(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
The third movie in Universal’s Frankenstein series is Son of Frankenstein, with Rowland V. Lee as director and a stunning trifecta of lead actors in Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. This 1939 motion picture was an attempt to rekindle the fires of monster movies, what with the studio having mostly given up on the genre. But some theatrical successes led to reconsideration, which led to this flick.
If Son of Frankenstein represents anything, it stands as the last of the Universal horror A-pictures from the series. Subsequent Frankenstein outings were not priorities for the studio, with skidding budgets demonstrating their lack of interest. And Karloff never worked as the Monster again, save for a television appearance in the 1960s. In that sense, Son of Frankenstein is the end of an era.
Rathbone stars as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the son of the legendary Henry Frankenstein. Together with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), he moves to the family castle and checks out his father’s work. The townsfolk aren’t big fans of the Frankenstein name for obvious reasons, but Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) proves sympathetic.
It isn’t long before Rathbone’s curiosity has him checking out dad’s lab. He meets Ygor (Lugosi), who was hanged for grave robbing but inexplicably survived. It turns out the Ygor has a connection with the Monster (Karloff), who is still alive in Frankenstein’s laboratory. It also turns out that Ygor is quite mad, as he starts to use his power over the Monster to seek revenge on those who put him to death.
Son of Frankenstein puts the Monster on a different path from what fans of the series are familiar with, with Wyllis Cooper’s screenplay leaving out the power of speech and making him more armament than complex figure with latent feelings and mumbling desires. Ygor is mostly the figure of momentum in Lee’s world and that’s kind of disappointing.
Rathbone does his best to have his character confront his father’s legacy and he manages some nice scenes where he can stretch his theatrical legs. His best interaction comes with Atwill’s Krogh, who is a wonder all his own. Rathbone’s Frankenstein doesn’t seem to writhe under the same sense of moral conflict as his kin, however.
Sure, there is some humour. While Son of Frankenstein never reaches James Whale’s level of side-splitting spectacle, Lee provides some nuggets here and there. The aforementioned Krogh, with his artificial arm and vendetta against the Monster, is easily the most entertaining character of the bunch. The way he jerks his synthetic arm around is nearly sophisticated in its comic control.
Unfortunately, Son of Frankenstein feels momentously removed from Mary Shelley’s tale of the immoral conceit of man. There is little that of intricacy in Lee’s ideas and little to challenge or provoke. Even the introduction of young Peter seems futile, particularly given how he mostly and predictably becomes a pawn for the latter portion of the film.
Without question, this is Lugosi’s film. That seems an odd thing to say given the fact that it’s a Frankenstein movie, but the character of Ygor really is the hinge for just about everything that happens. While it’s nice to see Lugosi land a payday and have some much-valued screen time, it’s also rather disappointing that it comes at the cost of all else.
On the bright side, the look of Son of Frankenstein is really something. Lee and cinematographer George Robinson manage some nice work with shadows, presenting the intimidating staircase as a labyrinth of possibilities. The shots of beds head-to-head in accord with local lore are evocative of some fascinating dichotomies, but the story doesn’t take these visual elements anywhere meaningful.
Regrettably, Son of Frankenstein is mostly a mediocre matter. It lacks the proper sizzle of its predecessors, even if it does feature a bang-up cast and some agreeable photographic flavour. Lee’s kick at the can only draws greater appreciation to Whale’s interpretations of Shelley’s story, which perchance confirms the proposition that the Monster belongs in the sulphur pit for good.