Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Son of Frankenstein
Near the end of the 1930s, Universal’s line of horror films were under a decline. Not since had they delivered a solid hit since Bride of Frankenstein or Dracula. It seemed the quality in this genre they overlooked would send them in a turmoil. The story goes is that a double billing of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein was released and proved to be a huge success with the public. Some say it was a triple feature with King Kong involved while others say it was part of the staging of a movie theater close to bankrupt in Los Angeles. Either way, it was this double feature that lead Universal to craft another sequel and revive new interest in Universal’s line of horror films. And sadly, its nearly forgotten today.
1939 saw Son of Frankenstein’s debut. It has been labeled as the last of Universal’s “A” list films. Everything from the 1940s and 1950s would descend into a line of “B” movies. And frankly, I can’t think of another film after this entry that was given such effort and care. Not just into the sets and drama but even into the characters as well. It should be also noted this was the first Frankenstein film that would pair Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together. That’s two horror icons for the price of one. It was enough to get any horror fan of the time to reserve a ticket. Sure enough, this gamble would pay off well being a big hit at the box office. But how does it hold up to its predecessors?
Sherlock Holmes favorite Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, who turns out to be the son of Henry Frankenstein. After Henry kicks the bucket off-screen, Wolf inherits his father’s mansion along with the broken down laboratory and his prized secrets. Once Wolf and his family move in, we already sympathize with him considering the cold treatment the villagers give him. Not forgetting the events of before and shunning the family name Frankenstein as a curse. Of course, Wolf is different. He shares the same innocence as his father but only wishes to use his methods for his own curiosity and good.
Roaming around the wreckage of the lab is a twisted hunchback named Ygor who claims to have been Henry’s assistant. Before I discuss Ygor a bit, I must stress that because these sequels took so long to make that continuity would be the last thing on a viewer’s mind back then. True, there was an assistant in the first film but his name was Fritz and met a gruesome fate. So we can only guess that Ygor is manipulating Wolf or this film is a slight reboot. Despite the fan theories, we don’t care seeing this is one of Bela Lugosi’s most chilling roles to date. That twisted smile and thick Hungarian accent brings the devil’s advocate feel of the character. Even more interesting is his backstory where he claims the villagers tried to hang him resulting in Ygor getting a broken neck. The fact he says “Ygor is dead” with a sicken grin will leave anyone with chills.
But the twisted hunchback is not alone. Well hidden in the ruins is the original Monster (Boris Karloff returning for the final time) but in a deep coma. This time, the Monster is somehow under Ygor’s control as the pale creature is used to get revenge of the town that tried to kill him. As expected, Wolf revives the Monster by means to study after seeing how amazed he is by the superhuman abilities his father gave. Ygor has other plans…
But the complexity of the story doesn’t end there. Lionel Atwill plays Inspector Krogh, a man who is aware of the danger the Frankenstein name gave but still sees some sign of hope in Wolf. In his first scene, he recounts a chilling story where he lost his arm from the Monster’s rampage. Its a very skin crawling moment that doesn’t need deep detail. All we need is a vague explanation and the sight of his fake arm slammed to the wall showing its stiff inclusion. Krogh is not a villain but aware of the past along with the horrors it brought.
The rest of the movie holds up surprisingly well from its story to how well shot it is. All the while, we worry about the state of the Monster as he gets juggled between Wolf’s amazement and Ygor’s bidding to kill. Our perception of the creature’s nature is not revealed until the final 20 minutes and this is in part because of how Karloff’s performance is placed in the foreground. To be fair, its a nice break seeing how central the Monster was in the first two films and we do get a couple of great scenes like one where he examines himself in the mirror with much disgust. Gone is the Monster’s ability to talk as Karloff is reduced to grunts and groaning. But it still proves a good performance can be giving even when speechless.
Arguably, this is probably the last movie I can think of the time that is giving such effort in the set design. A lot of the sets and twisted shots have a nightmare-like presentation. Almost akin to German Expressionism but done in a Hollywood way with twisted staircases and exaggerated building designs. The look of the movie is highly iconic and overshadows the story sometimes. While easy to follow, the story seems to float around a bit from one motive to the next but still holds together like a noir story.
Even funnier is how a lot of elements were taken from this movie when Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein came on the scene. I remember seeing the parody first and noticed a lot of connections between the horror comedy and the first two Frankenstein movies. In hindsight, it feels like a true spoof in regards to Son of Frankenstein while the other two get a nice mention or highlight. Even right down to the story, I applaud Mel for reminding us the attention of continuity and cliches of a horror film while twisting them around. It reminds us of our appreciation for the genre just as Son of Frankenstein reminds us how good a sequel to its horror icon can be.
Also, on a minor level, its strange to hear how originally the movie was meant to be shot in color but later discarded after a screen test proved it wouldn’t work. Either for budgetary reasons or artistic, I’m personally glad the movie was kept in its black and white roots. Many moviegoers can argue that the best movies are filmed without color aside from the shades of black and the brightness of white. Some home movies and test footage was discovered showing Karloff goofing around in the make-up as well as a bright green skin color for the Monster. Again, making it black and white was probably for the best.
Lastly, fans of Disney will be turning heads when I mention Donnie Dunagan has a part as Wolf’s son Peter. Many will remember him best as the voice of Bambi in Disney’s animated classic about nature. Why I bring this up? Well, think of this. Donnie went from being in a Frankenstein movie to voicing as a baby doe in a Disney flick. And even more odd is how after Bambi, he enlisted into the Marines where he later became a drill instructor. So the next time you make fun of child stars, watch out. Or else they might go from a cute innocent doe to the lead of the Marine Crops. Now that is a scary thought in a nutshell!
Posted on October 2, 2015, in Horror-Wood 2015 and tagged 1939, Bambi, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, child stars, Donnie Duagan, Dracula, Frankenstein, Horror, Horror-Wood, Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon, Lionel Atwill, Mel Brooks, Sequel, Son of Frankenstein, Universal, Universal Monsters, Ygor, Young Frankenstein. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.