Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2008-04-11 12:47

Written by: Mary Shelley (novel), Wyllis Cooper (screenplay)
Produced and Directed by: Rowland V. Lee

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"You have inherited the fortune of the Frankensteins. I trust you will not inherit their fate."

It seems that every horror franchise has its underrated entry that is seemingly ignored or overshadowed by the greatness of its predecessors. Universalís Frankenstein series is no different, as the original is often cited as a landmark in the genre, while its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. Lost in the shuffle is Son of Frankenstein, the final part of the ďKarloff Trilogy,Ē as Iíve come to call the three films. While my brain tells me that this film canít possibly be better than its predecessor, my heart has come to claim it as my favorite in the series, which is no doubt due to the nostalgic hold the film has on me to this day.

As I stated in my review of the original Frankenstein, these films were my introduction to the horror genre. For some reason, Son of Frankenstein became the one that I rented over and over again. There was one local video rental store in particular that I frequented that claimed to house over 30,000 movies; however, the horror section in the back corner always drew my attention away from all the other films in there, and I would inevitably end up renting this film. In fact, if the store in question were still operating, I would be able to point out the spot on the shelf where this filmís case sat.

Over the years, Iíve come to realize that the filmís story is what draws me to it more than anything. Set some time after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, this film finds the doctorís son, Wolf, relocating his work and his family to the village that now bears his familyís name. Furthermore, Wolf has decided to move into his fatherís castle. This, of course, is met with some hostility by the locals, who still remember the carnage perpetrated by the monster that his father created. This hostility only serves to spurn the younger Frankenstein into attempting to repair his fatherís legacy by proving his genius to be a benefit to humanity.

Business begins to pick up a bit once Wolf meets Krogh, a local police inspector who encountered the Monster as a child. During their introduction, Krogh warns Wolf about the localsí dislike for him; furthermore, he informs Wolf that many believe that his fatherís monster wasnít fully destroyed. In fact, Krogh reveals that there have been several mysterious murders recently. The suggestions of the Monsterís survival are confirmed once Wolf meets Ygor, a demented blacksmith who was hanged for robbing graves (or so ďthey saidĒ). Obviously, Ygor survived the hanging and, furthermore, came to befriend Frankensteinís Monster, who he reveals to be very much alive in the catacombs of the old Frankenstein laboratory.

However, the Monster is not in the best condition, as he is essentially in a coma after being struck by lightning. Wolf, of course, cannot resist the urge to nurse the Monster back to health in an attempt to vindicate his father. Although the doctor eventually comes to consider the recovery to be hopeless, it soon becomes apparent that the Monster is healed when Wolfís son, Peter, describes an encounter with a ďgiantĒ thatís been stalking the premises. Even worse, Ygor soon reveals why he so desperately wanted Wolf to heal the Monster in the first place when he begins to use him to claim revenge on the council that voted to hang him.

While the plot description above sounds like the film is all over the place, the film manages to come together quite nicely and cohesively, as, like his father before him, Wolf must come to confront the monster he has created. Furthermore, the film continues to explore the themes set forth by the previous films in the series: the responsibility of science and manís capacity for evil, as it soon becomes clear that Ygor is the true monster of the film. On top of this is also a newfound theme of legacy and the responsibility that a son has with respect to his father as the younger Frankenstein must confront his heritage. Just as his father learned, Wolf soon comes to realize that his responsibility to his family must take precedence over his responsibility to science.

Son of Frankenstein has always fascinated me precisely because thereís so much going on in the film, and it contains many of the elements Iíve come to enjoy in a horror film: a town with a dark, tragic history that still fears its own legend, a conflicted protagonist whose actions mean well, yet lead to tragic consequences, and, finally, a memorable villain in the form of Ygor. There is also of course Karloffís final performance as the Monster in this film, and he is surprisingly somewhat of an afterthought. Even more surprising, however, is the fact that the Monsterís small presence doesnít hurt the film at all.

In fact, this allows the film to focus more attention on the filmís two leads, Wolf and Ygor, two men who both yearn for vengeance and retribution (Wolf for his father, Ygor for himself). The two men obviously go about seeking this in different ways, yet the Monster ends up being the lynchpin that each needs to achieve his goals. In a sense, the film seems to be making a statement through the Monsterís small role, as it is evident that he is nothing but an inhuman tool, despite evidence of the contrary. While he has somewhat devolved from an intelligence standpoint, the Monsterís humanity is on display throughout the film. There is also a callback to the Monsterís almost childlike innocence that is on display in the original film that works wonderfully in completing the trilogy thematically.

As previously stated, Ygor is the true villain or monster of the film, and Bela Lugosi completely steals the show from the other players in the film. In fact, this is my favorite Lugosi role of all timeóI even prefer it to his turn as the title character in Dracula. As a kid, Ygor was an absolutely frightening character, no doubt due to the eerie grin thatís plastered on Lugosiís face throughout the film. Let it be said that no actor can creep around and peer through windows as effectively as Lugosi does here as Ygor. Furthermore, Ygor plays a haunting melody on a recorder-like instrument as the Monster carries out his bidding, which sounds strange, but is actually quite creepy.

This film was also monumental to me personally because of its status as a sequel. While horror aficionados have become accustomed to sequels over the years, the Frankenstein series is the first franchise I ever encountered, and Iíve come to appreciate franchises in general ever sense. Thereís something about continuity and references to previous films that I love as a horror fan, and it all started here for me. I love a film that comes with a built-in history that is built upon from both a narrative and thematic standpoint, and Son of Frankenstein does this about as well as any horror sequel out there. Everyone has films that they can turn to no matter what mood theyíre in, and Son of Frankenstein is one of those films for me. There arenít many things I enjoy more than settling in on a late night, turning off the lights, and watching this film. No matter what, I always find myself immediately absorbed into the desolate landscapes of the old country side. Like the previous two films in the series, Son of Frankenstein sets a gothic, eerie tone that overhangs the proceedings of the film. Even though the film is almost 70 years old, it establishes a tense atmosphere that many modern films canít touch.

This film (and the Frankenstein series in general) became one of the casualties of the transition from VHS to DVD for me personally. The aforementioned video stores (along with the others near me) couldnít compete with the Blockbusters of the world and shut down, taking many of my old favorites with them. Anyone who frequents Blockbuster can attest to their relative small selection, and my local stores didnít stock any of the Universal Classics on DVD. Furthermore, purchasing DVDs wasnít much of an option at the time either. Because of this, I went a few years without watching any of these films, and by the time I could buy them, their original DVDs releases were long out of print.

You can imagine my happiness when Universal announced that all of their classic horror franchises would be re-released as part of their Legacy Collection series; furthermore, they announced a limited edition gift set that included all three franchise collections (Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man) along with mini-busts of the horror icons. Immediately, I knew that his would be mine. I never expected that I would have to literally drive across town to track one down, but it finally came into my possession when a Best Buy clerk held on to their storeís last set for me. The set immediately took its place at the very top of my DVD shelf as a monument to the franchisesí importance to my own personal horror history, and I suspect that it will always rest there.

The first film I watched when I finally brought the set home? Son of Frankenstein. Sure, it might make more sense to some to start with the original, but I was dying to see Son again after all those years. Some films seem to get worse when you view them with older eyes, but I think I appreciated this one even more than I did as a kid. As I said earlier, nostalgia might influence my opinion a bit, but Son of Frankenstein is my favorite in the entire Frankenstein series. Itís a worthy send-off for Karloff, who wouldnít reprise the role for 1942ís The Ghost of Frankenstein (Lon Chaney Jr. did the honors there). All in all, itís a very fitting conclusion to the cycle that was begun by the two films that came before it, as all three form a nice, cohesive trilogy of sorts. For some reason, this one seems to be considered a fluff companion piece to the previous masterworks, but I find it to be every bit as essential as both the original and Bride. No horror fan should omit it from their collection. Essential!

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