Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writer: Willis Cooper
Cast: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan, Emma Dunn, Edgar Norton, Perry Ivins, Lawrence Grant, Lionel Belmore, Michael Mark, Caroline Cooke, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Lorimer Johnson, and Tom Ricketts
Composer: Frank Skinner
Release Date: 1/13/1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Along with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returns to his father’s estate for the first time in decades. Upon arrival, the baron is given a most unwelcome greeting by the local villagers, many of whom remain haunted and, in the case of Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), permanently disfigured by the Monster’s initial rampage. At the suggestion of a grave robber named Ygor (Bela Lugosi), Wolf decides to vindicate his father by restoring the Monster’s life force and sharing his scientific achievement with the world. The baron’s plan does not quite go as expected, however, when a vengeful Ygor directs the Monster to kill each member of the jury responsible for his hanging.
A surreal and visually remarkable chapter in Universal Studios’ saga of Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein benefits from an ensemble cast coupled with the magnificent laboratory props and castle dwellings with which the Monster is typically associated. Though not as effectively primitive in its execution as Frankenstein, this entry will nonetheless appeal to those who admire the chemistry shared by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi throughout their shared cinematic adventures.
By forgoing the campy tone that defined its immediate predecessor, Son of Frankenstein maintains a chilling atmosphere from start to finish. As a result, this offering recreates many of the gothic elements that made James Whale’s original Frankenstein so iconic, albeit in a less polished form. Particularly unnerving, Frank Skinner’s tragically haunting score exemplifies the conflicted nature of a man who, for reasons beyond his comprehension, finds himself compelled to continue in his father’s line of work despite being doomed to fail from the onset.
On that note, Basil Rathbone should be commended for his tormented—if occasionally over-the-top—performance as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, whose desperation is often countered by Lionel Atwill’s portrayal of the vigilant Inspector Krogh. Also worth mentioning is Lugosi’s scene-stealing characterization of Ygor, which allows the Monster to develop a twisted sense of loyalty that was never quite realized even during his more “human” phase that spanned the first two films.
A poor child actor even by 1930s standards, Donnie Dunagan struggled to make realistic the sense of wonder felt by a small boy sucked into a fantasy world consisting of tigers, elephants, and “giants” of the not-so-jolly green variety.
From a technical standpoint, Son of Frankenstein surpasses both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein by just about every objective measure. Unfortunately, this otherwise praiseworthy sequel misses the mark with regard to perhaps the most fundamental aspect of all: the Monster was always intended to be a victim of circumstance rather than a mere force of nature; therefore, by rendering such a complex character a mindless henchman subject to Ygor’s malevolent devices, this installment prevents the Monster from retaining that which enabled audiences to sympathize with him in spite of his grotesque appearance.
To the film’s credit, the Monster does exhibit compassion in one instance by choosing not to hurl young Peter into a deadly sulfur pit, indicating that the blind man’s moral instruction may have yet influenced Frankenstein’s creature after all this time; however, a momentary gesture of kindness hardly compensates for the many cruel and premeditated acts of violence which the Monster commits against those who condemned Ygor to death.
Son of Frankenstein offers a dreamlike quality to accentuate any fairy-tale undertones stemming from Mary Shelley’s inspirational source work, yet does so while leaving behind the excessive camp that arguably hampered the previous film. Additionally relevant is the manipulative, though oft-parodied, character of Ygor, who, through Lugosi’s sinister acting, becomes a more formidable adversary to the eponymous baron than does even the Monster himself.
Overall Quality: 9/10
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