Friday, October 12, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)

After the success of Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), it’s not really a surprise that Universal would continue the series with a third film, although Son of Frankenstein (1939) takes us forward in time to the next generation of the famously doomed family. Boris Karloff returns as the iconic creature, this time in company with Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill, all of whom create memorable characters in their respective roles. Although it is not as well-known as the first two films, partly because of the departure of James Whale as director, this third movie is a worthy entry in the series that also boasts one of Lugosi’s more entertaining performances as the living dead man, Ygor.

Many years after his father’s death, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) and his family return from England to the ancestral home, much to the dismay of the local villagers, who believe that the son will bring back the horrors of his father’s time. Soon enough, Wolf encounters the mangled Ygor (Lugosi), who leads him to the comatose but living creature (Karloff) and encourages him to restore it to its former power. Hoping to vindicate his father’s work, Wolf revitalizes the monster with predictably disastrous results, while Inspector Krogh (Atwill) struggles to protect the baron’s family from threats both within and without the walls of their estate.

Rathbone makes an elegant and interesting Frankenstein, a man torn between his family’s past and future. On one side he has his lovely wife (Josephine Hutchinson) and his curly-mopped young son (Donnie Dunagan) to think about and defend, but on the other he feels drawn by his father’s legacy and an overwhelming desire to continue and validate the dead man’s work. As he sinks deeper into the fatal project, he becomes increasingly unhinged, and Rathbone delivers a particularly manic performance in the final scenes. Karloff doesn’t really have that much to do as the monster, but Lugosi creates a fantastic character in the menacing, broken-necked Ygor; variations of the figure would become an integral part of later Frankenstein stories, and Lugosi deserves credit for making such a strong impression, even though Dwight Frye had originated a similar character under the name of Fritz in the original Whale film. Lionel Atwill also has a memorable role as the one-armed police inspector, whose bizarre movements are copied almost exactly by Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein (1974). The film creates a very suggestive connection between Inspector Krogh, who lost his arm to the creature when he was a small child, and Frankenstein’s own young son, Peter.

Director Rowland V. Lee might not be as brilliant as James Whale, but Son of Frankenstein still possesses a very effective visual style. The Gothic scenery is wonderfully evocative of the German expressionist tradition in silent horror, with interiors that recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Long shadows cut across oversized arches and cold, angular rooms, giving the Frankenstein home all the warmth and charm of an echoing tomb. The Baroness is struck by the character of her new home from the very start, and we understand why she eventually admits to feeling afraid all the time even though she has no idea of the lumbering horror her husband’s house conceals.

You’ll find both Karloff and Atwill in House of Frankenstein (1944), although Glenn Strange takes over the role of the creature. See more of Karloff in The Mummy (1932), Bedlam (1946), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Lugosi, best known for Dracula (1931), also appears in The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Don’t miss Basil Rathbone’s performances in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1949); he is also remembered today for his many screen appearances as Sherlock Holmes.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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