Baron Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the son of the late doctor Frankenstein, travels to “Middle Europe,” with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), to take possession of the family castle. Like his father, he is a scientist and experimenter, and he has a fanatical desire to prove that his father was a great man. The villagers are not happy to see another Frankenstein take up residence, and Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) warns the newcomers that it may be dangerous. He quickly runs into grave-robbing Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who aided his father and was hanged for his participation, but survived, and Ygor leads him to the still-living Monster (Boris Karloff), who is in a coma. The Baron thinks that if he can fully revive the monster, this will exonerate the family name, though Ygor has other plans.
Son of Frankenstein started the second cycle of Universal Monsters, and did so with a budget, stars, and style.
The horror drought had been in effect since mid-1936, with no true horror films being made in the US, and only a few horror-adjacent thriller mysteries even coming close. It had been engineered by Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration. He was a right-wing extremist and hard-line Catholic and felt that all horror was immoral and must be wiped out. He worked using a combination of the actual veto power he’d been given, nagging, warnings of doom, and lies to get. He’d spent several years making any horror filmmaker’s life hell, cutting their scripts, calling them to say that horror was bad, and suggesting that this state or that state would come down hard on a film. Then he got a bigger weapon. British censorship was generally harsher than that of the US, although it wasn’t horror per se that they objected to, but a confusing combination of animal cruelty and anything they thought might cause social unrest (such as troublesome teenagers or racial issues), but they had banned several films, put in a new “H” rating, and cut multiple movies. Breen used this, aided by some poorly researched news articles, to claim that England, and somehow thus all of Europe, had banned horror. He’d been making it very difficult for anyone to make a horror film, and now he persuaded the studios that it wouldn’t be profitable enough to fight for. Universal, the horror king, had recently changed management, and the new team didn’t care about horror anyway, and the greatest horror director, James Whale, had become persona non grata after he told management what he thought of them. So horror was dead, and Breen had won. Well, he won until a dying theater showed a triple feature of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Son of Kong (not that I consider the last of these horror) and a studio exec saw the line wrapping around the block. He actually had thought that horror films couldn’t make money (these guys really didn’t look at their own ledgers, but hey, talkies were young and execs didn’t have the experience yet), but those lines said differently. Breen had power, but money had more power. Universal immediately released a double feature of Frankenstein and Dracula around the country and they made more money than on their initial releases, so they rushed Son of Frankenstein into production. It was a rough road, suddenly having to work out how to make a horror film again on a really tight schedule, and with Breen fighting them all the way. But they made it. And people came. And every studio saw that horror was back.
The result is better than anyone could have hoped for. It doesn’t live up to its predecessors, but then director Rowland V. Lee was no James Whale and it is hard to beat one of the greatest horror films of all time. What they really got right was the style. If you’ve read this far and have any interest in classic horror, you know what’s coming: German expressionism. It dominated Universal’s early horror films and this is its apogee. You have to go back to the silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to find a more effective, or extreme use of the form. Nothing in Son of Frankenstein is real, but rather is shaped to convey fears, uncertainties, and feelings in general. We’re not seeing a German town, and a manor house, and a scientists works space, but terror itself forged into those shapes. The Universal pictures in general didn’t pretend that they took place in a real Germany or real England, but in a fantasy “Middle Europe” filled with superstitious and much put upon peasants and a monomaniacal ruling class. So the film gives us a fog-shrouded collection of stretched and oddly placed houses on the edge of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The castle is a surreal nightmare of over-sized barren rooms, arches, twisted staircases, and a cavernous fireplace, all seen in high contrast lighting. It isn’t a home for humans but for fifteen foot giants, or perhaps for that feeling of being small in the world. The layout of the buildings doesn’t make sense, and I’m not talking about failures in design, such as the family tomb that’s only accessible through a secret passage no normal man could open, but rather that halls don’t meet up. Nothing is where it should be.
Am I going on too long about the expressionistic art direction and cinematography? No, because it’s a thing of beauty. If nothing else worked, the film would still be good based on that alone. And that expressionism makes much of the rest of it work. You can’t argue that this or that aspect of reviving a monster or travel to and from the town don’t make sense when sense isn’t the point. Also note, the expressionism extends into all aspects of the film, including the dialog and the acting. No one is trying to mimic real life, but give us something twice removed.
Boris Karloff again plays The Monster, (as he had in Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) but for the last time. The multifaceted innocent savage is gone, to be replaced by a hulking zombie. Between Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein the creature lost his ability to talk, so important in the previous film. It’s unfortunate that the best part of the originals, the pathos in The Monster, is missing, but to make up for that, Bela Lugosi‘s Ygor has personality to spare. It is Lugosi’s best role and he revels in it, cackling and coughing and taking it as far as it can go. He’s evil and murderous, by sympathetic and funny. After all, he was hanged for helping the rich and powerful baron, and that baron got away with it. One of the best moments in the movie is Ygor sitting by a broken window playing his haunting horn—it’s eerie and beautiful.
Basil Rathbone, an actor whose voice alone made legendary, is excellent, playing a mad scientist less likable than the original Frankenstein. That doctor was a loon in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Wolf von Frankenstein is an arrogant elitist with daddy issues, which is smart character design as it makes Ygor easier to like. Lionel Atwill’s inspector is another great character, a voice of calm and logic coming from the edge of a nightmare. Unfortunately, newer viewers will have a hard time taking him seriously after Mel Brooks parodied him in Young Frankenstein (Young Frankenstein is based on this film, not on the original Frankenstein).
The child is annoying, as is often the case in any film with a child that young, and it’s clear he’s no actor. Though he does bring a bit of warmth to the film in retrospect as Dunagan has said how kind Boris Karloff was to him on set, buying him ice cream and playing checkers with him, in full monster makeup. Peter Frankenstein is not on screen too often, so he’s a minor negative.
It’s best not to watch Son of Frankenstein too quickly after the first two; there are too many inconsistencies, such as the laboratory—now shaped like an observatory—sitting on the grounds of Castle Frankenstein, and Ygor being an assistant to the previous Dr. Frankenstein. But then, why would an expressionistic picture have any more interest in matching previous movies than it does in matching reality? It’s just about how it makes you feel.