It’s October, so I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks focusing on some classic horror films. Among the most iconic classic horror films are the one’s featuring the Universal Monsters. Both 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein are rightfully considered essential viewing. Often overlooked, however, is the third installment in the series, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein.
This time, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) has come from America to the deserted home of the father he never knew; the maker of monsters. With him are his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). The townsfolk, however, are none too happy to have a Frankenstein back in the castle. Memories of the square-headed creature still run strong and tensions are high due to the mysterious deaths of six prominent citizens. Particularly concerned is police inspector Krough (Lionel Atwill), who happens to have a mechanical arm due to an unfortunate encounter with the monster as a child.
One day, while investigating the ruins of his father’s laboratory, the Baron encounters the bizarre man known as Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor was once hanged for the crime of grave robbing. Despite having been pronounced dead, he later revived and now sports a grotesquely deformed neck. Ygor also has a secret hidden in the Frankenstein family crypt. You guessed it, it’s the monster (Boris Karloff).
Ygor needs the Baron’s help to revive his “friend,” who was recently injured by a lightning strike. The Baron, who believes his father was right to pursue his twisted experiments, jumps at the chance to try and redeem his father’s name. Little does he suspect the Ygor has been using the monster to exact revenge on those who sentenced him to death.
The first two Frankenstein films are no easy act to follow, but Son of Frankenstein ends up being a more-than-worthy follow up. A big part of the film’s success is due to three exceptional performances at its core. First we have Boris Karloff, in his final appearance as the monster. His role here is a bit smaller than in the previous chapters, but still as moving as ever. Then there’s Basil Rathbone who brings a wonderful intensity to his role. His interactions with Lionel Atwill are especially effective. It’s a very different take on the mad scientist than what Colin Clive previously brought to the series. Lastly, we have Bela Lugosi, who is nothing short of brilliant as Ygor. Most people think of Ygor as being the pathetic, sniveling, hunchbacked assistant of Doctor Frankenstein. They couldn’t be more wrong. Ygor is one of the great villains of Universal’s monster series. He’s smart, sinister, conniving, ghoulish, and evil to the bone. Lugosi also gives Ygor some twisted moments of comedy that show just what a versatile performer he was. He may be most famous for playing Dracula, but for me Ygor is Lugosi’s finest performance.
Son of Frankenstein may also be one of the most visually creative of the Universal monster movies. The influence of German expressionism is certainly present in the previous Frankenstein films, but it plays a major role in Son. The long shadows and strange angles we see throughout the house of Frankenstein definitely succeed in bringing an unconscious uneasy feeling to the viewer.
Son of Frankenstein was a huge hit when it was released and it breathed new life into the Universal’s fading horror series. Today, it struggles to crawl out of the shadow of its two highly regarded predecessors. Son of Frankenstein is a film that deserves better. It is a skillfully and stylishly made film, punctuated by some amazing performances from three horror icons. For this viewer, it is one of the finest moments in the long history of Universal’s monsters.