|Son of Frankenstein / The Ghost of Frankenstein|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 28 August 2001|
In the mid-1930s, the combination of England's out-and-out ban on horror movies, and the snarls of the various censorship groups in the United States essentially brought the horror movie boom to a sudden halt. But in 1938 or 39, a local Los Angeles theater paired "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" -- and ended up with lines around the block, every day. The double bill played across the country to similar results.
Universal Studios realized horror movies were back in a big way, and produced the elaborate "Son of Frankenstein," the longest movie in their Frankenstein series. It wasn't closely linked to "Bride of Frankenstein," the previous film, but the Monster still lives, sort of. The horror ante is upped mostly in dialog: the Monster kills a very particular way (bruising his victims' necks, which somehow causes their hearts to explode); also, it turns out it was cosmic rays that brought him to life in the first place, altering the pieced-together body in pretty unconvincing but extravagant ways. (All this was ignored in the later films in the series.)
The movie was advertised as being "streamlined," that being a hot advertising term at the time. But it is true that it doesn't look remotely like the films that precede and follow it. The sets are spectacular, somehow being both austere and extravagant, full of sourceless shadows, high blank walls, twisting staircases and the like. Someone says that the boy Peter's room is "surprisingly cheerful." Yeah, if you're a mortician.
Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returns to his family home of Frankenstein (the town) with his American wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan, the voice of the young Bambi). The townspeople are highly suspicious, though one-armed Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Wolf hopes to re-establish his family's name, but that's not likely to happen once he meets the broken-necked Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a murderous blacksmith who survived his execution by hanging. Mysterious, several members of the jury that convicted him have been killed. Wolf, a sly, sinister but mock-jovial type, stuns Wolf by revealing that the Monster (Boris Karloff) still lives, albeit in a nearly inert state. Ygor finds it easy to convince Wolf that he can best restore his family name by reviving the Monster to show that his father was a Maker of Men. Things do not go smoothly. And there's a reason there's a pit of boiling sulfur in one corner of the laboratory.
Vigorously directed by Rowland V. Lee, "Son of Frankenstein" is fast-paced and full of incident (though it takes too long for Karloff to get up and going). The revival scene, involving pulleys, chains, lots of strange lights and big tables, is a highlight of the film. Overall, though, the screenplay by Willis Cooper has just too much going on: Ygor's revenge, Krogh's suspicions, the Monster's revival, Wolf's increasing obsession and nearly demented behavior, etc. etc. Still, it's the last in the Frankenstein series to have its own style and look; all of the rest were more routine and ordinary.
Some, particularly horror movie buffs, have complained that Rathbone's performance is too broad and hammy, almost uncontrolled, but actually Rathbone's playing is tightly disciplined. Yes, it is a broad performance, but it's what Lee wanted, and works well against the strange, bleak sets.
Karloff has only a few good scenes as the Monster (it was the last time he played his signature character), but those few are outstanding, as when he first encounters Wolf in front of a mirror, and when he later finds the dead body of a friend.
Atwill, who turned up in several Frankenstein movies (always in different roles), is excellent, having great fun with his "phony" right arm. He was the inspiration for Kenneth Mars' one-armed inspector in "Young Frankenstein," but Atwill is far more inventive, likable and interesting.
The standout performance, though, is Bela Lugosi as Ygor; it's his finest screen portrayal, even better than his Count Dracula. Ygor is sly, sinister, practically oozing self-centered evil; his voice is a growl, and his body is twisted from the results of his broken neck (the bones almost stick through the skin). He is so very good that it remains mysterious to this day why Universal didn't realize his potential. From this point on, he almost always was confined to leads in cheap B movies and brief supporting roles in more expensive films. He deserved better.
Universal has packaged "Son of Frankenstein" with its immediate sequel, "The Ghost of Frankenstein." It's a good package, but both films are a little short on extras. There are informative, though too-brief, production notes by Tom Weaver; "Ghost" has a trailer, "Son" does not. What would have been particularly welcome with "Son" would be the reel of test color footage that was shot early in production, but that vanished from the studio some years ago. Technically, both films are first rate; the prints are clear and sharp, with strong blacks and relatively little flecking.
"The Ghost of Frankenstein" takes up soon after the end of "Son." Ygor didn't die after all (though he's cleaner with a tidy haircut), and is still lurking around Frankenstein castle. When angry villagers blow up the lab, the explosion cracks the now-solidified sulfur, setting free the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr.). Ygor is delighted when lightning revitalizes the Monster, and they set out in search of the second son of Frankenstein, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke).
He has a mental health clinic outside the town of Vasaria; his assisted by his daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers) and the somewhat shady Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill). Elsa's beau is town official Erik Ernst (Ralph Bellamy). No sooner have Ygor and the Monster arrived in town that, in trying to help little Cloestine (Janet Ann Gallow) retrieve her ball from a rooftop, the Monster kills a couple of villagers and is immediately imprisoned. Erik persuades Ludwig to see this strange man -- and they recognize each other for who they are. But the Monster escapes with the help of Ygor.
When they show up at the asylum, Ygor immediately spots Bohmer's glowering ambition, and begins working on him to help him in his goal of restoring the Monster to its full strength. (A theme that continued through all of Universal's other movies featuring the Monster, including "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.") Ludwig wants to destroy the Monster by dissection, until the ghost of his father convinces him to try to complete his work. Ludwig decides to give the Monster the brain of an intelligent young scientist the Monster killed, but Ygor and Bohmer have other (disastrous) ideas.
"The Ghost of Frankenstein" is quick and efficient (and a half-hour shorter than "Son"); it's entertaining enough, but the rather flat photography and heavy use of standing sets show that Universal was interested in making a profitable sequel more than they were in living up to the standards of the first three Frankenstein movies.
Hardwicke gives a dull performance, as if he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else, while Atwill turns in his patented Mad Scientist performance -- he's not bad, but there's very little new here. Lugosi, though a tidier Ygor, is still Ygor to the max, and gives the best and most entertaining performance. Lon Chaney, Jr. doesn't have many opportunities to actually emote as the Monster; mostly, he's just huge and menacing. But there are a few moments here and there; he remains somewhat miscast, with his broad face and expressive mouth, but comes to life in the climactic scenes following the brain operation. Then he seems menacing, even scary.
Like the movie itself, Erle C. Kenton's direction is brisk and efficient, but lacking in imagination and Gothic power. It's an entertaining movie, but does mark the starting point for Universal's scaling-down of their horror films from scary thrillers to action adventures.