The general consensus among film critics and classic movie fans is that Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is the high point of Universal’s Frankenstein series. It’s also widely heralded as one of the finest horror films (Time even ranked it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time in 2005). While I’m definitely a Bride fan, I hate that its reputation overshadows the series’ next installment, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. I think it’s as good–if not better–than Bride of Frankenstein.
The film opens with Wolf von Frankenstein and his family aboard a train heading for the town of Frankenstein as a horrendous thunderstorm rages across the landscape. Although there are local officials and villagers waiting at the train station, the family gets a cold reception (the burgomaster states flatly: “We are here to meet you, not to greet you.”). Memories of the Frankenstein Monster’s wrath still cast a dark shadow on a village that is “forsaken, desolate, and shunned by every traveler.”
Among the documents left by his father, Wolf (Basil Rathbone) finds Henry Frankenstein’s records detailing how he discovered the source of life. When exploring his father’s laboratory, Wolf finds the Monster–who lives, but in a comatose state. The shepherd Ygor (Bela Lugosi) tells Frankenstein that the Monster (Boris Karloff) survived the explosion at the end of Bride of Frankenstein. He implies that the Monster cannot be destroyed (“Your father made him for always”). However, while “hunting” one night, the Monster was struck by lightning and now lies almost lifeless on a slab. Wolf, who has already become obsessed with his father’s work, sees restoring the Monster as a way to vindicate the family name. Of course, Ygor has other plans for the Monster….
The prevalent theme in Son of Frankenstein revolves around family. Wolf’s actions are driven in large part by his desire to prove his father was a great scientist, not a mad one. When he finds the words “Maker of Monsters” etched on his father’s casket, he changes “Monsters” to “Men.” Another familial connection is the one between the Monster and Ygor. This is a carryover from the brief friendship between the Monster and the blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein–only Ygor’s motives are far from altruistic. Then, there’s Wolf’s temporary disinterest in the welfare of his own family, which almost results in his young son’s death. And finally, there’s the most intriguing family connection of all: Ygor notes that Wolf and the Monster are “brothers” since they shared the same father (but the Monster’s “mother” was electricity!).
Willis (aka Wyllis) Cooper, a radio producer, wrote the original screenplay. However, according to many sources, director Rowland V. Lee rewrote much of it during the production. That partially accounted for the film’s original budget ballooning from $300,000 to $420,000. Despite the manner in which the script was developed, it contains many juicy bits of dialogue. My favorite may be Ygor’s response to Frankenstein on why he was hanged: “Because I stole bodies…they said.”
The picture gets a huge boost from a number of outstanding performances. Lionel Atwill‘s one-armed police inspector has a chilling scene in which he describes his encounter with the Monster as a boy (“One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.”). Atwill would appear in four more Frankenstein films, playing inspectors in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. While Boris Karloff has no dialogue in this outing, he nonethless instills the Monster with very human emotions. While more of a killer than in the previous films, he elicits sympathy in two key scenes: as he stands in front of a mirror, disgusted with his appearance, and compares himself to Wolf and when he lets out a cry of anguish after finding Ygor’s body. As for Basil Rathbone, while he has been accused of overacting as Wolf, I thought his manic performance was perfect for the part. He was certainly more subdued than Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
That leaves Bela Lugosi, who gives the best performance of his career. True, Ygor is a meaty role–but Lugosi attacks it with glee. He can be subtle, too, as in a brilliant scene in which he reminds Wolf that the Monster will do whatever Ygor tells him. Sadly, Lugosi reprised the role to less effect in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, which, unlike its predecessors, was strictly a “B” film.
From a technical standpoint, Son of Frankenstein reflects the work of highly skilled craftsmen. Jack Otterson’s brilliant, warped sets enhance the film’s feeling of dread. His set design, combined with director Lee’s bold use of light and shadows, pre-dates some of the techniques popularized in later film noirs. Although Otterson didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Son of Frankenstein, he was nominated–every year–from 1937 to 1943. Likewise, composer Frank Skinner was ignored for his memorable score, but was also nominated five times from 1939 to 1944. His Son of Frankenstein score was popular enough to be recycled in numerous other Universal films.
If I haven’t convinced you yet of the virtues of Son of Frankenstein, let me leave you with this assessment from the book Universal Horrors: “Grandiose in scope, magnificent in design, it supplanted the quaint romanticism and delicate fantasy flavoring of Bride of Frankenstein with a stark, grimly expressionistic approach to horror.” Well said.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!