“You have inherited the fortune of the Frankensteins; I trust you will not inherit their fate.”
This was a great pick-me-up after the past two days of disappointments. It has a great cast and a confident idea of what it wants to do.
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were in a career slump by the end of the 1930s. Their main avenue for work, horror, had not been produced at Universal for nearly three years.
After a surprisingly successful triple feature of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and King Kong (1933) at a desperate, nearly bankrupt L.A. theater, revivals started popping up across the United States with similarly good results.
Charles R. Rogers, the post-Laemmle head of production who didn’t like horror films, was let go in 1938 despite having turned the studio around. With Rogers gone and the box office receipts from the revivals speaking for themselves, Universal had renewed interest in horror films. The studio started off with what were known successes in the past: Lugosi, Karloff and Frankenstein.
Son of Frankenstein (1939) follows Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the grown son of Henry Frankenstein, played by Basil Rathbone. Wolf is taking his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and his son Peter (Donnie Dunagan, best known as the voice of young Bambi in the Disney film) to live in the old Frankenstein mansion.
Wolf, who didn’t know his father well for some undisclosed reason, is a good-natured, well-adjusted doctor far away from the almost insane obsessiveness of Henry. He’s still defensive of his father’s work and thinks his father and the Creature have been unfairly blamed for the occurrences of the last two films.
All the same, he assures the unwelcoming villagers that he has no intention of continuing his father’s work. But once he’s looking over his father’s old notes in the creepy but (to him) appealing Frankenstein mansion, his mind might be turning towards the ways of his father.
Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) warns Wolf that his family heritage may put him in danger. Krogh is controlling the villagers for the moment, but they are easily agitated. He also warns Wolf of a series of recent murders. Murders said to have been committed by a ghost.
Investigating the remains of his father’s old lab, Wolf comes across the deceitful Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor has a broken neck from a botched hanging and isn’t trusted or liked by the villagers due to his past crime of grave robbing. After the hanging, he was banished to the ruins of Henry Frankenstein’s lab.
Finding out Wolf’s heritage, Ygor shows the good doctor a secret passage in the lab that leads to the tombs of Wolf’s father and grandfather. Inside lies the unconscious Creature (Boris Karloff).
The Monster fell ill sometime ago, and Ygor wants Wolf to cure his friend. Wolf, a crazed look forming on his face, agrees.
Ygor has a strange control over the Creature, who “does things” for him, and his motives may be downright dangerous.
Basil Rathbone is among my favorite actors of all time, and he can do no wrong in my book. His mere presence elevates a production. So, naturally, I immediately gravitated towards his performance.
One of the great skills Rathbone had as an actor was to downplay everything. Even when playing the scared, agitated, half-mad Wolf near the end of the film, he does so in a restrained, believable way. He brings a reality to what could be an over-the-top role.
Legosi is slightly broader, but it’s in keeping with the character. His voice, way of moving, and maniacal laugh are appropriate for Ygor. It’s comes out as a fabulous part for dear old Bela that shows off his skills as a character actor and makes you totally forget that he was the same man who played Dracula eight years prior.
The last actor I want to highlight is Lionel Atwill. Krogh has a false right arm, his real one having been torn off by the Creature when he (Krogh) was just a small boy. So the inspector has an obvious bias towards Frankensteins and the Creature.
Despite this, he remains a very honorable man. He’s suspicious of Wolf, but he’s always a respectful gentleman to him and his family. I loved this complexity.
Really, the only actor who disappointed me was Karloff. It’s hard to believe the man I’ve praised in three other movies this month comes out as the weakest link in this one.
Despite being second-billed, Karloff is hardly in this movie, and he does little more than occasionally lumber about and kill people for Ygor. Absent is his ability to speak, most of his pathos, and his human qualities present in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
To be fair, this isn’t Karloff’s fault. It’s writer Wyllis Cooper’s. He rarely gives Karloff anything of real substance to work with.
There are a couple instances where we hear about the Monster interacting with Wolf’s unafraid son. It would’ve helped greatly to take two to four minutes to show these moments as it would’ve reminded us of the Creature’s kind and childlike nature.
Instead, he’s a simple, two-dimensional tool, a fact made even sadder when you consider this was Karloff’s last time playing the Creature until a Route 66 episode in the 1960s. Karloff felt the character was becoming the butt of jokes and that his story had run out. So he bowed out of the role but continued his association with horror movies.
Beyond the mostly stellar performances, it’s Son of Frankenstein‘s lighting and art direction that pushes the movie into high-quality filmmaking. The lighting and sets are very in the mode of German Expressionism, with the harsh contrasting lighting, sharp angular shapes, and bizarre, otherworldly buildings.
It’s absolutely gorgeous and a real sign of how much time and care was taken with Son of Frankenstein. A good thing, too. The movie returned Universal to profitability and helped launch a new cycle of Universal horror films.
Sadly, the future of the Frankenstein films doesn’t look too great. One reason is obvious: the loss of Karloff. The second is that this was the last Frankenstein film of the Golden Age to be an A picture. The movies made after Son would be relocated to the bottom-half of a double bill.
Some of my favorite films are B-Movies, but when done poorly, they can turn out very poor indeed. But time will tell which side of quality the remaining Frankenstein films will fall on.
At the very least, Son of Frankenstein rounds out a three film run with a flawed but well-acted and artfully done entry that is worth checking out if you’re a fan of horror or old-fashioned Hollywood.