Son of Frankenstein: Review
The renowned kings of science-fiction/horror, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, come together for the 1939 Universal production of Son of Frankenstein. Although its prestigious pedigree promises a great deal more than it can deliver, the result is pure delight. Fans of the genre will particularly enjoy seeing these three icons of freight-filled mayhem as they play out the tale that inspired Mel Brooks’ comedic ode to the monster movie, Young Frankenstein.
The story plays out for the most part like its 1974 remake, Young Frankenstein. Wolf von Frankenstein has been living in the United States and now returns to the Baronial manor of his father (the late Dr. Frankenstein). From the moment he steps off the the locals are less than cordial, still terrified of his father's work and the monster he created. At the house Wolf meets his father's assistant, Ygor who has secretly sustained the monster in some sort of coma. Eager to pick up where his father left off, Wolf's attempts to re-animate the creature. He believes he has failed until his young son claims to have seen a giant in the house. Wolf then suspects Ygor has been keeping a few more secrets. Then when people are mysteriously killed in the village there is little doubt as to who is responsible. Wolf takes drastic steps to secure the safety of his home and family (NO SPOILERS here), eventually leaving the village and its occupants to continue in peace without him.
Before seeing the film I had no idea that Young Frankenstein was a direct remake. In a way it was my good fortune to see it for the very first time on the big screen at the 2012 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. Even more fortunate was hearing special guest host, John Landis introduce the film. The introduction he gave provided the audience a context from which to appreciate the differences and accept the often ridiculous (striking as well as funny) similarities. In case you didn’t know, Landis is not only a classic film aficionado, but he’s also a huge movie monster fan. In fact, just last October (in time for Halloween) he published what many consider to be the definitive book on celluloid horror heroes, Monsters in the Movies. I knew when I sat down for the screening at the Mann’s Chinese Multiplex I was in for a treat, and neither the film, nor Landis disappointed.
To be honest, it wasn’t quiet the stellar introduction one usually expects for a film produced in 1939. To my surprise Landis let it be known that he is not a particular fan of the film overall. This is mostly because of the less than subtle performances of most of the cast, particularly that of Rathbone. Rathbone stars as the title character in this third installment of the Universal Frankenstein franchise, and suffice it to say his portrayal is like none you’ve ever seen before. Those unfamiliar with this fine actor or his better known roles (Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the original The Adventures of Robin Hood, and his performances as Sherlock Holmes in the 1940s) will be tempted to laugh at his expense for the some-what hysterical portrayal. However, those who do know the quality of which he is capable (David Copperfield, Anna Karenina) will enjoy Rathbone’s playful, albeit 'over the top', departure from his usual erudite roles.
Even with its detriments, Landis was quick to point out a lot of the positive aspects about Son of Frankenstein in general. Foremost on the list is the tongue-in-cheek script by Wyllis Cooper (the Mr. Moto series), the visually striking sets by eight time Oscar nominated Jack Otterson (The Killers, Saboteur) and the incredibly atmospheric cinematography by George Robinson (Tower of London, The Mummy’s Tomb). As you can see this was not a lack-luster crew. And of course, Boris Karloff once again (and for the last time) portrayed The Monster, and the much under-rated Bela Lugosi is seen here in what is considered to be his greatest performance as a particularly memorable Ygor.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and the actors in each and every role. Yes, there were times I found myself laughing at the film, but just as often I was laughing with it as well. And there’s no denying that the atmosphere of a Universal monster movie is truly beyond compare with any other comparable film of the era, or since. And, yes, it’s easy to see how people can make fun of it, but I think if you were to watch Son of Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein back to back in a double bill (which I highly recommend) you’ll discover that the famous spoof was made with a great deal of respect and admiration. If there’s any greater sign of worth than inspiring future filmmakers then I don’t know what it is.