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Son of Frankenstein (1939)
18th Dec 08
Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of Henry, arrives back in Europe from America, twenty-five years after his father’s death, with his wife and child, to claim his inheritance, his father’s castle. After a far from friendly reception from the locals, Wolf sets about looking to restore his family’s honour.
Enlisting the help of the dubious blacksmith Ygor (Bela Lugosi), Wolf is shown the Monster (Boris Karloff)’s body, lying in a hidden crypt. At first repelled by what he sees, Wolf soon comes round to the idea that reviving the Monster would be a good way of regaining his family’s honour – Doh! With the ‘armless’ local Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) hanging around and hassling Wolf matters do not improve when it becomes clear why Ygor was keen for the Monster to be resurrected.
Following on from director James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the third in Universal Studio’s Frankenstein series. Until Son’s release there had been a decline in the fortunes of Universal’s horror output at the box office and they had all but seized producing them.
When Universal re-released Dracula and Frankenstein as a double bill in 1938 to terrific box office business, they didn’t hesitate in capitalising on this turnaround. Son was a huge success and convinced the studio to keep making monster movies for another twenty years or so.
Son of Frankenstein was to become the longest English-language film in the Universal horror film series. Whereas the majority would clock in at around 75-80 minutes, Son stretched to ninety-nine.
The intention was to make the film in Technicolor, but this decision was reversed when it became apparent that Boris Karloff’s make-up wasn’t going to convince as much in colour, given that he had a green face.
This was the last time that Boris Karloff was to play the monster in a movie. Rumour has it that he wasn’t as satisfied with this third movie, feeling that his part was not as substantial. It was not the last time though that he was to appear in a Frankenstein movie. Karloff played a character called Dr. Gustav Niemann in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and as Baron Frankenstein in 1958’s Frankenstein – 1970. In 1940 Karloff appeared as the Monster for a celebrity baseball game and last wore the Jack Pierce-styled make-up for a Halloween special of TV programme Route 66 entitled Lizards Leg and Owlet Wing along with Lon Chaney Jnr. and Peter Lorre.
Directed by Rowland V. Lee, who also produces, and with a screenplay by Wyllis Cooper, Son is responsible for the plotline that became the series’ template - a relative of the original Frankenstein happens across the inert body of the Monster, resurrects the lumbering mumbler, all Hell breaks loose and the villages run around agitated like they have ants in their pants until they’ve burnt something down and won the day. Whilst this might have been fresh for this outing, the follow-ups have diluted the framework so it’s not quite as thrilling in this regard, so thank goodness for the interaction between the characters that helps push this above the average standard.
Basil Rathbone makes for a captivating lead, he improves on Colin Clive from the previous movies, and capitalising on the same charisma that still makes him the definitive Sherlock Holmes for many. Interestingly Rathbone wasn’t the first choice with goggle-eyed Peter Lorre and Claude Rains being earlier considerations. Lorre was in fact cast but had to walk from the production due to illness.
After losing out on the role of the Monster to Karloff, former Dracula Bela Lugosi makes the most of his role as Ygor, a character that was not originally in the script. Lugosi stays the right side of hammy, something he fails to do when he reprises his role in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein. Here though his eyes twinkle with malicious glee, ripe for a character bent on revenge.
Rumour has it that Universal took advantage of Lugosi’s need for work, paying him just $500 per week. Director Lee, appalled at how Lugosi was being treated, adjusted the script and made Ygor more central to the plot dynamics and thus ensured that the actor received a much better wage.
The young boy Peter is a pain to watch and you kind of hope the Monster might squash him under his large boots. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen, but thinking about it sure does help. The young actor playing Peter, Donnie Dunagan, went on to become more famously known as the voice of Disney’s Bambi (1942).
It is impossible to watch Son of Frankenstein without thinking of Mel Brooks’ wonderful 1974 spoof Young Frankenstein. Brooks’ movie seems to have plundered this third movie more for his laughs than he has the two movies previous and there are times where the effect of director Rowland V. Lee’s is muted slightly by such association. Just you try not to laugh when Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh adjusts his false arm.
What struck most about Son of Frankenstein was the film’s styling. All twisted staircases, angles and shadows; there is a strong whiff of the German Expressionist about the set design and lighting, both of which bewitch and behold the viewer tremendously. Gothic to the extreme, I could have happily sat back and let the visuals wash over me. Director Lee has created a very atmospheric treat that surpasses the camp and overrated thrills of Bride of Frankenstein and nestles next to the original.