Written by Wyllis Cooper
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill
US Release Jan. 13, 1939
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
Little did I know when I re-watched Son of Frankenstein (1939) how much I would enjoy it. My memory would have told you that the Frankenstein sequels got worse with each subsequent edition; however, I believe this one is every bit as good as Bride of Frankenstein (1935), albeit in a different way.
Primarily, it’s the style of Son of Frankenstein that I find unique. Its sets are somewhat abstract, sparsely decorated with high ceilings, open spaces, sharp angles and shadows. It’s Universal Monsters via The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Art Direction is by eight-time Oscar nominee Jack Otterson and Set Decoration is by seven-time nominee/two-time winner Russell A. Gausman, both early in their careers.
I had also forgotten how many iconic moments come from this third chapter in the Universal Frankenstein series. Son of Frankenstein has the first appearance of a character named, “Ygor” (Bela Lugosi). It has the first time an angry mob accuses a villain of crimes before he has committed them. And it has the one-armed inspector so hilariously ridiculed in Young Frankenstein.
The screenplay by Willis Cooper also offers the best character development of a Frankenstein yet. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) starts out as a humble family man with no intention of continuing his father’s experiments, but is soon enamored by the “miracle” that came to pass in his laboratory, “a miracle that the people called a monster.”
The story is multi-layered, with all pieces cleverly fitting together. Considered a dead man even though he survived a hanging, Ygor is not a hunchback, but does live with a healed broken neck. He’s out to exact revenge on the jury that sentenced him and is using The Monster to do it. It is also a survivor, having lived through the explosion at the end of Bride of Frankenstein that “blew the top off” his laboratory.
However, at the beginning of the movie, The Monster lies in a coma, giving Frankenstein a reason to crack his father’s notebooks and begin some experiments of his own. We learn more about The Monster than we ever have before: he has three times the blood pressure of a normal man. “He’s completely superhuman,” with two bullets in his heart, yet he continues to live.
We also learn a little mythology. Apparently, not only did the original Frankenstein attract electricity by hanging his creatures in the sky, but also “cosmic rays” that help make The Monster superhuman. This discovery leads to the gist of the movie spoken by Frankenstein, “I as a man should destroy him. As a scientist, I should do everything in my power to bring him back to life so he can be studied. That would immortalize his name.”
Speaking of his name, I had forgotten that the confusion regarding the identity of the name “Frankenstein” was something that began as early as the first movies… you know, the fact that people call The Monster “Frankenstein,” when it’s really the man. At the beginning of the movie, his son laments that history made his father suffer for his mistake. “Today, nine out of ten people call that creature… Frankenstein.” Meta, in 1939!
Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) lost his arm to The Monster during an attack when he was a child. It’s replaced with a wooden replica that he must use his other arm to manipulate, often with a sudden push or pull, but is very convenient for holding darts. You know it’s inevitable, so this isn’t a spoiler, but you almost can’t wait for him to encounter The Monster as an adult so that it can rip off his arm again.
Son of Frankenstein feels modern in many ways, particularly the way it introduces a theme early on that you know will have importance later. Here, it’s fear. Frankenstein taught his son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan) never to be afraid. That’s convenient when a “giant” soon begins visiting him through a secret passage in the nursery of the castle in which his family just moved.
It’s refreshing to not have a screaming child when confronted with danger. Because he’s not afraid, he’s silent when The Monster learns that Frankenstein has betrayed it and kidnaps Peter, dangling him over a pit of hot sulfur. Earlier, Peter is kind of annoying with his standard greeting, “Well hellooo,” but he soon becomes a somewhat endearing reflection of a childhood his father never had.
There is so much I like about Son of Frankenstein! On top of everything I’ve described, and other delights I encourage you to discover, it has a phrase that’s so obvious and funny that it becomes sublime. As the finale begins, Inspector Krogh declares, “There’s a monster afoot.” Yes there is. But there’s also one of the most overall entertaining Frankenstein movies afoot. It’s one of my favorites.