The task of following up the knockout, one-two, combo of Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein must have been the 30’s horror equivalent of Tarantino receiving the accolades of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and then stopping to think “what next?”. Make no mistake, James Whale’s adaptations of Mary Shelley’s legendary story were about as iconic as a classic horror film could possibly get and while Universal’s sequel to Dracula (Dracula’s Daughter) had been interesting in an off beat kind of way, it still lacked the bite of the original.
However, Son Of Frankenstein turned out to be rather a different kettle of monster, as a boffo horror cast, lush sets and a real desire to do right by the first two movies invoked a movie that, while certainly more melodramatic than Whale’s movies, still managed to keep the creature’s flat head held up high.
Many years after all that nasty, reanimated body business, Frankenstein’s son, Wolf Von Frankenstein has decided to uproot and relocate his family to the family castle much to the anger of the townsfolk who still remember the carnage his monstrous creation was responsible for all those years ago. After receiving his stoney welcome, Wolf is approached possibly his only ally in the form of police Inspector Krough, a man whose run in with Frankenstein’s Monster as a child left him short of one whole arm but who pledges to protect the Frankensteins despite their legacy leaving him literally short handed.
However, another figure who has decided to interject himself in the affairs of the Frankensteins is the gnarled, misshapen blacksmith Ygor whose unsuccessful hanging for body snatching has left his body more twisted than a pretzel. It seems that he has known the location of the Monster all along and not only has he formed a bond with the ghoulish being, but he convinces Wolf to pick up his father’s experiments to revive the comatose beast. Not only does Wolf’s scientific skill match that of his father but it seems like he’s a chip off the old block when it comes to obsessive, cackling mania too and before you know it hes working overtime to get the Monster back on his clunking feet without the slightest clue that the scheming Ygor has shifty plans for Wolf’s inhuman “brother”.
While Wolf discovers that the being his father built has essentially grown to become super human, with his strength and endurance being a result of the special blood that runs through his veins, but all this knowledge isn’t going to help him one bit while Ygor is sending his monstrous bestie out to murder the people who sentenced him to hang. With the monster entirely in Ygor’s thrall and the towns people blaming him for the bodies that has stated to amass since his arrival, Wolf finds himself between a rock and a flat head…
There are many aspects about Son Of Frankenstein that deserves a healthy recommendation, but probably the main one would be the the trio of legends padding out the three main roles that read like a who’s who of 30’s genre mainstays. First up is Sherlock Holmes himself, Basil Rathbone who tackles the role of Wolf Von Frankenstein with all the stiff upper lip-ness you’d expect from the Shakespearean actor as he tackles ever line with his clipped “now see here” tones. He’s great, playing Wolf as a deeply flawed, but basically good, man who is so cartoonishly bad at lying and so panicked by the chaos he’s wrought, he dodges the tough questions of a one armed police Inspector by screaming at him at the top of his lungs if he wants wants to play a game of darts. Next up is Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi who is having an absolute meal for himself as the role of Ygor, the vengeful puppetmaster behind this whole affair who proves that he’s as twisted inside as he is out. Apparently never meeting a sinister, cackling laugh he didn’t like, Lugosi pretty much steals the film as he drags his ravaged body around the set while bringing up his broken neck into a conversation whenever he can – his line about having a bone stuck in his throat is fucking genius – and his plot to take a superhuman, one-of-kind creature and simply use it to whack the people who wronged him is a marvelous example of a small mind with great expectations.
In comparison, however, Boris Karloff’s third go round as the most iconic of all portrayals of Frankenstein’s Monster is a little bit of a let down. Seemingly having loss the ability to speak and reason like he did in Bride, he’s essentially reduced to a tool that the two other leads fight over; Wolf wants to get him to full strength and present him to the scientific community to clear his family name while Ygor is content to use him as a bolt necked murder weapon. Until his equipment trashing rampage in the closing reel, Karloff is less a tragic character and more of a lumbering macguffin for everyone else to fight over and it’s a real shame more progression with the character wasn’t attempted.
Another issue with the film is weirdly enough, the effect Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein has on the film as the one-armed character of Inspector Krogh (and his darts playing) was mercilessly parodied in the 1974 comedy classic. Thus, whenever actor Lionel Atwill has his character adjust his fake arm to salute or hold his monocle (complete with squeaking sound, no less) it’s extraordinarily tough not break out into childish giggles…
Another weird problem is that the film feels as it could stand to lose ten minutes off it’s running time as it often feels like some scenes are building the lilly a little – the scene where the monster is given a complete medical rundown is so thorough, I’m surprised we don’t see Von Frankenstein check the bastard’s prostate.
Still, the ending, in which Wolf’s smack talking child (I’m not sure, do I detect a Brooklyn accent on the chatty tyke?) is placed in a legitimately dangerous looking harm’s way is genuinely exciting and the production values are through the roof (check out the detail on the fabricated backgrounds going past the train windows), so while it may not be as relentlessly perfect as its two predecessors, Son Of Frankenstein is still a hugely worthy sequel that recaptures a lot of the gorgeous majesty thanks to its resplendent sets and killer cast.
To paraphrase the immortal line reading of Colin Clive’s original doctor in order to address the health Franken-franchise three movies in: IT’S STILL ALIVE!!!