On Jan. 13, 1939, Universal Pictures released Son of Frankenstein, the follow-up to 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. Bride itself was an unprecedented event: the first major sequel to a horror film, it not only continued the story established in the first movie but expanded upon it with more characters and an even richer storyline. Sequels were considered for a long time by studios as quick cash grabs, usually done on the cheap and often lacking the qualities that made the original film a success. The idea of a sequel continuing the story, with the same kind of production values, storytelling, and craft, was almost unheard of when director James Whale made Bride; a third film created with the same care hardly seemed possible.
And yet Son of Frankenstein is not only a worthy successor to the first two films, but even bettered them in some aspects. The result was that Universal’s first three Frankenstein movies formed not just the first great horror franchise, but the first superb trilogy in cinema history. This trio of films told one complete, satisfying story with a beginning and an end, setting the template for everything from The Godfather trilogy to the original three Star Wars films, to the more recent Dark Knight triumvirate.
Universal was in difficult financial straits and its once prolific horror output had been on the wane as the end of the 1930s loomed. Likewise, actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were in career slumps after their respective breakout roles as Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula led to a streak of ghoulish roles. This golden age in some ways culminated for the pair when they starred as archnemeses in The Black Cat. But as that movie flopped, this initial horror peak had finally begun to dry up. Yet a double reissue of the original Frankenstein and Dracula (1931) had proven to be such a huge success that Universal decided to resurrect its most famous monster for another rampage.
Although Karloff agreed to come back for what turned out to be his final turn as the monster, James Whale was not interested at all in helming a third film. So the studio enlisted Rowland V. Lee, a one-time actor who had transitioned into a reliable if unremarkable director of pictures such as 1929’s The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (the first Fu Manchu film of the talkie era), The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), and The Three Musketeers (1935). While the studio did not have any ambitions for Son of Frankenstein beyond using it as a money-making machine, Lee had a different vision: He saw it as a grand, dark fairy tale, quite different from the campier black comedy of Bride, with a visual design akin to something out of the great German Expressionist films of the preceding decade.
Universal ponied up the budget, allowing Lee to not only make the film he envisioned but with a cast unparalleled at the time for a horror picture. In addition to Karloff, Lugosi was cast as the insane, hunchbacked Ygor, Basil Rathbone was recruited to play the title role, and Lionel Atwill provided the fourth big name as the steadfast, haunted, one-armed Inspector Krogh. Although the film was originally supposed to be shot in color, it ended up being done in black and white and benefits greatly from that decision: Lee and cinematographer George Robinson use shadows and contrasts spectacularly in the movie, while the jagged, diagonally shaped sets and bleak, blasted surroundings are reminiscent of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).
Rathbone plays Wolf von Frankenstein, son of the late Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), now an adult and returning to his family’s home village to move himself, his wife, and son into the ancestral castle. The villagers are understandably cold and suspicious after the havoc that his father wreaked on the town years earlier, but Wolf does his best to reassure them that he means no harm. His promise, however, is short-lived as he soon meets the deformed Ygor–his neck and mind both broken in a hanging gone wrong–who informs Wolf that his father’s creation is still alive. Wolf, determined to vindicate his father and succeed where he failed, revives the monster, but soon discovers that Ygor has other, more horrifying plans for the creature.
Willis Cooper’s screenplay delivers perhaps the best developed characters in the series. Wolf starts out with the finest of intentions–to clear his family’s name–but is nevertheless drawn to the same dark science that was his father’s legacy. Rathbone is much more dynamic than Colin Clive ever was. Karloff maintains the same formidable physical presence and pathos he had in the first two films, although the monster is mute here, a step backward from his developing language skills in Bride. Atwill’s police inspector is a rational, reasonable man haunted by the loss of his arm as a child to the creature decades earlier, with the actor adding subtle comedic business to the way he utilizes his false arm. And then there is Lugosi in what may be the second best role of his career. His Ygor is at once both monstrous and pitiable, as the creature he tends to be.
Modern audiences won’t find Son of Frankenstein frightening in the least, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining as an old-fashioned horror yarn with the imagery and dread of a fractured fairy tale. It was parodied by Mel Brooks in his best movie, 1974’s Young Frankenstein (Kenneth Mars’ spoofing of the inspector is especially hilarious and dead-on), but Brooks’ loving homage doesn’t really dilute the fanciful power of the original film, thanks to the latter’s brilliant cast and expertly crafted atmosphere.
The Frankenstein franchise lumbered on for a few years after that, although Karloff handed off his signature role to a succession of other actors, including Lugosi himself, Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange. The movies themselves–quickies like Ghost of Frankenstein, the first shared universe movies Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein–were entertaining enough (House was the Avengers of its time!) but clearly B-level productions lacking the artistry and vision of the first three films. There’s a popular, and largely true, conception that the third film in a trilogy often is where the series falters, and it’s easy to cite anything from Return of the Jedi to X-Men: The Last Stand to The Godfather: Part III as proof of that. But when it came to the first major genre trilogy of its kind, the third chapter, Son of Frankenstein, sits proudly alongside its two predecessors.