“Son of Frankenstein” was third in the Universal Studios Frankenstein series, following “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” This film was directed by Rowland Lee, and starred Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Basil Rathbone. It has much more to recommend it than you might imagine.
The plot follows Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) as he comes to take possession of the castle and estate after his father’s death, along with his wife and son. He finds less than a warm welcome, as the villagers remember the monster very well and are fearful of a repeat performance. The story follows Frankenstein’s meeting with Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who then reveals to him that the original monster was not destroyed and is currently in a coma. Frankenstein Junior then (naturally) decides it is his scientific duty to revive the creature. Things do downhill from there.
The set and lighting design in the film are superb. The diagonal aspects in the sets, added to the bold lighting that creates even more distorted shadows, are reminiscent of German Expressionist film such as “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”. The outside scenes are very desolate, the trees seem stunted in growth and there are storms and lightning. Many of the rooms seem sparsely furnished, leading to a sense of emptiness and desolation inside the castle as well. The entire atmosphere seems surreal.
This surrealism is intended to create a sense of legend. Frankenstein near the start of the film scoffs that he believes the creature’s actions have been embellished out of all proportion, and that things cannot have been as bad as painted. He insists the villagers are all superstitious and ignorant, and that he knows better than they what is real. It takes the Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) to bring Frankenstein down from his pedestal by relating the story of how he lost his arm (the creature ripped it out). But the fears of the villagers are shared by his wife, who finds the castle unpleasant and frightening, and soon Frankenstein himself, having started the film stating he is not afraid of anything ends it admitting he is afraid of the monster. Frankestein’s monster has become a legend while still around.
Boris Karloff reprises his role as the Creature for the third time. Despite the speech he was given in the second film being removed, he is able to portray so much with gesture and expression. He was an excellent actor and should have been more widely appreciated. An example of this is the scene with the mirror. The creature catches sight of his reflection, and is initially startled, thinking it is someone else. He slowly comes to realise he is looking at himself, testing this theory first by batting on the cable that is stretched out next to him, and then pulling Frankenstein himself over to double check. His body language and face clearly project bewilderment, confusion, understanding, and then confusion again as he wonders why he looks so different. This is quite a subtle scene and I think it’s wonderful.
Bela Lugosi is Ygor, a man who was hanged for grave robbing, and in spite of having his neck broken, survived. The law does not allow him to be hanged again as he was pronounced dead, so he is allowed to live, though shunned by the villagers who think he is cursed. The character is very interesting – he is pulling the strings of the situation, by his control over the creature, and his keeping Frankenstein at bay with this power. Frankenstein, for all his intellectual superiority, is thwarted by this apparently ignorant peasant. Lugosi shines in this role, depicting a cunning, manipulative character with his shifty eyes and little smirks. He makes verbal digs at those around him and is a great example of not needing to have education to be smart.
Basil Rathbone as Frankenstein is quite good. I find Rathbone to be something of a one note actor with a tendency to melodrama. However he does depict the unpleasant blend of aristocratic and scientifc arrogance, sneering at the superstitious peasantry and putting down the policeman, who is actually offering to help him. Rathbone depicts Frankenstein’s loss of cool as the story progresses quite well, and is better in this than in some other films I have seen.
I also enjoyed Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh. He gave a great performance as a very interesting character who is more complex than he appears. Krogh might be in charge of a half dozen policemen in a country village, but he is a very smart man, does some good detective work, and, if this were a murder mystery, he would be the hero who solved the crime.
On a poor note, the film ends very suddenly. There is the big climax, and then one very abrupt scene and that’s it. It was a bit jarring.
“Son of Frankenstein” is an old style black and white monster movie. You can easily call it a B movie. But it’s a great deal of fun for all that. Watch it for good actors giving good performances, beautiful expressionist shots, and an old-fashioned fairy-tale story.