“They hanged me once Frankenstein. They broke my neck. They said I was dead. Then they cut me down. They threw me in here, long ago. They wouldn't bury me in holy place like churchyard. Because I stole bodies… they said.” - Ygor
After Universal Pictures changed hands in 1936, and due to the ongoing banning of horror films in Britain, the years 1937-38 was a sparse time for the monsters. Actors such as Karloff and Lugosi hit a career slump. But horror would rise again – as horror always does.
This was due to a double bill release of Dracula and Frankenstein, which became wildly popular. Profitable enough to catch the eye of Universal management who decided that it was time to get the old gang back together with an A-film budget.
The result was Son of Frankenstein, made eight years after the original, and four years after Bride, though apparently set about thirty years or so later as Henry Frankenstein is long dead, there’s no mention of Elizabeth, but son Wolf (Basil Rathbone) is married with a young son of his own, Peter (Donnie Dunagan – the most annoyingly precocious child actor to hit the screen until Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace. Honestly, I like to give child actors some leeway but listening to Dunagan’s gratingly exaggerated Southern drawl is like listening to nails on a blackboard). Basil Rathbone is (to me) the definitive Sherlock Holmes, and he starred in his first two Holmes movies directly after headlining this film AND went on to feature with Karloff in Universal’s Tower of London – all in 1939. The previous year he had co-starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and in 1940, he would similarly co-star in The Mark of Zorro. All of them acknowledged classics. Boris Karloff returned as The Monster one last time in a Universal film at the age of 52. (For the purists and completists, Karloff donned the Monster make up one last time, in a Halloween episode of the Route 66 TV show in 1962). Lugosi was cast as Ygor – a hunchbacked blacksmith who had been caught graverobbing and hanged at the gallows. However, although his neck was broken and he was pronounced dead at the scene – he somehow survived and now lives as a vagrant around the deserted Castle Frankenstein. (They couldn’t hang him again, because they’d officially pronounced him dead, so the sentence was carried out.) Rounding out the cast was Wolf’s increasingly fretful wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson).
It’s worth noting that this is the longest of the monster movies, coming in at a leisurely 99 minutes – about a third longer than the norm. By no means slow, it’s by no means as briskly paced as the others. Plus, there was a plan to film it in colour which would’ve given it amazing prestige. This was scrapped, leaving only one of Universal’s horror movies to grab that honour – the remake of Phantom of the Opera in 1942.
On with the story.
The next generation of Frankenstein are on their way to the long deserted ancestral home. Wolf believes his father was unjustly made to suffer for the simple mistake of the hapless assistant’s in taking the wrong brain. Arriving at the village, they’re greeted by the burgomaster and what seems to be most of the townspeople, braving what appears to be the Bavarian monsoon season. But this is no welcoming committee – the locals haven’t forgotten what the family name stands for, and they’re downright hostile – ready to pick up pitchforks and flaming torches at the drop of a hat.
The castle itself isn’t particularly homely or welcome wither, the interiors are pretty brutally stark and sharply angled like a Bauhaus nightmare on acid. The lab, which used to be a fair way away from the castle, is now a weird looking domed structure just a step away. Better yet, it’s built over a partly exposed pit of boiling sulphur.
The local law is represented by Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) who promises that despite the fact that feelings are running high in the village, especially with six as yet unsolved murders, the Frankensteins will be safe in their castle and grounds. Krogh is one of the best supporting characters to appear in these films. His stiff military bearing and his background story of having his arm torn out as a child by the monster, now replaced by a prosthetic make him so memorable. That and the fact he keeps turning up at the castle at the most inopportune moments, each successive scene between Rathbone and Atwill as the film progresses bristle with increasing tension and terse delivery of their lines.
It’s in the lab that Wolf meets Ygor – who shows him the mausoleum where his father and grandfather are laid to rest – and also where the monster rests. Having survived the blast at the end of the previous film, the monster has suffered a trauma having been struck by lightning and is comatose. When Ygor asks Wolf to help his friend, Wolf sees his chance to redeem the family honour by reviving the Monster and making him what his father had intended.
The Monster is seen to be practically superhuman and indestructible – he even has two bullets in his heart and still lives. But when he’s revived, he seems to be totally under Ygor’s control, whether by hypnotism or as Wolf says, by more elemental means.
Two more murders occur, making eight in total. The same eight men who were on the jury that found Ygor guilty of graverobbing and sentenced him to death. Both Krogh and the villagers are getting angry, but nowhere near the nervous twitchiness of Wolf who’s unable to break Ygor’s influence over the Monster, despite the Monster’s gestures to Wolf depicting him as a brother.
But the Monster does have a soft spot for Peter, and befriends him. Peter thinks he’s a giant from one of his storybooks. So, despite the Monster being essentially a thug, doing Ygor’s killing, Karloff still has three scenes to show the Monster’s sympathetic side. Once when he first sees Wolf, recognises him and compares their reflections in a mirror, the second time when the Monster discovers Ygor’s body. Wolf shoots Ygor after realising that Ygor is behind the murders, and he’ll never relinquish control of the powerful Monster. And they’re all at risk now because the villagers are at the gate and Krogh is snooping around, determined to prove Wolf’s guilt. Or at least that he’s complicit in all this.
The Monster abducts Peter but finds he can’t kill him by throwing him in the sulphur pit (shame) and finds himself cornered by Krogh, who has his arm torn out again – luckily the prosthetic – but it’s Wolf who saves the day by swinging in Tarzan-style on a rope and kicking the Monster down to the eight hundred degree pit, thus rescuing Peter (shame) and saving Krogh.
The Frankensteins are forgiven and the leave town, bequeathing the castle and grounds to the villagers to do with as they please.
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