Rowland V. Lee, 1939
Starring: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill
The third film in the Frankenstein series, this does not contain most of the original cast from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but Boris Karloff does return one film time to don Jack Pierce’s iconic make up. Sadly Karloff is given limited screen time and the Monster is rendered mute for this final solid entry in the series (though it would be followed by the increasingly ridiculous Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman).
James Whale neglected to return to the series a third time, but Rowland V. Lee (Captain Kidd and Boris Karloff vehicle The Tower of London) does a solid job with a new spin on Mary Shelley’s classic story. Years after Bride of Frankenstein, Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Dr. Frankenstein, returns to his ancestral castle with his wife and (extremely annoying) child in the hopes that he can repair his father’s reputation. The villagers hate and fear him, though local Inspector Krogh coldly makes the family’s acquaintance in order to protect them from any hostile villagers. Krogh has his own history with the Monster, who ripped his arm off as a child, necessitating a fake arm and ruining a potential military career.
Frankenstein meets Ygor, a deformed man hiding out in the abandoned castle, who escaped death by hanging with a broken neck and has become friends with the Monster, also lying dormant in the family crypt. Frankenstein, unable to resist his ancestral impulses, revives the Monster. Though he is not immediately violent, the Monster begins doing Ygor’s bidding, killing off the jury members who sentenced him to be hanged so many years ago. Frankenstein’s sanity begins to waver and Inspector Krogh is certain the Monster is involved in a recent string of murders.
This is a surprisingly good film bolstered by a number of compelling actors and strong performances. Bela Lugosi, who turned down the role of the Monster so many years before, joins the cast as the demented Ygor and nearly steals the film. Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill, two other Universal regulars, are solid as Wolf Frankenstein and Inspector Krogh. Son of Frankenstein was produced to help save Universal financially. Though Carl Laemmle and Laemmle, Jr., founders of Universal and spearheads of the early horror films, had been kicked out of the company in 1936, Universal noticed a boom in business when they re-released a double feature of Dracula and Frankenstein in theaters. This financial bump encouraged them to make Son of Frankenstein and return to their horror franchises throughout the ‘40s, bringing financial (though not necessarily critical) success back to the studio.
Son of Frankenstein is unfortunately overly long, outstripping most Universal horror films from this period by almost 20 minutes. The first half of the film is compelling, basically up until the Monster “awakens” and Ygor’s manipulations of him are revealed and then the second half lags and becomes repetitive. The second half is also nearly impossible to watch without thinking of Mel Brooks’ fantastic comedy, Young Frankenstein. Though Young Frankenstein draws on elements of all the first three films, it takes the bulk of its material from Son of Frankenstein, which means that if you’ve seen Young significantly more than Son, it will be difficult to watch without a fair amount of giggles. While Basil Rathbone is far more likable than Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein in the first two films), he really ramps it up in the third act and teeters on the verge of hysteria, making for some very laughable scenes towards the end, particularly between he and Atwill. Lionel Atwill gives a strong performance as the deadly serious Inspector Krogh, though he is occasionally silly with his false arm (thanks a lot, Young Frankenstein).
Things come together in the end and though Karloff isn’t given nearly enough screen time or script material, he is excellent in the tear-stained finale, where he grieves bitterly over the body of Ygor, his only friend in the world. Lugosi is wonderful as Ygor, even though he plays a stupid flute (or is that a homemade oboe?) for several key scenes, and this is easily one of his best roles. He is the true villain of the film, manipulating the Monster to do his murderous bidding. I also enjoyed the new plot material that surrounds Ygor’s character; instead of rehashing Shelley’s plot, the real conflict is between Frankenstein, Ygor, and Inspector Krogh, with more of a focus on the battle of wills and morals than an unhealthy obsession with scientific discovery and its dark side. Themes of fatherhood and family responsibility are explored, also giving the film slightly more gravity.
Though Son of Frankenstein was supposed to be shot in Technicolor, black and white film does the film many favors. The lovely set and cinematography are two of the film’s strongest points and it borrows heavily from German expressionism, looking far more like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than the first two Frankenstein films. The heavy shadows, winding staircases, swamp-like lab and mausoleum, nightmarish forests, and almost noir-like village rivals anything in the first two films.
Son of Frankenstein is available in Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection set and comes somewhat highly recommended. This is a surprisingly good third film for a horror series, particularly considering where The Mummy descended to and that Son of Dracula is interesting, but often silly and deeply flawed.