Quite recently, I finally watched SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (from 1939), the sequel to the far more emotionally powerful and better directed BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). This was the 3rd and final movie starring Boris Karloff as the monster creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s. I would say the main stars of the film were the indoor sets, art direction, and lighting of the Frankenstein castle and laboratory. They were ominous and fascinating, especially since the movie was filmed in black and white. All of these elements were influenced by German Expressionism of the 1920s.
Pamela Hutchinson and Alex Barrett in their 2017 article “10 great German Expressionist Films” explain: “Offering a subjective representation of the world, Expressionism descends partly from German Romanticism and reveals the angst of its human figures through their distorted, nightmarish surroundings.” (1) This was particularly apropos following the widespread gruesomeness of World War I. A full generation later, this expression of a weltanschauung of sorts had permeated American movies, including SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Its main characters certainly embody angst conveyed through “distorted, nightmarish surroundings” and, for two of them, also within bodies fitting this description. Both surroundings and these beings are one and the same, specifically the characters of Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the deceased Dr. Frankenstein’s surviving but maimed and sociopathic assistant, and his only “friend,” the electrically reanimated monster (Karloff).
The impact of war trauma on such a large scale was unprecedented prior to the First World War, leaving a ripple effect around the world of increased anxiety about overall safety in life and, hence, no doubt, an increase in actual nightmares for people, soldiers the most of course, though for many civilians as well. Some wounds looked monstrous on both fatalities and survivors alike, with psyches also damaged beyond hope at a time when psychiatric treatments were still quite primitive. Lugosi’s crooked necked Ygor can be viewed as a misunderstood, socially discarded person similar to a wounded war vet. And the monster can be seen as a walking dead, like the trenches of killed soldiers rising up in the living’s memories and dreams, eternal reminders of atrocities committed that conflicting governments’ rationales couldn’t fully justify. War is distorting in every sense of the word. And while SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is not at all a war movie, its aesthetics stem from a sensibility developed at least in part in response to war. Both Lugosi and Karloff play their roles powerfully within the limited emotional intensity and uneven writing of the script. It is their respective appearances and acting that carry the movie within the sets they are so naturally a part of, like rats in an abandoned farm house or some such desolate, godforsaken place and its creatures.
The tragedy of the monster comes through in his recognizing himself in a mirror as both hideous and sad to behold. He turns, gesturing by pushing his hands away from what he sees and moans in disgust. Within him lies some human consciousness, a semblance of right and wrong, ugly vs. beautiful or at least plain/neutral. We cannot help but to feel sympathy for him, a being who did not ask to be reanimated into life.
Ygor is a bridging character between the rest of humanity and the scary monsters of our nightmares and worst mistakes in life (e.g., war), such as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Ygor had likely once been more humanly sympathetic, even if always an outcast. Having survived being hanged, this left him physically and more mentally twisted for the rest of his life. What is not understood by many is often vilified and either killed outright or its destruction attempted. Ygor is himself a walking dead, dead to the rest of humanity and, hence, closer to Frankenstein’s monster than to anyone else. Not surprisingly, Ygor’s ability to order the undead/reanimated being about affirms a sense of control he somehow has in a world that has otherwise rejected and disempowered him. Lugosi, with his sinister grins and dramatic widening and slitting of the eyes, conveys bitterness and distrust effectively here, like a war veteran come home to find his life disconnected from a largely indifferent, lacking in resources society after serving his country. Ygor had served Dr. Frankenstein faithfully, only to be left like an orphan upon the doctor’s death, his life purpose still to attend to the monster he helped (re)animate to life. Similarly, soldiers come back from warfare unable to adjust to civilian life, having become repeatedly primed for battle and nothing else.
I don’t mean to completely equate Ygor and Frankenstein’s monster as war casualties. There are large differences between the two categories, obviously. But, the existing parallels are nonetheless significant, as I discuss above. More broadly, the two characters can be viewed as aspects of human nature that are troubling to look at and accept, the shadow sides of a psyche, if you will. It is Dr. Frankenstein who, out of initially well-meaning scientific curiosity, dangerously plays with fire like the creators of the atom bomb did in fairly recent history. Just because one can do something doesn’t mean one always should. Messes are then left behind for others to later clean up, where and when even possible.
Enter Basil Rathbone as Dr. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the son of the deceased mad genius Dr. Baron Henry Frankenstein. Inheriting his father’s legacy, including a castle and partially destroyed laboratory, he moves to the estate with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). The younger Frankenstein is curious to pursue his predecessor’s research and experiments, particularly after seeing the monster for himself. Ygor’s long-awaited scheme to bring the creature back to life and take revenge against the villagers who had persecuted him is then fulfilled. Together, with Ygor as the brains and the monster as raw muscle power, the two form a symbiotic killing team. The Baron is inadvertently caught in the middle but, like his father had been, fascinated with the monster and the implications of power that come with creating life out of death. He begins to awkwardly cover his tracks against the suspicious questioning by Police Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill).
Lionel Atwill as Krogh deserves special mention. Atwill’s theatricality was what he was known for and he delivers it wonderfully here. Krogh has an artificial arm from having survived being attacked in childhood by Frankenstein’s monster. He often moves the stiff prosthesis with his actual arm while snapping his heals and looking gravely at the Baron. I found myself thinking of Captain Hook and Adolf Hitler if they had been somehow combined. Very entertaining. When he places some darts in his wooden arm I chuckled.
Other comic relief, though likely unintended, comes through whenever little Peter von Frankenstein (Dunagan) speaks in a Southern drawl. This awkward juxtaposition against his parents’ British (Rathbone’s) and mid-Atlantic (Hutchinson’s) accents respectively amused yet also endeared me to the little boy. Some viewers may simply find this to be poor, inexcusable casting, since children naturally speak like one or both of their parents and not like those within a unique region of America of which clearly neither Baron or Baroness Frankenstein are from. He also made me think of a male Shirley Temple, with a similarly full head of curly hair, though she was older than Donnie Dunagan at the time. He was probably brought in to appeal to a younger audience and make this often grim, dramatic movie more “family friendly.”
This unevenness of overall tone and technical consistency to the film resulted in an ebb and flow of mildly grating to mostly amusing for me. I would call the end result Camp, for sure, particularly when factoring in the dramatic music, Rathbone’s and Atwill’s delicious overacting, and some of the sets, particularly the bubbling, steaming pool of sulfurous mud inside the foreboding lab. And then there are the requisite electricity effects and explosions adding to the campy fun. A nod to Kenneth Strickfaden creating such cutting edge electrical effects goes to him here. However, I somehow remember there being a bit more of them in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, also done by this master electrician.
Last but not least, there is Josephine Hutchinson in her role of Elsa von Frankenstein. She competently plays a well-spoken, proper and dutiful wife to the Baron, fitting in beautifully with the indoor sets of the castle. Both she and her surroundings are classically elegant in style, with overlays of melancholy and concern, both enhanced by the play of light and shadows in each room she sits or walks within. The residence is built by old-time country people filled with superstition, and the intuitive, worrying Elsa herself tends toward this kind of thinking. She is perfect for the part within the foreboding and grandness of the indoor sets. I imagined owning framed photographs of some of these incredible, atmospheric set designs.
Overall, I am glad I finally watched this final installment to the Karloff Frankenstein trilogy, despite its shortcomings and decreased potency when compared to the two prequels. Karloff is compelling as always in the role of Frankenstein’s monster, one in which he endured hours of makeup work (by the talented Jack Pierce) and wearing an uncomfortable, heavy-layered costume. The directing is decent though less immediate and intimate feeling than FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the latter being an improvement upon the former. It is admittedly a weak way to end a trilogy, but enough effective elements keep the movie a worthwhile classic. This is not least of all due to the addition of Bela Lugosi, who effectively plays a character so against the type of suave villains he often played earlier in the decade. It is sad how the talented Lugosi was under-utilized with his wide-range acting skills. We at least get a good glimpse of them in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
In conclusion, I purposefully call SON OF FRANKENSTEIN part of a trilogy, as do many others. The sequels that came after not only did not star the skillfully nuanced, tragic presence of Boris Karloff as the monster, but also they are each comparatively less thought-out projects that have rightfully faded into obscurity. I reached a small but satisfying sense of completion by watching this Rowland V. Lee directed film after so many years since I had viewed its masterpiece prequels, both directed by the very gifted James Whale. Perhaps this will be the result for other viewers as well.
(1) Hutchinson, Pamela and Barrett, Alex “10 great German Expressionist Films.” BFI (https://www.bfi.org.uk) (8 June 2017)