Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Considered Universal’s last “good” Frankenstein, this third installment in the Karloff trilogy certainly offers much for horror fans. Nevertheless, the wicked vision of James Whale and vulnerable humanity of Boris Karloff are starkly absent, and at times sorely missed.

Director: Rowland V. Lee
Written by: Willis Cooper
Runtime: 99 minutes
US Release:  January 13, 1939; Universal Pictures

Left to do the heavy lifting is Bela Lugosi as the deformed assistant, Ygor. The former Dracula stars turns in a horrifically campy performance as a man seeking vengeance on the eight jurors who sentenced him to the gallows; Ygor did hang and was pronounced dead. Mysteriously, however, he survived (with a grotesquely broken neck to show for it) and secretly commands the Monster to bump off those jurors.

Meanwhile the son of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, Dr. Wolf (Basil Rathbone), returns to the old laboratory to vindicate his father’s work. Wolf is joined by his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). Not only must Wolf contend with the murderously crafty Ygor, but the village is so paranoid about the doctor’s presence that the town inspector (Lionel Atwill) is always close.

This is is Ygor’s world and we’re all living in it.

Ygor may steal the show, but Rathbone and Atwill deliver rock solid performances in their own right. There is a delightful rapport between the two classically trained actors. Almost as if they know they are in the last A-level Frankenstein picture; they are committed to the dramatic stakes and knowing-comedy.

These actors are greatly aided by the direction and screenplay. Rowland V. Lee is no Whale, but there is still thoughtful direction to Son of Frankenstein. The art direction, for example, provides an unsettling background; it is bare, lifeless, and positively haunted. In contrast, the script by noted writer Willis Cooper (Lights Out, Quiet Please) is dark, humorous, and fanciful. Through Cooper’s screenplay does the mischievous spirit of James Whale live on. No better example than Atwill’s Inspector Krogh, whose famously wooden arm provides much entertainment.

The Monster rips off Krogh’s arm – again!

With so many memorable pieces, where does Son of Frankenstein falter? Ironically, in the lack of investment in Karloff’s Monster. Unlike the previous films, the Monster becomes a mere brute; he is stripped of his ability to speak or think independently, beginning the slow descent into parody. Boris Karloff’s tremendous talent is wasted in the role (he would never return to the part). Nonetheless, Son of Frankenstein would teeter on obscurity if not for the anchor of Karloff’s presence. This installment therefore stands the test of time, despite being the clear runner-up to Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

by Vincent S. Hannam

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