#4 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
The Laemmle family lost complete control of Universal Pictures to their creditors during the expensive production of Show Boat, and the new management wanted to focus on less elaborate films. So, after a few years dormant, producer and director Rowland Lee revived the Universal Horror effort with the second sequel to Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein. Returning Boris Karloff for the final time as the monster and inviting Bela Lugosi, at one of the lowest points of his career, Lee leaned more heavily into the German Expressionistic influences than any filmmaker of these entertainments had yet. It has less on its mind than the previous two entries in the little franchise, providing a more straight forward tale of terror, but it manages its more modest ambitions well.
Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) is coming to the remote village where his father had performed his experiments on reanimating dead flesh after the death of his father to claim his inheritance. He brings his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to discover that the town is not exactly there to welcome him with open arms. There’s an explicit policy to make the proposed residency and return of the Baron von Frankenstein as uncomfortable as humanely possible. The only ally he can find is Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), a levelheaded man with a fake arm and a personal story about how he lost that arm to Frankenstein’s monster during his original rampage through the countryside.
Living on the outskirts of the Frankenstein ancestral home is Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a grave robber that the local burgomaster had led a conviction to hang him after he was caught robbing graves, a sentence that Ygor survived despite a broken neck and permanent deformity. He has a secret, and that secret is the monster who survived his own death at the end of The Bride of Frankenstein (because of course and franchise). He’s been using the monster to take revenge on the people on the jury who passed the death sentence on him, keeping himself in view of witnesses while the monster goes off and commits the murders. The problem is that something has made the monster sick, and he’s laid up in the ruins of the old laboratory (the consistency from one film to the next is not the strongest, it was a remote watchtower in the first film). Here comes a doctor in the form of Wolf Frankenstein, and Frankenstein uses his father’s notes and his own medical knowledge to do what he can.
This is where the film gets the closest to having underlying ideas, and they’re largely just repeats of Henry’s journey to try and recreate God’s power in the first film. Wolf gets consumed by the idea of playing God as well, and that’s why he decides to help. It doesn’t last forever once the monster is back on its feet, paying late night visits to Peter, and Ygor sends the monster out to kill again. But Wolf is trapped, and he becomes more frantic as the search for the monster begins again and he could be fingered as part of the issue, especially since his name alone is blamed for the deaths.
It’s standard monster stuff made more interesting by the conflict between Wolf and Ygor, helped by the fact that Ygor simply uses Wolf and then goes off to do his own thing. The script was being written as the film was being shot, with a particular emphasis by Lee to expand the role of Ygor to give Lugosi more screentime and more weeks of work to get him a more acceptable level of pay against what the studio thought he was worth. This pushes Ygor’s subplot to the forefront a good bit, and the contrast between Ygor exacting vengeance and Wolf having to react to it is actually pretty solid stuff.
Rathbone was apparently dismissive of the fact that he was in horror films at all, and he gives an increasingly manic performance as the film progresses into its final act, and it works in a certain campy way. It’s not Una O’Connor screaming endlessly levels like in The Bride of Frankenstein, but its enough to help break the tension as the film moves into its finale. It’s also an obvious inspiration for Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. Speaking of which, most of Young Frankenstein seems to come from this rather than the first film. It’s just kind of interesting.
Visually is where the film is the most interesting. That’s not a knock on the story and script, but just outright praise for the heavy use of shadows and space in the frame that Lee utilizes with aplomb. The large central room in Castle Frankenstein is barely furnished, but it’s dominated by a long horizontal space with an impractical staircase that lines the right wall from which lights pass through and cast interesting shadows on the wall to fill the space. It keeps the space on the wall from being just white while also helping to prevent necessarily filling it with props. There’s also a library set that has a wonderful look outside during a storm where we can see manufactured lightning that’s quite visually striking. Even the train car where Wolf begins the movie has some wonderful exterior looks at a moving set of dead trees that progress at different rates based on distance, giving a very nice sense of movement in what seems both real and unreal since it’s all just stark black and white. This is probably the best looking film in this series.
So, it doesn’t really have the narrative ambition of the earlier Frankenstein films, but it does tell a rather straightforward monster story well. I really enjoy Basil Rathbone’s borderline sarcastic performance a good bit. Atwill gives Krogh some surprising pathos, especially since Kenneth Mars made the character a joke in Young Frankenstein. I can see why Karloff would swear off the monster after this, though. He’s degraded from a thinking thing with real emotion hidden behind his muteness to glorified killing machine. He’s better than that role.
For those looking for a simpler monster movie, I think this is their jam. I had a surprisingly fun time with it.
4 thoughts on “Son of Frankenstein”
Just watched this one. Wow, I think it’s the most atmospheric movie I’ve ever seen. And it might be Bela Lugosi’s best performance. Karloff, too, evinces a real longing in the scene where he compares his face with Basil Rathbone’s. I wish there had been more than that, but as you say, the script required a killing monster.
And I have to admit, I loved the bits where Lugosi plays the oboe (or whatever it is). That had a wonderful payoff in a largely forgotten (but loved by me) 80’s horror comedy called “Transylvania Twist.”
There were some really fun surprises in the Universal Monster movies, and this was definitely one of them.