Vernon Coyle (Pasdar), a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, is trying to solve a series of bizarre murders. His girlfriend, Grace (Polo), turns into a werewolf and is kidnapped by Crispian Grimes (Wise), a vampire and owner of the nightclub House of Frankenstein. Meanwhile, a man, claiming to be Frankenstein’s monster, comes to Los Angeles to find the vampire that killed his creator 200 years ago.
He had lived in the Arctic Circle for centuries and had been thawed out recently. A medical examiner comes in and is shocked that he has no heartbeat and that his blood consists of that of several different people. The creature escapes and confronts Grimes in an alley, but gets arrested. Coyle realizes that the creature is really a creation of Frankenstein, and helps him track down Grimes and put a stop to his reign of terror. Grace turns into a werewolf and goes on a rampage, where she gets captured by Grimes and will be a part of his exhibit forever.
Coyle and the creature destroy Grimes’ army of the undead, but he escapes. The creature also escapes, having finally avenged his creator’s death. He sneaks aboard a research vessel on its way to Antarctica. Grace revives after a successful blood transfusion makes her human again. Coyle and Grace later visit his partner’s grave as he was the first victim of Grimes, who is watching them from afar.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The miniseries’ title and the very basics of its story were taken from the 1944 Universal picture directed by Erle C. Kenton. “Karloff wasn’t playing Frankenstein’s Monster any longer,” explains executive producer David Israel, “but played Dr. Niemann. It was the first of the Universal horror films to feature Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man in the same picture. So we used that as a jumping-off point.
“We didn’t feel we could directly remake House of Frankenstein, because with today’s sensibilities it just wouldn’t be scary.” adds screenwriter J.B. White. “We went back and forth as to whether we were going to do this as a period or contemporary piece.”
Israel admits that this is his first experience with the horror genre. “I’ve dipped my toes into the water, and I’m kind of enjoying it. This movie is not a parody. It’s a drama with elements of a police story, but three of the characters happen to be a werewolf, a vampire and Frankenstein’s Creature.” And don’t look for the latter to echo the appearance of Universal’s famous creation. “We had total say on what the Creature would look like,” Israel says. “We hired Greg Cannom, who is an Academy Award-winning makeup artist, one of the greats in the business who usually only does features. He did Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so he’s had experience doing vampires. He was clearly the best choice.
“Cannom had always wanted to have the opportunity to do his artistic interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster,” Israel continues. “I think this is by far the most ingenious interpretation; there are no bolts. Also, this is a sympathetic creature for whom we should have empathy. The actor who plays him, Peter Crombie, makes you feel that remarkably well.”
While the producers and Cannom were given artistic control, Israel confesses that they were careful about being too graphic in the horror and violence department. “We’re pushing the envelope as far as we can, but we still have to keep in mind that this is going to be available on every TV set in America,” he notes. “Kids are going to watch it, and sponsors have their needs too. It’s as graphic as it needs to be, but it’s never gruesome.”
Israel was involved in all aspects of the production, but the one element which gave him the most worry during the 48-day shoot was the training of real wolves for the lycanthrope scenes. “Our werewolves are not going to be hairy people,” he reveals, “The actors are going to morph into actual wolves. But we had to train the animals to do different types of stunts, which is probably the single most important thing we have to do on the show. Only the stunt people and the trainers work with the wolves; they’re too dangerous.”
Responsible for scripting all these hazardous scenarios was White, who was tapped by Universal and NBC to work on House of Frankenstein after the success of Beast last year. That two-part miniseries was his first exploration into monster movies, and though he’s not a complete fan of the genre, White admits, “It’s impossible not to be influenced by the past [horror] movies. It’s part of our collective consciousness vampires, werewolves and certainly the Frankenstein Creature. So my approach to this story is not as a genre picture, but just as another dramatic story which happens to have these rather extraordinary elements.”
One aspect which may surprise some connoisseurs of vampire lore is White’s concept of them as fallen angels. “It was just a notion that came to me while I was writing,” he recalls. “Part of the iconography of vampires is their abhorrence of anything religious, they often fly and they have power over people—they bring evil into people’s lives. This is a very satanic idea. Satan and his minions are fallen angels, and the concept felt right.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to humanize all of the creatures in the script,” White continues, then adds, “I don’t know if humanize is the right word, but to make us understand them better. I’ve always found something poignant about fallen angels. They lived in grace and fell from it; they always want to get back to it, but they can’t. They are creatures condemned by their own natures, and it’s heartbreaking.’
White also took a few liberties with the classic European mythology of vampires when it comes to the sun’s effect on them, acknowledging that he took inspiration from Coppola’s movie. “In that version, Dracula moved around freely in the daylight,” the writer says. “He protected himself from the sun, making sure his face and hands were covered. but that’s a practical consideration. If you’re going to tell a story like this in modern Los Angeles, you don’t want the vampires to only be out at night; it gets kind of tired. Also, these vampires have assimilated themselves; they have intermingled with us. I thought we could get away with making them a little more versatile.”
Yet White’s favorite character is undoubtedly the Creature. “I remembered clearly how the Mary Shelley book ended,” he explains. “It always seemed to me that she was setting herself up for a sequel, because she had him floating off into the darkness on an ice raft. I made it a mission in this script to make the Frankenstein Creature a real hero that and Grimes’ relationship with Grace Dawkins are the real heart of the movie. Boris Karloff’s original creature was sympathetic, but over the years, just because he’s designated as a monster, he has gotten a bum rap. I’m hoping that this, in some small way, will restore the Creature’s reputation. We wanted to show all of his aspects. He is a man out of time. His whole motivation from the moment he is awakened is to get back to where he came from.”
Great care has been taken to preserve some of the feel of and connection to the original Frankenstein movies. As an element of homage to the first House of Frankenstein, the man who searches the North Pole for the Creature is named Dr. Niemann. Also referenced is one of the most stein: the encounter between the Creature and a little girl. This often misunderstood and usually censored scene is now transposed to a meeting between the two on a bus, but the compassion will hopefully still be there.
Of course, none of the emotional scenes or extensive makeup can work if cast in the part. And for the role of Frankenstein’s creation, Crombie appears perfectly suited. The actor always refers to his character as the Creature, never “the monster,” which is the first indication of how carefully he respects the part. Even being subjected to almost three hours of makeup doesn’t deter Crombie’s enthusiasm; in fact, he believes that this long process is the best preparation he could have to get into the part. “I stare at myself in the mirror as Bill Corso, my makeup artist, puts each piece of the mask on my face,” he says. “I can’t really do anything else. I’m slowly putting the skin, metaphorically and literally, of this character on me.
“I remember an acting class I had at Yale’s drama school,” Crombie continues. “They had a closet filled with costumes and masks. You’d take a mask and sit in front of these mirrors and see what it did to you, what would arise emotionally. As bits of character would emerge, you’d put on costumes, compiling more and more of a character. You don’t get many opportunities to do something like that, especially using such elaborate masks as these. I knew I wasn’t going to begin to find this character until I had the makeup on. It was going to do things to me-affect the way I carried my head or make me move my mouth in a certain manner. And sure enough, that’s what happened. It turns out that the voice I had developed (for the audition) was too much. You can allow the makeup to do the work for you, and it will, if you let it.
“I was a little anxious at first,” Crombie admits. There was a touch of claustrophobia, especially when they did a full head cast. It was like being entombed. They told me it was going to be about 12 minutes, and it was 35. I just meditated to myself and managed to hold it together. They also did a cast of my chest and arms, because they were thinking of doing a kind of glove. But they abandoned that idea, and I think rightly so. The chest makeup was only used for one shot, when I first appear as the Creature and he’s still in 19thcentury clothes.”
The actor agrees with White’s inspiration to humanize this particular creation. “The idea is,” Crombie explains, “the Creature doesn’t totally look like a monster when he’s walking down the street. He could be mistaken for some homeless guy. If I were in New York, where I used to live, I would have just hit the streets in preparation for this character, because I would have found some version of him there. I’ve certainly seen enough of them over the years, and I’m working that into the Creature.”
Crombie also had to work carefully in animating his facial expressions, since his movements tended to become muted under the layers of makeup. However, this was not the first time Crombie had worked with such extensive makeup. Playing the Creature couldn’t prepare Crombie for the astonished reactions from the extras or the busloads of tourists who saw him on the backlot at Universal Studios, where some of House of Frankenstein was shot. “The trams ran by every three minutes in front of my trailer,” he remembers with a laugh. “I’d be waiting, and the trams would get backed up and I couldn’t get across the street. So I’d be standing there in my undershirt and full makeup, and the people wouldn’t know what they were looking at. They didn’t know if they should point their cameras or run and hide. I think they got their money’s worth.”
Serving as the movie’s resident expert on vampire and werewolf lore is the Professor Kendall character played by awardwinning actress Pounder, who devoted plenty of careful study to her eclectic role. “I love her handle,” she say proudly. “Associate Professor of Cultural Symbolic Anthropology. I think she invented a department for herself, and she’s got a lot of theory experience in a number of subjects. One thing I liked is that when I went into my office, the set designer had used ritualistic and mythological objects from all over the world-a very smart move.
“Kendall is incredibly curious about these legends and whether they were myths or reality at some point,” Pounder continues. “She’s a strong character and definitely an authority in her field. I play her dead serious. I don’t think that in the annals of horror films there has been a black female lead of this kind. If you’re going to act, you might as well go through this kind of door of opportunity. You know me,” she laughs. “I like to go where no man has gone before.”
As far as Pasdar was concerned, the best thing about playing Detective Coyle was that he didn’t have to spend hours in the makeup trailer.
“I’m sleeping while they’re in there with the prosthetics,” he says. “That’s the best part. I don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. and sit in the chair. Every once in a while, I have to get a little dirt put on my face, a little smudge here and there. That’s the extent of it.”
Pasdar confesses to being a major fan of horror movies—“I like the ones that are done right almost as much as I love watching Plan 9 from Outer Space”—and is proud of having starred in the legendary cult movie Near Dark. “We don’t take credit for improving the genre, but we certainly took it in another direction. That was fun. House of Frankenstein is a different side of the coin. I’m not on the monster squad, I’m on the vice squad. It’s much more fun playing a straight cop chasing these guys. While the genre might be the same, my approach to the characters is completely different.
“Coyle is a by-the-book cop,” he adds. “He’s a detective trying to make the best of his job, to protect and serve in LA. He’s an average person confronted by a situation that is a bit above average. That’s when you get a real dichotomy between what needs to be done and what has been done before.
“To me,” Pasdar admits, “one of the most interesting aspects of the script is bringing the Creature into Los Angeles and keeping him as unmolested by human intervention as possible. He’s as pure as he can be. The irony is that the Creature seems more human than most of the people you run into on a day-byday basis in this town. He has an inherent soul that’s a beautiful thing to watch. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do this movie – to work with the Creature and a werewolf at the same time.”
Regardless of the thoughtful approach the actors might have towards their craft or the otherwise demanding schedule of a TV miniseries, Pasdar has some wicked ideas for a few good gags. “I’d love to walk into a 7-Eleven with the Creature to get a Slurpee; that would be fun,” he says, laughing at the idea. “Drive down the freeway in a convertible listening to Bon Jovi, or go down to the beach and have him try to get a little sun. Put him on rollerblades in the bike path. If I get a chance, I’ll tell you.” But at the time of this writing, neither Detective Coyle nor the Creature had been spotted at any of the beaches, or seen speeding down the freeways of Los Angeles.
Cannom doesn’t usually work in television. “It was really fun to be able to do a Frankenstein like the real character, plus all the werewolves and flying vampires,” said Cannom. “We had to do it. It was just too much fun to turn down.”
Though the Frankenstein monster is the character of the Mary Shelley novel, White’s script is contemporary and downgrades both Dracula and the Wolfman to a generic vampire and werewolf. Eighty percent of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was shot in and around Los Angeles on practical locations, including some exterior filming at the Ennis-Brown House, a residence designed in the 1920s by Frank Lloyd Wright, representing the mansion of Crispian Grimes (Greg Wise), the master vampire.
Wise is a British actor, who nonetheless portrays Grimes as an American. Wise explained how his approach is both similar to, and different from, what has come before. “I think the primary root of it is that he has to assimilate into the society. That’s why I’m playing an American. We’ve given him a very small scar and darkened my eyes using lenses, so I don’t think it’s too out of the ordinary. For a vampire to survive, he has to be able to fit within the society he finds himself in.”
Grimes can transform himself into an inhuman bat-monster, but there is a part of him that retains what once made him human. Noted Wise, “This piece looks at the period of his existence when he’s getting tired. It’s looking at the existential question of why we’re here. His story becomes a morality tale. He discovers we’re here to love and be loved. He’s a terrifically lonely man. I think that’s one of the more interesting ideas, that if you have been around for so long, nothing excites you anymore. You’ve said it all, you’ve done it all, you’ve seen it all.”
Grimes’ inamorata is Grace (Terry Polo), who gets bitten by Grimes’s werewolf protector and starts to change herself. “When she rebuffs him at the end, he stops his existence,” said Wise. He throws himself into fire. He kills himself because he realizes there is no point in walking this Earth without love.”
Cannom had fun working on Grimes’ bat transformation, a being which brings to mind the Man-Bat of BATMAN fame. “I wanted to create something for TV more elaborate than some
one would normally do,” said Cannom. “Because this was a flying bat-creature, a fallen angel type of thing, we wanted to really do a spectacular suit, but still keep it within limits for TV. Miles Teves designed the creature. He designed ROBOCOP and LEGEND.” The human-sized vampire bat not only has a bat-like head, but huge wings as well, suspended from a helicopter for the flight sequences. Hand-held controls make the movement of the wings.
Into this mix is thrown the Frankenstein monster, who is found by Grimes and originally brought to Los Angeles to be featured in his new night spot: The House of Frankenstein. The monster is sympathetically played by Peter Crombie. Crombie had to sit through a two-hour makeup application process which completely hid his features under a pliable latex mask. Unlike other versions of the Frankenstein monster seen in the past, this one isn’t a lumbering menace. “He actually turns out to be kind of a good guy, a hero,” said Crombie proudly. “What he really wants to do, like ET, is to get home, back up to the ice flows up north. It becomes a revenge mission for the creature to get Grimes, who ends up teaming up with the lead detective, played by Adrian Pasdar.”
Even though this version of the Frankenstein monster is supposed to follow more closely the description in the Mary Shelley novel, Crombie admitted that they did have to backoff a little since the production was being done for television. “Part of the description is that the skin is very translucent you can see through layers of it, to see veins and arteries. And to a extent you get some of that with this. An undead sort of look. I think the whole idea is that it’s much less of a monster, and much more of an innocent, an outcast, just a very vulnerable being, who is much more real emotionally, than the more traditional monster. That’s what I’m shooting for.”
The character Adrian Pasdar plays, Vernon Coyle, isn’t meant to be an unusual man, but instead is a man forced to make unusual choices. As Pasdar observed, “He’s your average cop. What’s interesting is having an ordinary cop confronted with an extraordinary situation. We tried to cut the dialogue down to as minimal as we could and it’s been effective in establishing the fact that it’s a realistic approach. He’s by the book and then gets confronted by a monster that you have to throw the book away and deal with a little more abstract solutions.”
In describing why a modern interpretation of an old idea can be both interesting and important, the actor stated, “There’s always room for a contemporary interpretation of a classic tale, from Shakespeare up to Bram Stoker and to Mary Shelley. There’s room for both interpretations. I think it’s interesting to watch a welldone classic. I think it’s much more difficult to do it contemporary.”
Adrian Pasdar as Vernon Coyle, a police detective trying to solve the case of “The Midnight Raptor”
Greg Wise as Crispian Grimes, a Dracula-like vampire who is known to the police as a serial killer nicknamed “The Midnight Raptor”. He is the millionaire owner of the nightclub House of Frankenstein, which is secretly a haven for vampires.
Teri Polo as Grace Dawkins, a newly bitten werewolf who is also the love interest of detective Vernon Coyle and the heart’s desire of Crispian Grimes
Peter Crombie as Frankenstein’s monster, discovered frozen in a block of ice and planned as an exhibit for House of Frankenstein, but escapes
CCH Pounder as Dr. Shauna Kendall
Miguel Sandoval as Detective Juan ‘Cha Cha’ Chacon
Jorja Fox as Felicity
Richard Libertini as Armando
Karen Austin as Irene Lassiter
Cinefantastique v29n06-07 (Nov 1997)