In 1938 Universal made a surprising discovery. They re-released the original Frankenstein and Dracula and the two movies, which had cleaned up at the box-office at the beginning of the decade, again did big business. It appeared that the movie-going public’s appetite for horror was as strong as ever. Universal then made the surprisingly sensible decision not only to do a third Frankenstein movie, but to do it properly - with a good cast, a talented director and on a lavish scale. The result, in 1939, was the excellent Son of Frankenstein.
The studio further decided that the cast would be headlined by their two biggest horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with Peter Lorre as the son of the infamous Dr Frankenstein. Lorre turned them down (he was growing tired of playing psychopathic villains) so they turned to another notable screen villain, Basil Rathbone. It was another inspired decision. As an added bonus they threw in Lionel Atwill as well (always a good move).
Rathbone is Dr Wolf Frankenstein. And he’s not your typical mad scientist at all. He’s a mild-mannered college professor who has spent his career in the US trying to live down the infamous reputation of his father, the Dr Frankenstein who created the notorious monster. He’s a kindly and rather harmless fellow. He’s inherited the Frankenstein Castle and now he thinks it would be a fine idea to move in there with his wife and his young son Why he thought this would be a good idea remains a mystery.
Of course the villagers hate and fear him. They do have reason to be upset. There has been a mysterious series of murders. It can’t be the monster. He was destroyed. But still, these murders are odd.
Wolf Frankenstein naturally has to go and investigate his father’s laboratory. There he finds Ygor. Ygor is a blacksmith by trade but used to earn extra money robbing graves for the elder Dr Frankenstein. He was hanged for his crimes, but survived. His neck was broke but the spinal cord was left intact and he now has a protruding bone in his neck, giving him the classic horror movie hunched appearance. He is now legally dead and therefore beyond the reach of the law, but he has not forgotten the eight man on the jury who convicted him.
Ygor is not the only member of the dead who is still alive. The Monster still lives, apparently in a kind of coma. The Monster was Ygor’s only friend so he begs the younger Dr Frankenstein to bring him back to life. Wolf Frankenstein’s scientific curiosity is aroused along with the idea that he can restore his late father’s reputation by continuing his work. His efforts are unavailing but a few days later his son mentions a giant he has seen and Wolf realises that the Monster walks again. He has other problems - there have been more murders and the village police chief Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) is starting to get distinctly more cool towards him. Krogh lost an arm to the Monster in childhood so he has a personal interest in the scientific endeavours of the Frankenstein family.
The Monster is doing more than walking, the villagers are getting scared and angry and Wolf Frankenstein faces the prospect that history is about to repeat itself.
Boris Karloff again plays the Monster, with Bela Lugosi relegated to the subsidiary role of the the former Dr Frankenstein’s assistant Ygor. Or at least that’s how it seems at first. Actually Ygor is a much more interesting and much more substantial role than that of the Monster. Lugosi gets a lot of screen time and in fact dominates the film. It’s one of the rare occasions in his later career when Lugosi got the better of the deal from Universal. It’s a great role and Lugosi grasps his opportunity with both hands, delivering a powerhouse performance that is one of the highlights of his career. It may even be his best ever performance.
A lot of people dislike Basil Rathbone’s performance, which seems incomprehensible to me. Wolf Frankenstein is a man who, right from the start, finds himself in a situation he is hopelessly ill-prepared for and he starts to lose control of events almost immediately. Rathbone’s performance edges closer and closer to hysteria, just as it should. Wolf is a gentle decent man who is trapped in ever-increasing chaos with no way out. I think it’s a fine performance.
Lionel Atwill is excellent as a man trying to do his duty and trying not to let his personal feelings get in the way. Atwill has a great deal of fun with the mechanical arm which adds a strange touch that is both grotesque and oddly moving.
Willis Cooper wrote the original screenplay, and when it was rejected wrote a second version. Producer-director Rowland V. Lee disliked both versions and started rewriting it himself. He was still rewriting it when shooting began and there never really was a finished final script - Lee just kept rewriting it as he went along. Surprisingly enough it hangs together quite nicely.
Art director Jack Otterson contributed enormously to the film’s success with some of the best sets ever seen in a Universal horror film. All the visual elements in this production are impressive.
This movie was really the last of the Universal horror movies to be an A-picture right from the start. The already generous budget blew out even further as shooting progressed slowly. Luckily for Universal it didn’t matter - the movie was a resounding box-office triumph and made a tidy profit. The budget blow-out did scare Universal though and contributed to their decision to make any future horror movies on much smaller budgets. In hindsight this may have been a mistake - Son of Frankenstein proved that a good well-made handsomely mounted horror film equals box-office gold.
And this is a very good horror film. Visually it’s the equal of anything Universal did, it has a solid story and it has complex characters and great performances (especially from Lugosi). You couldn’t ask for more. Highly recommended.