40×40: Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Directed by Rowland V Lee.

“I beg of you, let the dead past remain buried!”

Why Did I Get This?

At a time when I couldn’t really justify spending money on new DVDs (or new copies of old films), I allowed my love of old Universal movies and all things Frankenstein to get the better of me and splashed out on a box set of the studio’s classic series despite already owning the first two on a decent Blu Ray format.

I’ve since watched them all once or twice, and have a fondness for elements of each of them, but I’m still pretty pissed off that the box set doesn’t actually contain the Abbott & Costello movie that appears on the back cover of the damned box set. Like the Bond movies and Amicus movies, the sequels are a bit of a soup for me, in that I often find it difficult to remember which is which.

I’d forgotten, for example, that this was another Universal flick from the thirties that featured both Karloff and Lugosi (see here for one or two others). I suppose all my attention was taken up by the bloody annoying… well, we’ll get there. For now, here’s the trailer.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), and his family move to his father’s former castle to find the villagers afraid and angry at his presence. Still haunted by the chaos wrought by Henry Frankenstein’s creation, they fear he will bring another murderous monster to life, despite his protests. The Baron’s estate also houses the deformed Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who survived a hanging for his part in grave robbing offences, and who has a special bond with Frankenstein’s creation (Boris Karloff), and urges the new lord of the manor to bring him back to his full powers.

I’d actually forgotten that Karloff played the creature on more than the two occasions, so it was actually kind of a nice surprise to see him and Lugosi listed in the credits. Karloff gives good monster here, as always. Not the mindless beast, but not the abandoned innocent either – when he murders village elders on the orders of Ygor, it’s done with an intelligence and sneakiness that he didn’t really have in the first two movies. He even attempts to cover his tracks after one murder, which is more than many real-life, seemingly intelligent killers can manage.

One scene that really worked for me was a newly-reanimated creature catching sight of itself in a mirror. As it observes its reflection, it seems aghast not just at its appearance, but the fact it is actually alive, touching its face and moaning sadly before turning to the Baron as if to ask “why?”. It’s a really nice moment, not as tender as the scene by the lake in the original, but speaks to the trauma of this twice-murdered being being brought back to life against its will.

It got me thinking about the creature’s point of view – everyone it has ever met has hated and/or tried to kill it, even its creator. Then, when they’ve succeeded, they’ve brought it back to life only for it to face the same trials again like some sort of mythical torture – I know the novel is subtitled The Modern Prometheus, but if we focus on the creature, it’s possibly closer to the endless toil and torture of A Modern Sisyphus.

Elsewhere in the cast, Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh is a great character – at once willing to believe the new Frankenstein wants nothing to do with his father’s works and condemning the superstitions of the villagers, while also suspicious of Rathbone’s character as the body count rises. Giving him the backstory of having lost an arm to the creature first time round is a nice touch, and leads to a nice gag in the final showdown, but viewing his appearance all these years later it reminds me very much of Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove – can’t be helped, I suppose.

My only real encounter with Basil Rathbone had been as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, as well as his appearances in The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark Of Zorro… well, to tell the truth, my most recent viewing featuring Rathbone was 1963’s A Comedy Of Terrors which, I reckon is probably fair to say, is not his finest hour.

He’s good in this, and by the time the Baron took the fight to Ygor and the monster, it felt like he preempted Peter Cushing’s trademark ‘dash and leap around in a frenzy to see off the villain’ styling which I love so much in his Van Helsing.

Before that though, there’s a frenzy in his eyes as Ygor shows him his father’s handiwork and the young doctor realises the power he could harness if he continued the work and tried to revive the creature. This ramps up as the movie continues, until he’s petulantly throwing his hat and cloak across the room after being told he’s essentially under house arrest, then throwing darts at a board which feel like they’d need a claw hammer to remove from the target.

Last note on casting, I’ve written more than once or twice about my enjoyment of Bela Lugosi films and performances (even when they’ve been a bit more theatrical than I’d care for), but I really enjoyed him here. His bitter, deformed Ygor with a neck broken from an unsuccessful hanging and a deep friendship for Karloff’s mute, murderous creature, is a fascinating, manipulative character. He draws the young Baron deeper into his father’s experiments and convinces him to reanimate the creature (granted, he doesn’t need much of a steer), then threatens his family when he starts to have second thoughts.

I realise now I’ve been banging on about the cast, but there’s a lot to love about the film besides its stars – there’s a decent matte painting or two, the cavernous sets inside Castle Frankenstein range from bizarrely sparse dining hall to a German Expressionist entry hall with odd angles and oddly-designed stairwells, and there’s a delightful chaos to the ruined laboratory complete with bubbling sulphur put that the creature is eventually kicked into. I don’t remember that from the James Whale movies, but happy to assume it was hidden behind some crackling electrical equipment.

Just time before wrapping this up to deal with the elephant in the room. Or rather, the bloody annoying child actor in the room.

The Baron’s young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), screeches his entry to every scene with a high-pitched “Well, helloooooo!“, which is like nails down a blackboard to me. I’ll admit, his revelation to the Inspector that the creature has been visiting him in his nursery is really nicely played, and in his quieter moments, he’s fine, but that choice of delivery (clearly encouraged by the filmmakers), seems designed to annoy. He went on to play young Bambi though, so that’s nice.

Anyway, with that, I’ll say: “Well, goodbyeee!!!


I don’t remember enjoying this much first time around, despite its reputation as one of the better sequels, but I think it’s grown on me.

That being said, it felt a little longer than its 99 minutes to me, despite the last ten minutes or so being a bit breakneck. It’s not exactly sluggish in places, but the film takes its time to get to the ‘torches and pitchforks’ finale. The final fight is a surprisingly intimate affair, mind, and all the better for it – Atwill and Rathbone taking different but effective approaches to saving the curly-haired kid and fending off the creature makes for a thrilling, albeit short, sequence.

Glad to have seen this again, and suspect I’ll have to rewatch the rest of the Universal sequels now just to compare. Does it hold up to its predecessors? Not really, but what does?

All the same though, plenty here of interest – a genuinely interesting performance by Karloff (his last as the creature, and probably the last interesting take on the role), a great extra baddie in Lugosi, a fun little sequence where Rathbone runs a battery of scientific tests on the creature and helps the audience understand why it’s so monstrous, and a decent entry in the Frankenstein pantheon.

Well worth a watch

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