Son of Frankenstein is obviously a quality film and the last big-budget one in the series. It was also a huge hit for Universal and the start of a new wave of horror films, the earlier ones having come to a halt in 1936 when the Laemmles were kicked out of the studio. Everyone thinks it's good, basically. However it's also my second-least favourite after House of Frankenstein. Admittedly I'm a fan of them all and I still enjoy this one, particularly the ending, but the problem is that it's too languid about getting there.
At 99 minutes long, this is easily the longest of all the Universal classic horrors, if you don't count the 104-minute Spanish version of Dracula. The second longest after this that I've seen is the 80-minute Son of Dracula, which coincidentally is also a third-in-its-series "Son of". Son of Frankenstein is about half an hour longer than the 1931 original and what's more, it feels like it. Compared with the rest of the series, it dawdles. Its dialogue scenes have a tempo all their very own.
- 1. Time elapsed before Basil Rathbone visits his father's laboratory, despite the fact that it was at the bottom of the garden and he seems to have been talking and thinking about nothing else ... 24 minutes
- 2. Time elapsed before he turns on the Monsterfying machinery ... 45 minutes
- 3. Time elapsed before we see Karloff walk ... 55 minutes
Frankly, I got a bit bored. Not enormously, but I did drift off a bit from time to time. However things improve for the ending, in which Karloff stops merely being Bela Lugosi's pet thug and starts acting on his own. That was great. Karloff will always be the biggest star of these movies and it's worth almost anything to see him unleashed and on the rampage. It's the kind of finale that leaves you thinking better of the whole film, since that's clearly what everything was building up to. I went away happy and satisfied, but I still wouldn't say the film earns its running time.
What it does have though is a dream cast. Karloff, Lugosi and Rathbone. (The three Bs.) You won't see them together on screen very often. Apparently Peter Lorre was originally cast in the Rathbone role, but had to leave the production due to illness. Wow. That might have been even more awesome. Going through the three in turn...
Boris Karloff gets less to do this time and seems a little underpowered when we first see him, but that's because the Monster's had brain damage for several decades since we last saw him. He's lost the power of speech again. However he's still Karloff's Monster and still the most dynamic thing in the film, making everything 1000% better just by showing up. He's the heart of the franchise, after all. The Monster's what powers these movies and if you took him out, there wouldn't be anything. Interestingly there's something new in Karloff's performance yet again, which this time is to be sinister. We've seen him killing people before, but we'd never before shuddered at it. There hadn't been any malice in his murders. This time though, he's being used as an assassin by Lugosi's Ygor, turning him into a much more deliberate kind of killer and making it rather ghastly to see him pulling down a shop window blind or casually swinging into view to pluck a man off a cart. Brrr. Karloff's extraordinarily good at it. He'd don the make-up again, by the way, but not in a Universal movie. As far as this series goes, this is his last appearance. Make the most of it.
Bela Lugosi meanwhile is playing the real villain of the piece. He's a sadistic, jolly peasant who survived being hanged for graverobbing and now has a broken neck and what looks like a hunchback. Yes, folks, Frankenstein has his first Igor (Ygor). Lugosi's almost joyously despicable, taking delight in anything ghoulish and referring to himself as being dead. He's been murdering the men who had him hanged and now only two of the original eight are still alive. Don't expect those two to reach the end of the film. He's a delicious character and it's easy to see why they brought him back for the next film.
Basil Rathbone I've left for last, but he's playing the lead. He's a Frankenstein, although not the original. He's also not the villain, although the film makes it clear that he'd be exceptionally good at doing so. His encounters with Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh can bring out the worst in him. He's charming and suave, but obsessed with his father's experiments and capable of full-blown sneering or savage sarcasm. "I'll have you come there some time and parboil you." It's a great Rathbone role and nothing like his Sherlock Holmes. He faced Atwill twice in that series too, incidentally, in Hound of the Baskervilles (also 1939) and then in The Secret Weapon with Atwill playing Moriarty.
Here we have three fascinating characters, all played by huge cinematic icons and all very capable of doing scary things. Put them together and you have an outstanding film. Unfortunately you have a less outstanding film when Rathbone's blithering on to his frightened wife or Lionel Atwill, neither of whom are who we've come to see. They're both good in their roles, but there's a reason this film isn't called Wife of Son of Frankenstein.
It's probably worth going through all the Frankenstein series regulars in this film. Atwill makes the first of his five consecutive appearances, taking a different but major role in every remaining series entry up to House of Dracula. Dwight Frye gets an uncredited cameo. He appeared in each of the first five films, but died before he could be in 6. There are other minor regulars like Lionel Belmore (1, 3-4), but obviously the big two are Karloff (1-3) and Lugosi (3-5). Lugosi's iconic role will always be Dracula, but he was used more by Universal's Frankenstein series and it's arguably his performance that solidified the popular image of a hunchbacked Frankenstein's assistant. The traditional name has become Igor, after all, not Fritz (1931) or Karl (1935).
As a further aside, this Frankenstein is the son of Colin Clive with (presumably) his wife Elizabeth, which has interesting implications for the timeline. Bride of Frankenstein is clearly set in historical times but can't be set before 1899, since that's the date on the grave they rob for a body for the Bride. Nevertheless Basil Rathbone (the actor) was born in 1892 and his brother in the following film will be played by Cedric Hardwicke (born 1893). It seems that not only have we jumped forward several decades, but we've actually moved a few years into the future for the contemporary audience. It's science fiction! Where are the spaceships? Damn it, where are the teleport booths? More seriously, though, it really feels as if we've been brought up to date. The castle and its villagers may have one foot in the Middle Ages, but the Frankensteins have come here from London and Paris, bringing X-ray machines and microscopes. By coming here, it feels as if they've left civilisation. There's even some ill-advised technobabble, which even the film itself doesn't play fair by. Rathbone goes on about the special life-giving properties of lightning and cosmic rays (eh?), but then uses his father's Monsterfying machine with the help of a mere generator.
There's also a logic-defying medical handwave about the Monster's victims all having burst hearts. The script has decided that it wants something clear and simple that Inspector Krogh can use as proof that these deaths all had the same cause, but this makes no sense at all. Karloff bludgeons or strangles. That's all. He doesn't electrocute people or anything, although this would have been quite an easy thing to develop from his artificial origins if they'd really wanted to. Don't get me started on the discolouration at the base of the neck either.
Oh, and the first two films were in Goldstadt and later we'll be in Vasaria (or Visaria), but here it seems that the village is called Frankenstein! Generally speaking the film will trample on any and all previously established continuity, including the appearance of the house (whoops, castle) and laboratory (mysteriously not a pile of rubble) to their relative geography. I don't remember having seen a "Karloff rips off a child's arm" scene either. Now it has to be said that for the most part, this isn't a problem. People don't go around bashing Bride of Frankenstein for redesigning the house and changing the name of Maria's grieving father from Ludwig to Hans. Unfortunately the castle's interior design draws attention to itself. They're continuing the first two films' German Expressionism, this time with some disorientating sets and a Dr Seuss staircase. I like Dr Seuss, but I don't like the way they've given much of the castle a blank-walled BBC studio look. It looked better when it was a house.
Rathbone's five-year-old son sounds Texan, by the way. He certainly didn't get it from his parents, but maybe it just means that they were recently living in Texas.
I think it might help not to watch this film straight after seeing the first two. You'll enjoy it more if you're simply wallowing in Rathbone, rather than waiting for Karloff to turn up. It's still great when he does, though. I've often seen this film picked out for individual praise, so I suppose I'm in the minority in citing problems with it. Maybe the story could have moved a little faster, but you can't argue with Rathbone, Karloff and Lugosi all doing what they do best. That's the selling point of this film. Any of those three on their own would be an excellent reason to watch it.