HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Directed by Peter Werner. Written by J.B. White. Special Effects Make-Up: Greg Cannom. Universal for NBC-TV. 1997.
Starring Adrian Pasdar, Teri Polo, Greg Wise, Peter Crombie, CCH Pounder.
To get the pedantry out of the way first, the onscreen title of this two-part miniseries is House of Frankenstein, and not House of Frankenstein 1997 or House of Frankenstein 97 (as some printed sources and network publicity has had it). American television has long believed in recycling, and so studios are always on the comb through their vaults for properties which can be remade as bland pap for the 90s. Universal Studios, always aware of the licensing bundle to be made from their classic monsters, evidently thought it was worth dusting off the title, at least, of their 1944 monster rally – the one with Boris Karloff as the Mad Doctor, J. Carroll Naish as the Hunchback, John Carradine as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster – and cobbling together an extended horror melange.
All that is taken from the original are the name ‘Dr Niemann’ (used on a minor character) and the basic idea of a plot in which the Frankenstein Monster, a vampire and a werewolf are involved. In the end, when a sympathetic werewolf goes through that cop-out bit usually reserved for vampires (cf: Near Dark, The Lost Boys) of being rewarded for not having killed anyone in the plot by being cured of the curse, the idea struck me as so typical of the have-it-all-and-eat-it attitude of 90s television trash that it took me a while to remember it was probably first used in the 1945 House of Dracula, a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein. My guess would be that screenwriter J.B. White and director Peter Werner haven’t seen that movie, and – indeed – probably didn’t even bother watching the real House of Frankenstein either.
Unlike The Monster Squad, which paid homage to the old Universal style with real affection, this feels like a cynical project slung together from disparate elements no one was much interested in. At heart, it’s another rogue cop drama, with hardboiled Adrian Pasdar investigating a series of brutal slayings by the so-called ‘Raptor Killer’. The mystery revolves around Grimes (Greg Wise), an English-accented club-owner who happens also to be an age-old vampire and transforms from time to time into a winged, bat-faced Greg Cannom make-up Beast who looks a bit like 1970s Batman villain Man-Bat. Grimes runs a Hollywood club called House of Frankenstein and finances an expedition to the Arctic that brings back the original Monster (Peter Crombie), who is defrosted and gets loose in Los Angeles, where he is unnoticed among the derelict population and pals about with a WWII veteran who fulfils the plot function of the blind hermit by being the monster’s only friend and motivating him to side with the good guys when the vampire kills him.
Meanwhile, mousy Teri Polo has been bitten by Grimes’s werewolf sidekick and is transforming: she becomes sexier within the limits of Network Standards and Practices (ie: pretty tame next to Amanda Oooms’ often-naked lycanthrobabe in Wilderness), develops super-hearing and other heightened senses, and finally starts morphing into a wolf by night. The plodding script can think of nothing more imaginative to do with its characters than – after a long stretch in which Grimes has his monster pals ineffectually trying to off Polo – have a romantic triangle develop between the cop, the werewolf and the vampire. Presumably, we’re supposed to be afraid Polo will go bad entirely and join forces with Wise, but that’s just not going to happen in prime time. Professor CCH Pounder rants on to the cops about truth in legends, and does some Van Helsing licks in handing out crucifixes, stakes and expository lectures to Pasdar.
With four hours to fill, this has to be busy: we not only get the horror-monster stuff, but enough cop operatics to pad out the running time and bring the whole thing thuddingly down to earth with a succession of clichés like the ethnic partner who gets killed, the heroine’s best friend who is turned into a slinky vampire and the grouchy boss who doesn’t believe his subordinates’ crazy monster theories. There is weird theology from Pounder, who alleges that vampires fear crucifixes because they are fallen angels (‘their only natural predator is God’) and one scene you’ve never seen before in has a vampire seen off when the hero’s late mother’s blessed ashes are thrown into its face. There are pseudo-profound mumblings (‘but we need our monsters, all communities in crisis do’) and lame jokes (‘that’s the trouble with immortality, you lose your edge’), but its worst failing is that predigested, filling-in-time-between-the-commercials, nobody-gave-a-damn feel that typifies the worst of US TV. If you ever wondered what a cross between Hunter and Dark Shadows would look like, check out Forever Knight.