Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Son of Frankenstein
Director:  Rowland V Lee
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson
Rating: "Approved"

One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.
                             ~Inspector Krogh

Following Bride of Frankenstein and its success, Universal started to think of themselves above the whole horror and monster movie phenomenon.  It was sort of dying off as any fad will, but Universal didn't produce any monster movies for a period of 2 years.  Then, after that, the studio was down on their luck and suddenly needed a hit.  There was a travelling triple feature billing of Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong that started making rounds.  It was proving very popular and bringing the monsters' relevance back into the conversation.  Universal decided to put all their chips in and to make a big budget return to the Frankenstein series, with Karloff reprising his role and putting Bela Lugosi in the film to have the two icons share the screen.  And also, rising star Basil Rathbone was put into the cast (Replacing an ill Peter Lorre...imagine how THAT might have gone!).
James Whale did not want to come back.  While he was searching for his return to prominence as well, he was done with making monster films.  In stepped Rowland V Lee.  And I must commend, that while the gothic artistry of Whale is obviously missing, Lee does a great job trying to come close and also adds some delights of his own.  The sets and new characters definitely feel that they've been taken from the same ilk of Bride of Frankenstein with a hint of the esteem of the original picture.  The film also has a lot of money in it, and they don't put any of it to waste.
Lee's film is not only bigger in budget, its much bigger in length.  The Universal Monster films typically didn't go much over an hour as to get as money showtimes in the day as possible.  This one is 110 minutes.  You'd think that would hamper the film, but honestly, I see that runtime every time before I watch it and think that, but this one really moves quite well.  Its paced great and its part connect to different sections of the story very well.  Yes, if you're watching them in succession, you're gonna notice this one hangs out a bit more than the others, but it doesn't "feel" or make you want it to go.
What helps this one work, is that its story is very different than the two films that came before it.  Yeah, its got a bit of the same idea, but like Bride, it does plenty of different things with it and doesn't feel the same at all.  Son involves some new quirky characters, all with much different focus and agendas than we've seen before.  Heck, we even get a little murder plot that is pretty spooky and cool.  The film even spouts what I found to be some meta dialogue where Wolf talks about how hated his father is that people have started calling the monster by his name.  This I found to be a reference to how pop culture has referred to the monster as Frankenstein not, "the monster" or "Frankenstein's Monster".  
One of those new characters is one of the franchise's best; YGOR!  Here's where I may lose some of you, or get some hate.  But, I really honestly think this is Bela Lugosi's best.  As iconic as Dracula is and what he did for horror, he's much better here.  Its a strange character, but Lugosi is terrific.  And he had to be.  Lugosi was down in the dumps at this time.  He hadn't worked in a while.  Ygor wasn't even in the script, director Lee wanted to help Lugosi out.  Then he got minimum scale for the film and Lee kept putting more and more Ygor in the film to get Lugosi some money and exposure.  And he doesn't blow it either.  This seems like it was a picture that could have been a vehicle for Rathbone, but Lugosi steals this film from everyone.  He's marvelous in the film and a treasure for every frame he's in.  THIS is Lugosi's best character, even if its not the one he's most remembered for in his career.
Karloff's swan song as the monster is another terrific turn from the actor.  He's once again mute, but this time he's more of an instrument than he is a person.  Its almost as if he's under Ygor's spell for a lot of the film and there are times where his humanity breaks through on it.  With what you would think is some simple monster character, Karloff has given three different and three outstanding performances.  In an odd turn, the monster is wearing some sort of carpet-like sweater in the film as his outfit.  I don't think its ever explained and it just kinda looks weird and takes some getting used to when watching it.
One of the greatest and wisest minds of this geek-centric generation, Jim Dietz, pointed out on the Facebook post for the original how this film is the basis for the comedy film Young Frankenstein.  Its true, Young Frankenstein, while it covers things in the first four films, uses Son of Frankenstein as its template to go off of.  For me, though, both work.  I can still watch this film and enjoy it as its own piece of horror history.  And as a matter of fact, the first two films in this series get all the glory, but I don't think Son of Frankenstein is far off at all from the original and Bride (Rotten Tomatoes has the first two at 100% and Son at 89% boo hoo).  For me, I find it to be just as good as those first films.  Thus, it culminates in what I would see as a perfect trilogy (Yeah, I know, the films I guess the "Karloff Trilogy" mind you).  This film is a true horror gem and classic, standing both as a part of the series, trilogy capper and standalone Frankenstein film.  

NEXT TIME:  Lon Chaney Jr says, "Sure, I'll play him."

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