Retro Review: ‘Son of Frankenstein’

Mary Shelley’s creation is arguably the crown jewel of the Universal Monsters franchise. The creature make-up artist Jack Pierce and director James Whale crafted for Boris Karloff to show-off has become nothing short of iconic. Both Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein are nothing short of watershed pictures in the history of cinema. In 1939, the franchise continued with, Son of Frankenstein, a movie which has not attained the same legendary status as its predecessors but has still become a favorite of horror fans.

Returning to his ancestral home, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, alongside his wife and son, is excited at the prospect of reconnecting with his roots and hopefully rehabilitate the family name. What he finds is that his surname immediately makes him the most hated man in town. This newest patriarch of the Frankenstein line soon discovers he is not alone, as the crooked-necked criminal Ygor has been lurking around Castle Frankenstein. He leads the Baron to a chamber beneath the castle where his “friend” the famous Frankenstein’s monster lies. As expected, Baron Frankenstein puts his own scientific knowledge to work perfecting what his father started. It is only a matter of time before things get out of hand as Ygor uses the monster to slaughter those who had him hanged years before. It all comes to a thrilling climax where the Baron’s own son is put into grave danger.

It had been a number of years since Universal had dipped its toes into the horror stream, despite it being the genre which built the studio. But the smashing box office success of Frankenstein and Dracula playing as a double feature across the country encouraged them to revisit things. Boris Karloff was given a new contract to give some star power to Universal’s intended horror revival. First and foremost would be his return to the monster that made him famous in the first place. He was paired with frequent co-star and fellow icon of scary movies, Bela Lugosi as the now famous character Ygor. Joining them in the cast were Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill who would both also go on to be go-to horror film players.

Despite not achieving the lofty status of the two films it followed Son of Frankenstein was a top tier production all around. The director’s chair was taken by the veteran Rowland V. Lee. Keeping continuity with the previous films, Lee adopted into the gothic, expressionist style of his predecessor James Whale. While he sought to ground his feature into a more realistic setting, a tinge of the fantastical is bound to pop up. The more dark and somber tone, helps immensely with the mood Lee sought to create. One of the more interesting things the film does is take a more subtle approach, where the audience is given little hints of the creature in action, pushing us closer and closer to the edge until the inevitable hits. This slow burn style both differentiated it from many of the Universal Horrors and also proved incredibly effective.

Contrasting with Colin Clive’s melodramatic and mad Dr. Frankenstein, Basil Rathbone is downright charming and likable as Baron Frankenstein in this film. He bemoans that his surname has become synonymous with evil and monsters, he even brings up that many think Frankenstein was in fact the name of the creature. He see a shot and redeeming his legacy and naively sets out to do so, making him a protagonist the audience can easily root for. The legendary monster himself, Boris Karloff did take issue with the fact that the spiritual and mental growth the monster had previously experienced was tossed aside in favor of making him merely a mute creature who stomped around and menaced people. Considering this was his final time donning the flat top and bolts it is a shame he was given so little to do. His co-star Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, turned in one of the finest performances of his storied career as the scheming Ygor. Far removed from his usual polished and charming persona, Lugosi played Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant as a dirty and gritty thug with delusions of grandeur. Having been hanged by the people of the village years before, Ygor carries a bitter vendetta against the world and has no problem manipulating the optimistic Baron Frankenstein to those ends.

The film proved successful enough to warrant a fourth edition in the Frankenstein series in 1942 with Ghost of Frankenstein and showed the studios who had largely forgotten the genre that horror still had an audience. Today, Son of Frankenstein ranks alongside Dracula’s Daughter and The Mummy’s Ghost as a criminally underrated entry in the Universal Monsters franchise. While many elements of the film may have lost their punch thanks to Mel Brooks’ parody, most famously the one-armed inspector, but Son of Frankenstein is still a fantastic gothic horror flick deserving of much more respect.