Sunday, October 16, 2016
Frankenstein Watch: Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The third Frankenstein movie in the Universal Monsters line of films is not terribly well known among the normals but it's a staple for monster kids. People who don't know the movie often ask "why is Frankenstein wearing that furry shirt?" when they see pictures from the movie, and - honestly, it's a legit question.* Son of Frankenstein (1939) picks up a generation after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, when the literal child of Henry and Elizabeth Frankenstein returns to Frankenstein castle to reclaim the family homestead, and, as it turns out, help restore The Monster to fighting form after finding him in a catatonic state.
The movie is not directed by James Whale, and of the original cast, only Karloff returns. It lacks some of vision of the prior installments, but picks up on and expands some elements, visual and otherwise. It also softens the story a bit more, providing us with a more sympathetic Dr. Frankenstein in the son of the good doctor.
Overall, it's fairly watchable with some pretty great bits, and at least tries to maintain some level of A-list distinction before the Frankenstein movies would descend down the slope to matinee material. It's not exactly the world's best movie, but it's still a Halloween-worthy treat.
I've written on this movie before, and I'll mostly just echo what I said way back then. It's actually beautifully shot with some fantastic set design, great lighting and they really do try to re-enter same emotional place as the prior films, but this Dr. Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone in a slow boil of creeping obsession) isn't the same maniac as his father - at least at first. He's married with a young son, and he's not a believer of the fairy tales he heard about his long-since-deceased father.
Lugosi plays a near opposite of his suave Dracula in the vile Ygor, a former assistant to the first Dr. Frankenstein, now living in the remains of the lab destroyed at the end of Bride. He was hung for his grave-robbing to assist Dr. Frankenstein**, his neck broke and he was pronounced dead, but he lived on, left alone by the populace as they've all agreed that he's already legally dead. And, he looks seriously and oddly-believably gross.
The movie re-uses some actors from prior movies, but plays loose and fast with everything from the geography and timeline of the original two films to making up Ygor's participation (both of Dwight Frye's characters die in the first two films).
The grandson of Henry Frankenstein appears in this movie in the form of Peter von Frankenstein, a cute little kid who's surprisingly non-annoying in a role that should have been twee and distracting. But, somehow the movie makes the character work (and he's pretty funny).
What keeps me from ever giving a straight recommendation on this film, however, is that the last third of the movie just feels messy. Which is odd as the first 2/3rds is really pretty solid and Rathbone turns in a fantastic performance as he slides into his father's paranoid madness, leading to some phenomenal scenes with the Inspector (the one armed inspiration for Young Frankenstein's Inspector Kemp), including the darts interrogation scene.
But something about it doesn't hold in quite the same way. The stakes aren't as immediate as Frankenstein, nor do all the threads come together in quite the same way as Bride of Frankenstein where you want to see the Bride as much as The Monster himself.
Still, a fun movie, even if the horror of the movie seems to live far more with Lugosi' Ygor than with anyone else. It feels far more like a thriller, making you wonder how this tangle will resolve itself more than the weirdness of the prior installments. Really, if you've seen Young Frankenstein a few times, I have to recommend this one just so you can see what Brooks and Wilder were riffing on.
*although the more legit questions is why Dr. Frankenstein put the monster in a blazer to begin with
**it should be noted that cadavers and bodies as obtained by the medical profession in legitimate fashion is a fairly new phenomenon as of the early 20th Century. Prior to that, bodies were obtained by all sorts of shady means and medical colleges paid well for those bodies. It led to some less-than-ethical practices in the real world.