Son of Frankenstein (1939) ****
The original Hollywood horror movie boom that began with Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 lasted only about five years, just long enough to produce one beastly sequel each for the first two of the aforementioned films. I’m not even sure if rinky-dink studios like Monogram soldiered on producing cut-rate tripe in the genre after about 1936. But then in 1938, for reasons I don’t dare guess, Universal’s bosses decided they could make a few extra dollars by re-releasing Dracula and Frankenstein as a double bill. “A few extra dollars” doesn’t begin to cover the success that greeted this venture. The dual reissue made so much money, in fact, that it convinced Universal the time had come to take another crack at making a horror flick, which (for obvious reasons) would end up being another sequel to one of the heavy hitters from 1931. The resulting film, Son of Frankenstein, was so successful as to set off another boom-time in the genre, and this time, I can understand why. This movie is easily the best of the Universal monster canon, and it would be another fifteen years before the venerable studio produced another horror film that even came close to matching it.
Right from the start, the filmmakers take maximal advantage of the fact that the previous two Frankenstein flicks had pretty well used up the plot outline of Mary Shelley’s tiresome novel, leaving the new movie free to run wild. Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone, best known for the seemingly hundreds of times he played Sherlock Holmes), son of the late Baron Heinrich Frankenstein (note that Henry’s name has been retroactively Germanized), returns to his ancestral home in the company of his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter. Public opinion in the village is unanimously hostile to him; his father’s activities have taken on truly legendary status, and the very name of Frankenstein is now considered cursed. Indeed, the family is so unpopular that Castle Frankenstein has lain abandoned all these years, home only to a squatting fugitive madman named Ygor (Bela Lugosi, in what is beyond question the finest screen performance of his career), who chose it as his hideout specifically because no one else dared come near the place. Ygor, you see, was convicted of grave robbing some years ago, and sentenced to die by hanging— nobody realizes that the hangman did a half-assed job on him, breaking his neck but leaving him very much alive. The fact that this “dead” man lives on the grounds of his estate will be of significance to Frankenstein in the near future, and not just because of the nuisance he represents. Ygor has something that might interest the baron a great deal, if only he knew about it.
It’s only appropriate that Wolf should encounter Ygor for the first time while inspecting the ruins of his father’s lab. After all, what secret could Ygor possibly be keeping if not that he knows the whereabouts of Heinrich Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff, in his final appearance in the role)? Wolf’s interest is piqued when Ygor tells him that the creature still survives, if only in a comatose state. For one thing, his inheritance of the Frankenstein estate put Wolf in possession of his father’s papers, including his notes on the monster’s creation. Add to that the fact that the younger Frankenstein has never accepted the conventional wisdom regarding his father’s work, and that his new neighbors’ prejudicial distrust of him has only been increasing the size of that particular chip on the baron’s shoulder, and it seems pretty obvious what Herr Frankenstein is going to be doing with his free time from now on.
Ygor is especially eager to see Frankenstein follow in Heinrich’s footsteps because he had come to consider the monster his friend before the lightning strike that put it into its coma. (No attempt is ever made to justify its having survived the explosion of the lab all those years ago.) Again, it isn’t hard to fathom why. The local chief of police, the one-armed Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill, from Doctor X and Mark of the Vampire), has had his hands full recently looking into a string of curious murders— six so far. All of the victims showed signs of strangulation, but it seems they actually died from ruptured hearts, the implication being that whatever attacked them scared them to death before it had a chance to finish killing them manually. And interestingly enough, all six victims served on the jury that convicted Ygor. You think the body snatcher’s been using the monster as an unstoppable hit man? Mmmm.... could be...
Sure enough, the killings resume the moment Frankenstein revives the monster, and Krogh (who has hitherto been actively protective of the baron and his family) begins to suspect that the coincidence of timing between Frankenstein’s arrival in town and the beginning of a new rash of murders is no coincidence at all. Krogh’s suspicions are further intensified when Peter Frankenstein begins talking about a “giant” who comes to play with him from time to time when no one else is around. Elsa and the maid think the boy has merely gotten himself an imaginary friend, but Krogh isn’t so quick to dismiss Peter’s tales. Then, when the Frankensteins’ own butler— the only person other than the baron and Ygor who knew of the monster’s resurrection— disappears, Wolf himself begins to suspect foul play. He, of course, realizes that Ygor is the one pulling the monster’s strings, but can he convince Krogh of that before it’s too late? With the townspeople increasingly up in arms over the murders (which they’ve been blaming on the monster since day one), Ygor increasingly interested in covering his tracks, and the monster’s famously unpredictable violent streak an ever-present threat, time would certainly seem to be in short supply.
It must be said that Son of Frankenstein has its weaknesses. Most glaringly, no effort whatsoever was expended by its creators to shore up continuity between it and its two predecessors. I’ve already mentioned Henry Frankenstein’s name-change, but that’s only the beginning. Castle Frankenstein has somehow changed from a well-lit, airy, genteel Old-World chateau into a German Expressionist nightmare palace, full of too-narrow corridors, twisting staircases, and leering gargoyles in the form of wild boars. Ownership of the lab which exploded in Bride of Frankenstein’s final scene has been transferred from Dr. Pretorius to Baron Frankenstein, and it has been relocated to the grounds of the Frankenstein estate. (Henry’s original lab, you may remember, was built in a medieval watchtower as far away from home as he could arrange so as not to attract attention to his secret project.) A physical examination given to the creature (the superhuman vital signs attributed to it seem to suggest that somebody forgot how the thing was made in the first place) establishes that it is, for all practical purposes, immortal— and yet no mention is ever made of the female monster, which ought to be equally so. The monster has also forgotten all the social skills it learned from the blind beggar with whom it stayed during the previous film— not that I’m complaining about that, mind you. No, I’ll happily join the filmmakers in pretending no one ever taught the creature to talk or smoke cigars! But all the same, the total effect is to make me ask, “hey, guys... did you, you know, watch the last two movies?”
It doesn’t much matter though. Without reference to the earlier installments in the series, Son of Frankenstein is such a tour de force that not even the ghastly performance of the child actor playing Peter can slow it down. Partisans of Boris Karloff may share the actor’s umbrage at the drastic reduction in his role this time around, but I think down-playing the monster in favor of the three-way battle of wits between Frankenstein, Ygor, and Inspector Krogh was a marvelous idea. This is a fascinating trio of characters, believably realized by the actors portraying them, and the greatly expanded running time of the film as compared to its predecessors (nearly two hours, versus just over 70 minutes) gives ample opportunity to introduce the sort of small details of their personalities that truly give them life. There’s no particular reason why Krogh needs to be a wannabe military officer, his life-long ambition foiled by a childhood encounter with Frankenstein’s creation that cost him his right arm, but writing his character that way adds tremendously to the depth of the movie. For one thing, it shows that the men and women who people it have histories; simultaneously, it addresses a recurring blind-spot in the scripts for Universal horror movies by giving Krogh the best possible reason for believing in monsters. Meanwhile, the radical departure in focus and theme from the earlier films is just what this one needs to keep it from becoming a lifeless retread. Son of Frankenstein has little time for or interest in the mad-science angle that was the core of the plot in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Rather than serving Frankenstein’s dreams of personal scientific glory, the monster becomes an instrument of Ygor’s revenge against the men who tried to have him killed. Best of all, Son of Frankenstein marks a return to the gravity of the original after the disastrous detour into self-parody taken by the first sequel. The series would go that direction again later (God deliver us from Abbot and Costello!), but for now, the Frankenstein films would take their duties as horror films fairly seriously.