Friday, October 2, 2015

Film Review: Son of Frankenstein

"Son of Frankenstein"  *** (out of ****)

The good name of Frankenstein needs to be restored in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939).

Although it was the third film in the "Frankenstein" series, "Son of Frankenstein", thematically, works better as a sequel to "Frankenstein" (1931) than "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), which are the two most popular films in the entire "Frankenstein" franchise.

Unlike the previous two films released by Universal studios, "Son of Frankenstein" was not directed by James Whale but instead Rowland V. Lee. It stars Basil Rathbone, best known to us old timers as Sherlock Holmes, as the son of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), Baron Wolf von Frankenstein.

Upon his father's death Wolf has inherited the Frankenstein castle and returns to the village, also called Frankenstein, where his father created the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff), along with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their son Peter (Donnie Dunagan).

Twenty-five years have passed since the Monster ravaged the countryside, striking fear into the hearts of the townspeople, but many have not forgotten what happened. The name Frankenstein is synonymous with death and violence. The villagers do not want another Frankenstein living among them for fear someone from the family may want to create another Monster in the name of science.

When Wolf and his family arrive in the town they are treated coldly. When Wolf tries to assure the townspeople, with a speech, about his intentions, they quickly walk away. Only one man, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) dares to speak to Wolf. The townspeople would like the good Inspector to spy on the family and make sure Wolf has no intentions of repeating his father's work.

The Inspector also remembers the Monster. He was a child when the Monster roamed the village and entered his home. The Monster ripped the young boy's arm out of his socket causing him to use an artificial arm which he needs to maneuver with his good arm.

Despite Wolf's desire to clear his family's name he learns several of the townspeople have been murdered. Many believe it is the doing of the Monster or the ghost of the Monster and soon fingers are pointed at Wolf.

While investigating the family estate Wolf meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a disfigured blacksmith, who was hanged for being a grave robber, but didn't die. He has been hiding in the Frankenstein laboratory, where Henry Frankenstein created the Monster. Ygor has kept the Monster alive and reveals this to Wolf, who as fate would have it is intrigued by his father's work and would like to carry on in order to prove his father's theory was correct. But, can he control the Monster?

If you've ever seen any movie before you can probably guess what happens in "Son of Frankenstein" and the fate of all the characters but that is not what's important when watching this movie. The pleasure of "Son of Frankenstein" comes in the production design, musical score and watching this great cast interact. The movie creates a very nice mood. There is a well developed back story which makes it interesting to watch. Wolf is a character the audience can understand and is a joy to watch, even though, by today's standards, the performance sometimes borders on camp. Still, you must give credit to Basil Rathbone. He carries the movie.

By 1939 Universal studios no longer showed much interest in horror films, which is shocking since this was the studio, at the time, that was well established as the studio known for horror films. They had released "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" (1932). Horror was a significant part of their brand. But, Universal felt these movies would no longer attract the attention of audiences. After a hugely successful re-release of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" on a double-bill, Universal realized the potential of these movies and wanted to cash in so it was decided to make another Frankenstein sequel.

Going into "Son of Frankenstein" audiences will notice some differences compared to the previous Frankenstein movies. One of the best decisions made was the Monster would no longer speak as he had done in "Bride of Frankenstein". We hear him moan and grunt and in one scene he screams. Having the Monster speak was something I always felt was a mistake. It was a clumsy attempt to humanize the character but instead I felt it turned the character into a joke. In "Son of Frankenstein" the character goes back to being a terrorizing figure, as in the first movie. The townspeople fear him, the Inspector fears him, Wolf fears him. The Monster is shown as a murderer.

The Monster is dressed differently as well. This time he wears a fur vest. No explanation for this is given.

As in "Bride of Frankenstein" there is a homosexual undertone to the story. In "Son of Frankenstein" much is made of the relationship between Ygor and the Monster. Ygor is the one that has kept the Monster alive. The Monster is Ygor's companion. Only Ygor can control the Monster. At one point in the movie, when questioned by Wolf as to why he kept the Monster alive, Ygor says the Monster "does things for him". Of course one can assume Ygor meant the Monster carries out his bidding and kills people for him, still, the way in which the line is delivered leads one to interpret their relationship in another way. The Monster only shows humanity towards Ygor, who constantly pats him down.

While I do feel Basil Rathbone carries the movie with his cool demeanor which slowly slips away as the movie progresses, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi do stand out as well. In lesser hands Ygor could have been a forgettable supporting character but through make-up (he kind of resembles the Wolf Man) and a clear vision Lugosi really makes the character memorable and a significant part of the story. Sadly I don't believe Lugosi had a great career. He lived off the fame brought to him by playing Dracula. However, his performance here ranks among his best on-screen.

Lionel Atwill was a well known character actor who appeared in several horror films, including the Frankenstein series. He was also  in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933) which was later remade as the Vincent Price vehicle "House of Wax" (1953). He always had a tendency, in my opinion, to be very stiff. He would take his roles serious and in a strange way I think his stiffness was a result of him trying to be dramatic. He does that here as well but it is a nice contrast to Rathbone who really starts to chew on the scenery.

The original Frankenstein movie had an art design inspired by German expressionism, which was quite popular at the time. "Son of Frankenstein" doesn't aim that high but it has large sets that have a Gothic feel to them. There is a minimalist touch however. There is not a lot of furniture in the castle. Just the bare essentials. It is also worth mentioning, this would be the last Frankenstein movie to have an "A" production budget. Every Frankenstein movie after "Son of Frankenstein" would have "B" movie production values.

"Son of Frankenstein" is often overlooked. The first two movies in the Frankenstein franchise carry the most cultural significance and the rest of the movies are generally considered lesser efforts. That may be true for some of the other titles but I truly believe "Son of Frankenstein" deserves more credit. I actually prefer it over "Bride of Frankenstein", which I feel was basically a parody of the first movie. "Son of Frankenstein" goes back to its roots. This is a "serious" movie.

Like "Frankenstein" and other Universal horror movies released in the early 1930s, "Son of Frankenstein" hits on the same theme - the dangers of science. The lack of respect for tradition society shows. Man should not play God. Science is dangerous. It can lead to great harm. Scientist say they want to do things for the greater good however they are ego-maniacs. They over - reach and will cause harm to the rest of us. You would see this in "The Invisible Man" (1933), "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein".

This theme would become more prominent after World War Two with America dropping the bomb. People would then realize the destruction science was capable of and this would be presented in science-fiction movies of the 1950s. "Son of Frankenstein" though beats it to the punch.

It would be a huge error on my part if I didn't mention the influence this movie had on the Gene Wilder / Mel Brooks collaboration, "Young Frankenstein" (1974), which was also about a young Frankenstein restoring the reputation of his family. The Inspector Kemp character played by Kenneth Mars was directly lifted from Lionel Atwill in this movie, artificial arm and all! Gene Wilder channels Basil Rathbone in both his look and cool demeanor. The dart scene between Wilder and Mars was taken from this movie. Ygor controls the Monster by playing music, just as the violin music in "Young Frankenstein" soothes the Monster. The character of Ygor itself first appeared in this movie, though Marty Feldman was not dressed the same way. And of course, the giant knockers (no not the ones on Terri Garr) inspired a joke in "Young Frankenstein". Strangely enough you never hear Brooks and Wilder specifically mention "Son of Frankenstein" as an influence. They repeatedly have only mentioned the first two movies as sources of inspiration.

Fans of older, classic black & white horror movies would do themselves a great service by watching "Son of Frankenstein".