Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writer: Wyllis Cooper
Cinematographer: George Robinson
by Jon Cvack
Son of Frankenstein is a beautifully shot film that captures all that Bride of Frankenstein and the original Frankenstein did well, and abandons all that the latter did poorly. I can only think of The Last Crusade, Friday the 13th Part III, and Saw III as second sequels that're superior to the first film. Son of Frankenstein might hold top slot in terms of the quality ratio from first:third.
Henry Frankenstein’s long lost son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), inherits his father’s abandoned estate and demonstrates that the fervid drive for reanimating the dead is genetic. The villagers aren’t happy with the dynasty’s return to their beleaguered town and enjoin a one armed veteran, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), to help keep an on eye on the Baron. Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has also returned, now managing the laboratory's ruins, determined to bring the Creature back to life. Eventually, Baron Frankenstein succeeds, except the monster now abides by Ygor rather than the son, committing a series of murders at his command.
Contrary to the Hammer films which more or less rehash the same plot over and over again, Son of Frankenstein expands the mythology in an unique and original way, maintaining the breathtaking Expressionistic style that made Bride of Frankenstein so memorable, along with casting a great range of interesting characters: with the villagers who wish to expel Frankenstein; the Inspector who’s a unique and eccentric individual, haunted by the past war; and Baron Wolf’s son who provides a chronic sense of anxiety throughout the film with his mischievous antics. All of these elements add up into an amazing film that provides exactly what you want from a Frankenstein story.
It's interesting to note Frankenstein’s death by melting into the lava beneath the laboratory as extremely similar to the Terminator’s suicide in T2, leaving me to ponder about the other similarities between the Terminator and Frankenstein as individuals who take the form of man, living a morality that's beyond human, with no biological guidance toward what’s right or wrong. While the Terminator is redeemed and acts to protect John Connor, Frankenstein fails to kill Baron’s son after kidnapping the boy, demonstrating that perhaps empathy can be learned and acquired.
Strange to think that while the film was a massive hit and returned Universal to profitability, they bumped subsequent sequels to “B-grade” production quality. Bela Lugosi abandoned the monster, fearing that he was becoming too much of a joke, especially after Elvis and Costello parodied the series. Can you imagine a studio doing the same in today’s world; that because Tobin Bell or Donald Pleasance didn’t wish to continue their roles that they would give less to a series that just produced a wildly successful addition?
The film was followed by Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), which is such a pathetic attempt at continuing the story that I have to regard SoF as the official conclusion to the original trilogy, and any further attempts as a poor effort to capitalize on the popularity, sacrificing everything that worked in order to churn out cheap additions. Universal would have been better off by dedicating the same level of production quality and story to the series. I’m not sure what films turned out to be the hits following GoF, though it was the start of merging the different Universal monsters within the same story. I’ll have to check those out this October.
BELOW: A color test for Son of Frankenstein. Cool, but I'm glad they never adopted it
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