Simply put – an absolute delight.
Despite being the third and final of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein movies, it features very little of The Monster itself, and is instead a fantastic film driven by great performances from a solid line up of character actors. The story involves the estranged son of the original Frankenstein, Wolf, moving to his father’s old mansion with his wife and son to inherit the family deeds and therefore certain old scientific secrets too. As with most sequels, the set up seems initially there to retread the story of the original but I was pleasantly surprised by just about every aspect of the film.
Son of Frankenstein looks superb: the sets and lighting set the mood perfectly, with the mansion itself the highlight, resembling a cross between an M.C. Escher painting and the German Expressionist design shown in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s bleak and minimalist interior reflects the building’s effect on the people who dwell within, be they detached and isolated from those around them or instilled with a slow building dread that no good can come of staying there. It also acts as a fortress against the hostile locals who are less than amused that another Frankenstein has taken up residence.
The sharpness of the design is equally matched by the script which manages to be both intelligent and witty, giving the central characters a lot of fantastic lines and strengthening the dynamic between them all.
And so to the main players.
Basil Rathbone’s Baron Wolf von Frankenstein seemed worryingly too British and one dimensional at the outset, but his composure was there so that when events get out of hand, his performance could become increasingly more layered. Indeed, this Frankenstein is no crazed scientist, he is a son who feels extremely protective of his father’s name and work, with no ego fuelling him, instead a defensive drive which compels him further with each accusation.
Upon finding The Monster he is at utter conflict with what to do with it. He even says that as a man he should kill the beast for being so inhuman, but as a scientist he must continue the research so that all mankind can benefit from the knowledge (always an ominous sign). By far my favourite moment of Rathbone’s portrayal comes from a scene towards the end, as he barely contains his nerves, yet remains defiant in the face of the Police Inspector’s questions. They have been playing a game of darts and during Frankenstein’s final round he throws every dart into the board while not even looking at it, instead staring at the Inspector. A small moment, but subtle and perfect.
Frankenstein remains sympathetic and is, in many ways, a mere pawn for the true face of evil in the film – Ygor. Played by the infinitely charismatic Bela Lugosi, even under beard and hair make up which are closer to The Wolf Man than that of a human being, Ygor is no simpering assistant to a tortured genius. He is utterly in control of everything around him, including The Monster, which he is intent on using to continue his revenge against those men who condemned him to death.
The fact that Ygor survived a hanging (leaving him with a broken neck which jars out in a vile fashion) gives him an altogether more sinister presence in the movie, though Lugosi’s performance is so over the top at times that I couldn’t help but think of Nicolas Cage. When Frankenstein asks Ygor why he was hung he replies abruptly “I stole bodies!” “…they said”.
The third strong character that dominates the film isn’t in fact Karloff’s Monster, who for me had very little impact beyond his use in being controlled by others, but Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh. Krogh has a fake wooden arm which he moves to comedic effect (ala Dr. Strangelove), even using it to hold his darts upright in and he remains both friendly and suspicious towards the new Frankenstein.
Krogh has more reason than most to hate any rumour that The Monster might still be alive. In a scene with Frankenstein where he tries to make clear how justified the local hatred is for the beast, he tells Wolf that when he was a child The Monster broke into the family house, killed his father and then wrenched his arm out of the socket (which I thought only Wookies could do), thus shattering Krogh’s dreams of joining the army. Not only does Atwill play off Rathbone perfectly, but he also manages to be loyal towards defending Frankenstein’s wife and kind towards their son (the only misstep in the film, thanks to acting that is cringeworthy and an accent is distinctly southern American and nothing like that of his very British parents).
The beauty of the sets and production design, combined with the sharply written script and charismatic leads, works as a healthy reminder of how superb horror can be, balancing tragedy and humour and making me yearn for a return to using strong actors and plot to give the genre the respect it really deserves.
Son Of Frankenstein is available as part of Universal’s Cinema Classics Collection in the ‘horror’ category. RRP is £9.99.