Tuesday, 30 June 2020
Son Of Frankenstein
Son Of Frankenstein
USA 1939 Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some spoilerage here.
So this next review of my rewatch of the classic Universal Monsters movies is another of my favourites... and it’s probably not hard for most people to see why. This is easily the best looking black and white movie of the 1930s that I’ve seen and the latest Blu Ray set from Universal certainly shows off the crisp monotone photography to its advantage. I’ll get back to the look of the film in a minute.
Son Of Frankenstein starts off a little differently to how I remembered it, with an opening sequence that highlights Bela Lugosi in the role of the convicted and hung murderer Ygor... who returned to life after being pronounced dead by the coroner some years before. This is followed by a town meeting scene which, if it does anything other than look nice, is all about reminding the audience just who Frankenstein and his creation were. We then cut to Basil Rathbone as the titular character, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, his wife Elsa (played by Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), on a sleeping car train bound for the town where Wolf’s father did his infamous work. For some reason, the village is now called Frankenstein itself which, as we are aware from the mood of the villagers in the earlier part of the film, does nothing good for the tourist trade. This sequence, as they rumble into ‘Banhof Frankenstein’ shows off just how good the dialogue writing is here. Wolf is talking to Elsa about his father’s accursed legacy and he just gets up to the bit where he is about to say the family name...
“... nine out of ten people call that misshapen creature of my father’s experiments...”
when the railway porter shouts out “Frankenstein! Frankenstein!” to announce the stop. It’s a wonderful piece of early dialogue juxtaposition, taking two pieces of dialogue of differing intent and then rubbing them together to push the meaning of the first. It also nicely underlines the mistake of the commonly held assumption that the monster itself is called Frankenstein when, clearly, it is not.
Now lets talk about Rathbone here for a minute because he was at a turning point in his career. He did, however, detest appearing in horror movies although he would appear opposite Boris Karloff again in Jacques Tourneur’s 1963 AIP Edgar Allan Poe cycle entry, The Comedy Of Terrors, of course. His lack of respect of the horror genre might explain why this one is a little bit ‘all over the place’ in certain scenes he performs here but it’s easy to watch and a lot of fun too. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rathbone and you have to remember that this was only a year after he had played the villanous Sir Guy of Gisbourne opposite Errol Flynn in the definitive Robin Hood movie, The Adventures Of Robin Hood. His very next film after Son Of Frankenstein and released in the same year would be the one which was the first time he played the role which he is probably best well known for to this day... playing Sherlock Holmes opposite Nigel Bruce (as Doctor Watson) in the first of a long series of films and, also, a large number of radio shows starring the pair too.
He is, of course, ably supported in this by some great Universal regulars such as Boris Karloff, reprising his role as the Frankenstein monster. Now, despite the monster being able to speak in the last installment, The Bride Of Frankenstein (reviewed here), here he is once more rendered mute with no real explanation as to why. I love what he’s wearing in this too... instead of the dark jacket he’s wearing what can only be described as a furry tank top and it looks great. This is my favourite fashion look for the Frankenstein monster, for sure. This was the third and final time Karloff would play the role of Frankenstein’s creation but not his final role in a classic Universal Frankenstein movie, as you will see in an upcoming review. His scene with Rathbone as he discovers himself reflected in a mirror is quite long but expertly done as we see the monster pantomime various emotional states while he tries to come to terms with his hideous looks. This is pure cinema although, it has to be said, that when we have assassinations performed by the creature who then stages things to look like an accident with some considered thought, he does at times become the very thing that Karloff was afraid he would become with more exposure in a series of films... a professional killing machine.
Then we have Lionel Atwill, who appears in a number of these Universal monster movies but whose career was ruined just a few years later due to a scandalous sex orgy and rape party which took place at his home. Although he’s going to appear in a few of the films I will be reviewing after this, he died of lung cancer only seven years after Son Of Frankenstein was released. Of course, in this he plays the wonderfully Germanic Inspector Kogh, the one armed police inspector who is trying to find out who is doing all the killings in the village (funny how all the people who died are the same people who condemned Ygor to death). Even without the one armed police inspector in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein being based on him, his handicapped shenanigans in this do often border on the comical... especially when he plays Wolf at darts and sticks them all into his arm to store them as he is taking his turn.
By the way, when did it become normal to have only three darts to throw per player? Not before 1939 I guess because here they are playing with five a piece. The reason for Kogh's handicap however, is far from comical. His history goes that, when he was a young toddler, the Frankenstein monster was busy terrifying the villagers and he ‘tore his arm out by the root.’ Of course, once this information and disability is introduced, you just know it’s going to come back and be revisited on him again and, sure enough, in his final confrontation with the Frankenstein monster in the film, his artificial limb is torn from him by the monster, who tries to use it as a club to keep everybody back.
The basic plot of this is of Wolf trying to restore the long surviving monster in his father’s laboratory while trying to ignore the obvious that Ygor is using him as a killing machine while warding off the questions of the inspector... until he is finally threatened himself and after shooting Ygor dead with three bullets to the chest (although this is not enough of a mortal injury to prevent Lugosi reprising his role through the course of the next Frankenstein movie). He then finds himself trying to rescue his son who the monster has stolen from him in revenge for the killing, ready to throw him into the pit of sulphur which the laboratory was somehow built over. And, again, once you know there’s a pit of sulphur under the lab, it’s no prizes for guessing just how the creature will meet its supposed end in this film, after a bit of swashbuckling action from Rathbone saves the day when he swings from a winch and knocks Karloff into the pit. Then we watch a not so great dummy of the monster sink below the bubbling surface.
But enough of the story... it’s the look of the film which is where the strength of the picture lays. This is the Frankenstein film where the set design and lighting go ‘the full Caligari’ with amazing twisted geometry and dark, distorted blacks which reflect straight back to the German Expressionist form of cinema from which they derive, as fleeing film crews deserted Nazi Germany and pitched up into Hollywoodland. Just amazing angles and things that sit strangely within the beautiful, slanted compositions such as, for example, chairs with amazingly tall backs that only a giant would truly be able to appreciate. These are further highlighted by some beautiful shadow work. You know that scene at the start of the bar fight in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Spielberg emphasises people by having their shadows arrive first... well that style was always straight out of the 1920s/30s where that kind of emphasis on the look was common.
For example, there’s a wonderful moment where Rathbone follows Lugosi into a kind of tomb-like approach to the laboratory. Rathbone’s silhouette, completely black, is framed perfectly in the doorway at the centre of the shot with his shadow cast down below him and into the laps of the audience at the foreground of the shot... then Lugosi lights a torch on the wall which instantly allows Rathbone’s full figure to materialise out of the silhouette, while still maintaining the shadow... expert stuff. Another shot where Rathbone’s shadow precedes him up a ladder, through a hatch in the floor before Rathbone follows it up into the shot, is also mesmerising. And even the shadow of a ladder that Rathbone descends from in one scene, has a twisted rung accenting the strange and angular set design. Like I said, it’s one of the best looking and best lit movies of the 1930s you are ever likely to see.
There’s also an interesting addition to the Frankenstein legend in this one. Wolf’s research reveals that, unknown to his father, it wasn’t just the lightning he summoned into the creature which gave life to the creation that Karloff so brilliantly plays on screen. It was, in fact, according to this iteration of Shelley’s creation... cosmic rays. These had already been known about when Victor Hess discovered them in 1912 and my guess is they were still fresh in people’s minds since Hess had won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery only three years before this picture was released. So that’s kind of interesting I think (and yes, I had to look that up when the words were uttered on screen... I had no idea as my first exposure to the term myself was as a kid in a reprint of the first issue of Fantastic Four from 1961).
I’d better mention the music too, while I’m here. This was the first of the classic Universal horrors to feature the music of Frank Skinner (who was often paired with Hans Salter in later movies in the various monster series). It’s a classic score and the one which, despite the strength and influence of Franz Waxman’s score for the previous Frankenstein film, ended up becoming the classic, ‘brand sound’ for the Universal monster movies that followed it. Lots of this was recycled into other horror films by the company over the years and it became quite evocative of a certain kind of genre package, especially after the various films aired on television in the late 1950s when it gathered a lot of recognition and a large following with film music fans. The montage sequence where Wolf cures the ailing monster is almost as splendid as Waxman’s creation music from The Bride Of Frankenstein and the score is even used, in this film, in a metatextual manner in two scenes. In those scenes, Ygor is seen playing a bizarre looking kind of flute/horn and the tune he plays is... Skinner’s main monster theme to the movie. So, again, a nice touch and, perhaps, somewhat ahead of its time.
And there you have it. Not much more to say about Son Of Frankenstein other than... it’s an absolutely brilliant film and worth the time of any true lover of cinema to sit down and study. I can’t over emphasise the sheer spectacle of the mise en scène in this movie... it’s absolutely gorgeous and there’s absolutely no way you can go wrong with a film of this calibre. The last great Frankenstein movie... not the last fun or watchable one, for sure but, in terms of greatness, this one was the absolute peak of perfection for the Universal Horror series and the success of it convinced the company to resurrect its now, almost retired, monsters for a huge amount of sequels throughout the 1940s... all of which I hope to review for you on here some time soon. If you are any fan of not just horror movies but the art of cinema in general then, this one is simply not something you’d want to miss out on. So good.