Universal Monsters in Review: Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Frankenstein’s monster rises again in this third installment in the Frankenstein series, if you can call such a questionable connection, a series. Son of Frankenstein is notable, certainly, as the last time Boris Karloff reprises the role as the monster. And from what I was able to glimpse on screen after multiple viewings, it was not all too surprising why Boris let others, such as Lon Chaney, Lugosi, and Strange take up the mantle. Son of Frankenstein is a very unusual movie. And a hard one for any fan of classic Universal monsters to review. There were so many things I loved about the film. And there were many things I found to be down right deplorable. Most of what I disliked came mostly from my issues with the treatment of both the monster and with Dwight Frye (an underappreciated actor, among many, in his day). If you’ve seen the originals, the movies that started…well, everything, then you’ll probably have noted how there was a certain kind of story being told regarding the monster in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein that was either altogether ignored or erased in Son of Frankenstein. I’m not saying it was a bad movie, not at all, but with the absence of James Whale, the directorial differences are noticeable, especially with the monster and it’s relationship with its maker, or in this case, the maker’s son. Well, before we get too far down the rabbit hole, lets give this movie a proper introduction, shall we?
Here’s a quickfire synopsis:
Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returns to the Baronial manor from the United States with his wife Elsa ( Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). He is not made welcome by the locals who are still terrified of his father’s works and the monster he created. The local Burgomaster gives him a sealed briefcase left by his father and inside Wolf finds his father’s scientific notes. At the manor he the past quickly reveals itself both from the grave warning of inspector Krough (Lionel Atwill) and an accidental meeting with Igor (Bela Lugosi) who asks him to heal the monster his father created, thought to be in some sort of coma. Desiring to reclaim his father’s lost honor and to prove his genius, Wolf’s initial attempts to re-animate the creature seem to fail but when Peter says he saw a giant in the woods, it appears the creature has risen yet again. When people are mysteriously killed in the village there is little doubt that the monster is responsible.
In a nutshell, that’s the basic jist of the movie. And a very different one at that, though not too far removed from what we might expect from a “mad scientist” story. Wolf von Frankenstein returns to his fatherland hoping to reclaim the honor of his legacy, his fathers work, and their family name. Admittedly, it is very confusing to follow the movie chronologically. Did papa Frank escape the castle in Bride of Frankenstein to ship off to England or the States or wherever to bear a son…? As the monster demanded in Bride, “Live…you must live.” And we assumed he did just that. Son of Frankenstein takes place more or less a generation later. There’s cars in the movie, not just carriages. But certain aspects of the script beg-to-question if the baron ever escaped. Wolf confesses he didn’t know his father very well, only what others told him, and of his “great work” and genius. It doesnt make sense for Wolf to travel to the hobble town of Frankenstein if his father was there to warn him. The only way for the context of the plot to make sense is to assume, no, papa Frank did not survive and did not accompany his pregnant bride to England, the State, wherever. He died and now his son is retracing his father’s steps. Understanding how Son of Frankenstein is not a direct sequel to Bride of Frankenstein is very disappointing. But it also seems the norm when it comes to Universal monster additions, especially when dealing with a third movie.
The set is designed with an eye for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, very expressionistic with shadowed backgrounds and twisted vaulted archways, something we might expect from a Tim Burton film today. The storm is raging as the Frank family find their way to the baronial manor. The house is oddly constructed with tall porch-like hallways and odd decor dinning areas. The son, Peter, with his blonde curls no doubt represents absolute innocence, while Igor represents evil, with the creature pulled somewhere between. Bela Lugosi gives us one of his best performances, I think, as Igor, though I will not hide my disappointment with the exclusion of Dwight Frye, who apparently was given an unaccredited role as “villager” in Son of Frank. Lugosi did wonderfully in the part of twisted vengeful Igor. In fact, the entire movie could have just been about him and it would have been fantastic. If we admit that Son of Frankenstein is its own standalone movie, loosely connected to the first, it is understandable why the powers that be did not cast Dwight as Igor, but still…it seems wrong to have him only as a lowly “villager.” Even in Bride they gave Dwight a more noteworthy role as Karl, one of Dr. Pretoruis’s henchmen.
The evolution of the monster is the most disappointing things of the movie. In the original movie, the creature had just been born and was thus learning and discovering. In Bride the creature was more or less coping with it’s created plight, desiring a mate, failing, and thus accepting its fate. Doomed. However, in Son it seems as if the creature took several steps back to the bumbling newborn, instead of the seasoned creation. By the third installment, it would be safe to assume the creature had progressed in some way, some understanding, as Igor stated to Wolf, “Your father made him to live for all time.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a creature with that kind of wisdom, of a being that lived for “all time?” Sadly, we do not get that creature in Son of Frankenstein. We’re drawn back to the basics. I like to think that is where James Whale would have taken the story, had he directed this film. There are some wonderful scenes, no doubt. As the creature lifts the boy and is ready to throw him into the sulfur pit, the creature changes it’s mind. When the boy helps the creature up the ladder, it’d expression is thought provoking. Maybe, once again, the monster just wanted a friend. Or maybe the monster just wanted to be good. To be given the chance.
A twist in the story is discovering that Igor is somehow controlling the monster, though this is never fully explained. The motivation makes sense, not wanting to be hanged, again, Igor deploys the creature to dispatch the men on the jury who sentenced the poor laboratory assist to the hangman’s gallery. He wants revenge, understood. But nothing is resolved. Igor is shot by Wolf. Killed. The creature discovers the body and goes berserk. The last moments are very rapid. Not to mention odd, especially with the leading actor, Basil Rathbone, who seems too…comedic for the role. I’m not saying Basil is a comedian by trade, most of his credited roles were in 1940s noir films, but there’s a strange way he carries himself that seems too satiric. And his swashbuckling slaying of the monster was, while fun to watch, altogether unnecessary. Listening to Basil playing as Wolf, I can’t help but imagine Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. And this is juxtaposed with some rather serious and horrifying moments in the film. Listening to inspector Krough describe how the creature had severed his arm as a boy, “torn by the roots” as he says, it is very disturbing. Also, whenever Igor is on stage, there is a real feeling of something sinister going on and his lines are ever so marvelous, as he says, “They hanged me for stealing bodies…(pause) so they said.”
The elements in Son of Frankenstein are endless. Father, husband, son, doctor…mad scientist even? Ultimately, the movie asks us what is truly important. Our legacy, our names, or are our families what’s most important, in the here and now. Should we be so concerned with righting the past that we forget about those in our lives today? It would seem, in this regard, the creature was nothing more than a ghost…one we’ll no doubt see later in this review series when Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) emerges from the sulfur pit to haunt our dreams once more.
My rating: 3.5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.