Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill
Universal had struck gold with the Frankenstein franchise not once but twice already, but for the third film in the series, they would have to do not just without the visionary talents of director James Whale, but also leading man and Frankenstein himself Colin Clive too.
Horror had been out of fashion for a few years, but a triple bill of re-releases featuring Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong was an unexpected hit, so the generators were cranked up in the Baron’s laboratory once again for Son Of Frankenstein.
Unlike its predecessor, it wouldn’t be a direct sequel following on from its last scene either. Instead, Willis Cooper’s script would be set decades later, turning the series into a generational saga, one where there was one consistent element in their lives — The Monster.
Determined to probe the legitimacy of his late father’s work and restore the family name from disgrace Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) relocates his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to the family castle.
He’s given a hostile reception by the local villagers who remember all to clearly the carnage wrought by his father’s experiments, the exception being the local policeman, an Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) who bears an artificial arm, replacing the one “ripped out by the roots” when he came across the Monster as a child.
Settling in at his father’s castle, Wolf encounters the insane Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a blacksmith who was hanged for graverobbing, but somehow survived albeit with a badly deformed neck to show off it. He also comes across the inanimate corpse of the Monster itself, comatose, but receptive to electricity.
Frankenstein revives the creature, but its brain has deteriorated during its inactivity. Determined to improve on it, he sets to work but the Monster only responds to Ygor and the lunatic has other plans, plans of revenge and murder…
If you can get over the change in tone from Whale’s films, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s more of a traditional horror film and is far, far too long (1hr 39 minutes? In 1939? Dear Lord.), but there’s some stellar performances in here and it had some interesting things to say about ideas like family and loyalty.
Karloff by this point has the Monster down pat, perfectly balancing childlike innocence with the volcanic and violent temper that’s never far from the surface. He’s heartbreaking when he sees himself in the mirror, not just because he’s ugly and confusedly comparing himself to his handsome creator, but because he’s alive again. Imagine the pain the poor creature must feel if that’s his response to being woken again? Horrible. Karloff nails it, reminding you once again that no matter what atrocities his Monster might commit, he’s never the real villain.
The real villain this time is the foul Ygor, brought to life magnificently by the great Bela Lugosi who gives one of his all-time great performances here. Layered in hair and makeup, he’s twitching, slippery wretch of a man who uses the Monster to murder the jury that sentenced him to death, but Lugosi plays it in such a way that you feel he has a genuine affection for the creature, even if he is exploring him horribly. Bela gets the lion’s share of the great dialogue too and relishes every word, drawing out a magnificently repugnant character from what is not a huge amount of screen time.
As the titular Son himself, Basil Rathbone is on top form here too. He’s initially suave and slick, a big city gent come to reclaim his father’s name despite what all the yokels think, but slowly as what he’s inclining himself in sets in, his demeanour changes to that of a haunted man, one who’s in over his head and he knows it. Ygor and the Monster are out of control and he’s not the great scientist he thought he was. Rathbone is perfect casting for Wolf and perfectly illustrates Wolf’s unraveling as his hubris gets the better of him, just like his father before him.
Lionel Atwill’s policeman doesn’t face a huge amount to do, but what he does, he does magnificently. The false arm thing is a marvellous idea, a very real reminder of the destructive power of the Monster, but also offering a nice counterbalance with the equally bit differently disabled Ygor. One man is consumed by bitterness about it and the other has developed ways to deal with it. Atwill is particularly great here as the traumatised child who’s all grown up. You can tell it still affects him by dint of how Atwill holds his voice and mannerisms as he talks about it, but he does it in such a careful way he still comes over as a strong and capable adult.
It ambles a fair bit to get there, but the finale of Son Of Frankenstein is brilliantly effective, with the poor, conflicted Monster too human to throw his creator’s grandson into the burning sulphur pit, but still too much of a monster to be allowed to live.
Son Of Frankenstein takes the series in a more traditional direction of horror and is already creeping into cliché, even by 1939 standards, but a remarkably strong cast and a decent script more than make up for any franchise fatigue it may induce. An essential part of Universal’s finest series.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy