Son of Frankenstein

Son of Frankenstein (1939) movie poster

(1939) dir. Rowland V. Lee
viewed: 10/30/09

My glut of horror films (a.k.a. “monster movies”) that I had culled for Halloween wound up with watching some films a little out of order, which is only a minor shame.  It would have been kind of interesting to have watched Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) after having watched Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (the latter of which I still have yet to watch).  And I mean this only in that there is some narrative continuity between these films, which gives a little more information to some of the stories.  And that logic may have helped me unfold the way that these films were produced and existed.

I don’t know what I fully remember from my prior viewing of Son of Frankenstein as a child, but it’s a surprisingly funny and aesthetically clever film.  This would be the third Frankenstein film with Boris Karloff as the monster, following Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  And this story picks up with Dr. Frankenstein’s son, Wolf, coming with his family back to his native town, encountering the disdain of the locals, and wishing to rectify his father’s name in history.  Wolf Frankenstein is played adroitly by Basil Rathbone, who is charming and witty in the role.  Karloff’s monster wears a furry tunic that seems like the lesser of the monster’s iconic outfits, though the one that seemed in vogue in the 1970’s Marvel comics that featured a monster like him.  And we’ve got Bela Lugosi again, on an early part of his downslide from big star to B-/Z-movie actor, playing Ygor, the broken-necked villain of the film.

We’ve also got the very odd and very funny character of Inspector Krogh, played by Lionel Atwill, whose right arm had been torn off by the monster when he was a child, leaving him with a very moldable artificial limb which is utilized for much visual humor (manipulating it for a salute, holding a cigarette for lighting, sticking darts in it).  It’s really funny but I am so much more familiar with Mel Brooks’ rehash of the character in Young Frankenstein (1974) with Kenneth Mars as the interestingly-limbed Inspector, that I am even wondering if there was anything to lampoon.  It’s already intentionally quite hilarious.  And Rathbone plays off Atwill in growing paranoia and humor with great aplomb.

The story of Ygor, the villain, who survived a hanging, having been declared dead by the town physician and therefor unhangable again, who befriended the monster in the interim between storylines and then uses him to revenge himself on the jury that convicted him and sentenced him to death, is pretty interesting.  Lugosi is quite good as the creepy, hairy, twisted creature Ygor, and there is some real pathos between him and the monster, a friendship that has been eked out of loneliness and isolation, yet still abused by Ygor’s vengeance.  And between Ygor’s neck and Krogh’s arm, there is a lot of unusual play with deformities and physical weirdness.

And the set designs are interesting.  While not as avant-garde, say, as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), they are unusual and shot interestingly.  They share some of the wacky-ness of the film in their builds, not quite “modern” per se, but not fully gothic either, with stairways that are more stairway than conveyance, weird ballustrades that jut over the dining tables, massive windows whose primary purpose seems to be to watch the rain.  The aesthetics seem not just intended for psychological effect but perhaps comical effect.  There is a shot of Dr. Frankenstein descending into the laboratory from an oddly backlit doorway/hallway which casts his shadow forward in a truncated, midget-like image.  It’s far less eerie than funny, which I take to be the intent.

All in all, it’s quite a good film, several steps above where the production values and camp qualities would get to only a few years later in 1943 in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man anyways.  Does that also reflect an influence of WWII on production values?  Perhaps.  I don’t know.   But it’s certainly worth saying that the film has more in tune with the two prior James Whale films than it does with the latter hambone jobs that would come to be the myriad sequels.  Maybe it’s just a prime transitional film between the two.

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