I’ve decided that my first post for October will be dedicated to the Universal horror film Son of Frankenstein. Life tends to influence a lot of my writing choices and recently I was talking to a friend about sequels, which, of course makes me think of all the other times I’ve talked about sequels with people. For a lot of studios green-lighting a sequel can very well be a license to print money. It’s even more prevalent in horror because they are relatively inexpensive to make. They make a profit even if they are moderately successful. If done correctly it can re-launch careers and put studios back on top. This isn’t something that studios realized in the last ten years either.
We’ll go all the way back to 1939 – actually we’ll go back a couple of years before then to a world where Universal (due to a change in management that caused them to drop their signature horror franchises) was desperately looking for a hit. Also not without some sense of irony the stars that made a lot of those horror films so memorable; Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were also experience slumps. Karloff was doing a lot better during the change in management because he was able to land other roles whereas Lugosi was far more typecast due to his accent.
A struggling theatre happened to do a Dracula/Frankenstein double-bill night and it was so successful that a green-light was given to restart the Frankenstein franchise. This time it would put Lugosi and Karloff together. Although this was not the first time the actors had been pared together (or even the best time) it was the first time they would both appear in one of the actors respective franchises that made their careers in the first place. Okay now we’re back in 1939.
Aside from Lugosi and Karloff the film stars Basil Rathbone as the young Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein. He’s returned to the castle of his infamous father’s legacy along with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). The villagers are not too pleased by this because they’re afraid that Frankenstein will follow in his father’s footsteps and create another monster.
While at the castle Frankenstein meets Ygor (Lugosi), Ygor has been condemned by the townspeople for body snatching and was convicted and hung for his crimes. Being hung broke his neck but he managed to come back to life although now he’s horribly disfigured. The fact that his death sentence was technically carried out he is left alone in pseudo-exile.
He meets Frankenstein and shows him his father’s monster is still alive but sick and unable to move. Frankenstein – wanting to restore his father’s good name and fix the creature agrees to help Ygor and restore the monster back to good health.
Soon after the job is done it becomes obvious that the monster only listens to Ygor who wants the creature to enact his revenge against the people that condemned him to hanging. When bodies start piling up the towns Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) starts to press Frankenstein about his involvement which is to say nothing about the hundreds of townspeople willing riot on the castle.
When it comes to Lugosi’s performances in his various films –everyone- has an opinion on which is his best. My opinion is that as the villainous Ygor he is truly in his element as an over-the-top character actor. Everything plays perfectly as Ygor manipulates everyone for his own gain. It’s an inspired performance that steals every scene he’s in.
Karloff himself sadly is regulated to the monsters grunts and groans throughout most of the film. Although, he is given one good scene it’s really a shame that the monster took a step backwards from the previous Bride of Frankenstein. The monster in this film is back to being unable to speak. It also doesn’t allow Karloff and Lugosi to have any really interesting scenes with eachother.
I feel like Son of Frankenstein is a satisfying enough end of a trilogy It touches on what happened to Frankenstein’s family and the townspeople after all those years. It kills of the monster in the most definitive way and ends with everyone happy. Of course Universal couldn’t leave it alone.
This marked the Last time Karloff would ever play Frankenstein’s monster for Universal. It’s interesting that this movie came out in 1939 because in more ways than one it was the end of an era. Even though the franchise continued on with other actors in the roll I never liked them as much and they really seemed like almost the start of a whole other franchise from the 40’s on.