. His face is lit by a single candle. "Kharis, your work here is not done. I, your loyal servant Ahmet, have traveled to this strange land to call you yet again to your sacred mission. I have read from the Scroll of Life. It is time to arise again to avenge the House of Karnark and reclaim your Princess!"

The earth in front of Ahmet (Bela Lugosi) stirs, and a clutching, bandaged hand breaks through the clods of dirt. Close-up of Ahmet's grim face as a shadow falls across it. Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) stands in front of his summoner, his face and body blackened by fire and dirt. Cut to Kruller's basement laboratory. Closeup of Ananka's mummy. As Kruller and Hoffman converse in the background, the Princess stirs and takes a gulp of air through the moldering bandages. Fade out.

Isabel, with Eric by her side, is being interviewed by a wire service reporter about her recent brush with the living dead. She recaps the story of how Prof. Morris, madly in love with her, gassed her fiance Ted Allison with his deadly Mayan poison. The reporter mentions in passing that he also interviewed a Dr. Kruller and his assistant Hoffman at the new museum, who seem to know a lot about the recent tragedy and Morris' macabre discoveries. Isabel and Eric exchange glances, recalling their encounter with Hoffman at the inquest. "Maybe it's time we visit this museum, since we were so graciously invited," Eric suggests. The reporter suggests that if they're going to visit the museum, they should get in touch with Cedric Griffin (Claude Rains), son of Britain's notorious Invisible Man. He's heard that the museum staff have been researching Griffin and the invisibility formula, and he's traveled all the way from London to interview them.

Isabel and Eric meet Cedric in the lobby of the hotel he's staying at. Cedric tells them that there was a break-in at the university housing his father's papers, most of which have disappeared. Cedric is concerned that Griffin's formula will fall into the wrong hands. Even in the right hands it's dangerous stuff, since the serum still creates madness in anyone foolish enough to take it. Cedric has learned through the academic grapevine that Kruller and Hoffman have studied his father and his research extensively, and they're his only lead to tracking down the papers.

Claude Rains
The three agree to visit the museum together, and arrange a special night tour with Hoffman. Cut to the museum, where Kruller and Hoffman are standing amidst the macabre tableaux in the main room. Hoffman is clearly nervous. "It's not just the singer and her escort visiting tonight, it's Griffin's son as well! I tell you he knows something-- why else would he travel all this way to our humble little museum? It's time to tell Berlin everything we know and get out!"

"Why so faint of heart now Hoffman, when we're so close to capturing the secrets of the ages?" Kruller sneers. "Besides, the bureaucrats in Berlin wouldn't have the faintest clue what to do with our discoveries! Forget them! We hold in our hands the power to kill our enemies without being seen, make others into our slaves, and to live for eternity. With that power, we can move nations, we can rule the world! Now's the time to be a lion Hoffman, not a mouse!"

Hoffman backs away, his mouth agape. Kruller's hands, which had been balled into fists, suddenly turn pale white, then translucent as capillaries and veins pop into view. Kruller opens his hands and brings them up to his face as they disappear altogether. "It's treason!" Hoffman sputters, "you can't mean it!" "Ah, I thought I had more control over it," Kruller mutters to himself. He grins evilly as his dark eyes bore into Hoffman. Kruller advances toward the subjective camera, two handless arms stretched out in front of him. "Here Hoffman, come with me to the lab. It's time we tested Morris' discovery on a living subject. Take heart Mouse, it's all for a good cause…"

Evelyn Ankers
When Isabel, Eric and Cedric arrive at the museum, Kruller, his hands swathed in bandages, greets them. He makes his apologies for Hoffman, who's off on an errand, and explains that he scalded his hands making tea. The visitors exchange glances among themselves as Kruller walks them through the tableaux in the main room. Kruller's face is unnaturally pale, almost translucent as he explains the research he's doing into ancient, occult arts. "We can learn much from what we formerly dismissed as superstition and cheap mysticism," he explains. "The Griffins and the Morris's of the world have proved that…" When Cedric presses him on what he knows about his father's work, Kruller apologizes to the group that he's not feeling well, and needs to retire. At this point, his head is entirely in shadow. The group mumbles their good nights as Kruller, his bandaged hands covering his face, quickly escapes to a back room.

Out in the night air, the three shake their heads in near disbelief. "What an odd duck!" Eric exclaims. "He's clearly hiding something," Cedric says with a frown. "And what do you make of those grotesque displays?" Isabel asks. "Not the work of serious scholars," replies Cedric. Eric finishes his thought: "More like a chamber of horrors!" Isabel suddenly stops walking and shudders violently. Eric grabs her. "What's wrong?" "It felt like a cold hand reached out and brushed my face!" she says breathlessly, her face pale.

At that moment, a horse-drawn wagon noisily bursts out of the dark, nearly sideswiping the group by the side of the road. It clatters on down the road and vanishes in the darkness. "Did you see that?" Cedric exclaims. "I don't think there was anyone driving it!" "Well, we've survived the Chamber of Horrors and a driverless wagon tonight," Eric says drily, trying to lighten the mood. "Let's get out of here before our luck runs out!"

Turhan Bey
In the morning, Eric and Cedric meet at the hotel to compare notes. Cedric shows Eric a copy of the local newspaper, and taps his finger on the headline. "Here's the explanation for the driverless wagon!" "Local Junk Man Found Dead," the headline reads. "The corpse was mutilated, the poor man's heart cut out. Sound familiar?" Cedric asks. "Except that Morris and Ted are dead," Eric responds. "Something's not right here," Cedric observes. "Kruller's evasiveness, and his strange skin condition, and now this murder happening practically on his doorstep… He seems to know an awful lot about Prof. Morris' monstrous work, and my father's … and now the old horror seems to be playing out again. We need to find out what's going on at that so-called museum, and not by taking tours from evasive hosts."

That night, the two men meet nearby the museum to discuss strategy. "I've got to get into the house to look at records, see what they're up to," Cedric says. "Stay here where you have a good view of the whole house, and whistle if anyone gets near while I look for a way in."

Just then, a shadowy figure emerges from the back of the house. Cedric squints. "Too short to be Kruller -- must be Hoffman. Well, one less to worry about," he says as he moves stealthily toward the house. With Cedric seemingly confident about breaking in undetected, Eric decides to follow Hoffman. He shadows the figure through dense forest, then hides behind a tree as Hoffman stumbles into a cemetery. In the light of the moon, Eric can see that Hoffman's face is unnaturally grey and hideously wrinkled-- a living corpse! The ghoulish Hoffman proceeds to get down on his hands and knees, digging furiously at a fresh grave. Before Eric can react, another shadow looms up behind him and he's knocked out with a large tree branch. Closeup of Ahmet, smiling evilly. Kharis appears behind him and shuffles into the clearing.

Poster - The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
The ghoulish Hoffman, obsessed with his digging, looks up just in time to see the 3000-year-old mummy hovering over him. Hoffman stands up just as Kharis clamps a moldering hand around his throat. The ghoul struggles in the mummy's grip, but soon weakens and collapses in a heap on the grave he'd been digging at just a few moments before. Ahmet and Kharis head off into the woods, toward the museum.

Cut to Cedric, who's found the door to the museum conveniently unlocked. He carefully makes his way through the main room, reeling around as a tree branch, blowing in the night wind, taps against a window. He backs up into a bandaged hand, freezing until he realizes it belongs to one of the wax figures-- ironically, a depiction of his father, the original Invisible Man.

Cut to another bandaged hand reaching for Isabel sleeping in her bed. It covers her mouth just as she awakens and starts to scream.

Back to Cedric, who's found a room full of file cabinets. He starts rifling through the drawers.

Back to Eric, who shakily stands up, rubbing his head. He heads off to the museum at a dead run.

Cedric is startled by a noise. He peeks out from behind the office door and gasps at the sight of a headless man in an overcoat, his hands bandaged, carrying the unconscious Isabel. Kruller, now completely invisible, nudges the dagger to open the secret passageway. Cedric pauses, then hurries over to the passageway, slipping through before the door can close. Closeup of Ahmet's face at the window, silently observing, Kharis standing patiently behind him.

Cut to Ahmet's hand opening the passageway. The unholy pair proceed down the staircase.

Poster - The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Cut to Cedric, who slips unseen into the laboratory behind Kruller. The German is completely mad now. The invisible man is almost crooning to the unconscious Isabel: "I may not yet be able to awaken Ananka, but every King must have his Queen, and you shall do nicely for now… and perhaps for eternity!" As he lays her out on the lab table, shuffling footsteps echo from the stairway. Kruller whirls around to confront the centuries-old Kharis shambling toward him, arm outstretched, hand clutching at the air. Behind the mummy, Ahmet is intoning the words of a sacred rite over and over.

Unseen by Kruller, Ahmet's incantation has awakened Ananka in her sarcophagus, who rises slowly, the decaying bandages falling away to reveal… the beautiful and exotic new Universal starlet Acquanetta! Ananka/Acquanetta places her still bandaged hand on Kruller's shoulder. As he turns around again, Kharis is on him, gripping Kruller's invisible throat.

On the lab table, Isabel stirs, sits up, and emits a healthy scream as she takes in the macabre tableau of an ancient mummy and an invisible man locked in mortal struggle. Cedric rushes over to her. Upstairs, Eric has burst into the house and hears Isabel's screams. Trying to locate the source, he reflexively grabs for the dagger on the wall. The passageway opens up, he hears another, louder scream coming from below, and he plunges down the stairs.

He runs straight into Cedric and Isabel, who rush to the exit as the monsters grapple. The quick-thinking Eric chucks the useless dagger, then grabs an old-fashioned gas lantern hanging on a hook. He throws it at a table of lab equipment. The chemicals quickly ignite, and the three stumble up the steps as an intense fire roars through the lab. Ahmet is still chanting even as the flames consume him. Outside of the house, Cedric, Isabel and Eric look back to see that the flames have spread to the main floor, and are now consuming the Chamber of Horrors.

The End.

Imaginary production note #1: Lionel Atwill, king of sinister character actors, was originally slated for the role of Kruller. But health and legal problems caused him to bow out, and the Werewolf of London, Henry Hull, stepped in.

Note #2: Realizing he had other commitments, Universal execs nonetheless tried to entice Boris Karloff to take the small role of Andoheb, hoping to hawk the film as another pairing of the two horror greats, Karloff and Lugosi. When Boris begged off amiable George Zucco agreed to reprise his role from The Mummy's Tomb.

Note #3: The script originally called for a much larger speaking part for Acquanetta, who as Ananka was supposed to be fully revived much earlier in the film. When Waggner showed the producers some test footage, they drastically cut her part and kept her mute.

Note #4: The setting of Mapleton was borrowed from The Mummy's Tomb, but for the purposes of the script, Mapleton was also identified as the setting for The Mad Ghoul.

Trailers for some real Universal monster rallies:

"Hordes of Horror... Spawned by the Devil..."


  1. My popcorn bucket falls to the floor as I leap to my feet and give "Chamber of Horrors" a hearty and enthusiastic ovation. I'll even admit to getting a little choked up as Ahmet kept chanting through the flames.

    1. You know, I even felt a little tear in my eye as I was typing. Why, why, why did I have to kill him off that way? :)

  2. Excellent work. I love how you incorporated "The Mad Ghoul" stars and storyline into the plot.

    1. The Mad Ghoul is one of my favorite Universal horrors that doesn't feature a well-known classic monster. And George Zucco can't be beat. If Captive Wild Woman could spawn 2 sequels, The Mad Ghoul should have been good for at least that many!

  3. You had me with Acquanetta and Evelyn Ankers! I always enjoyed Universal's "monster rallies" and this would have been an awesome one. Terrific cast and a great plot--if only it had been made.

    1. I had a crush on Evelyn Ankers through high school. Only much later did I find out she was married to Richard Denning, Creature of the Black Lagoon-hunter and fictional governor of Hawaii! :)

  4. This is a ghoulishly good pastiche of all of the best elements of the Universal horror films. Great idea incorporating the Nazis into the storyline too!

    1. In my alternate universe, Martin Kosleck wasn't happy about being typecast as another weaselly Nazi, but he took the money. Henry Hull, on the other hand, thought the role was an amusing change of pace for him... :)