Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The ones on the doors of the castle, that is.
Happily, though one can see a lot of the source of Mel Brooks's satire, the series has not yet fallen into self-parody. It may not have the emotional depth of the two movies that preceded it, but Son of Frankenstein is still a fine movie on its own.
It appears that, despite Elizabeth and Henry escaping the collapse of the tower in Bride of Frankenstein, that things didn't turn out that well. Elizabeth took their son Wolfgang to England, while Henry stayed behind in the village (originally called Goldstadt in the first two, but called Frankenstein this time around). He no longer did his experiments, but he remained in his castle, and made sure his notes were preserved for his son to do what he would wish.
When Henry passes, Wolfgang (Basil Rathbone) comes to claim his heritage, with his American wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) in tow, along with his trusted servant Benson (Edgar Norton). The family receives a chilly reception from both the villagers and the local burghers, who are all afraid that Wolfgang will continue where his father left off and unleash a new monster upon the town. The loan person willing to stand up for them is Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), the one-armed chief of the local constabulary who was attacked by the monster as a child. He has his doubts about the monster's destruction, as there have been a series of unsolved murders of the last number of years, each with the same markings.
While the family settles in, Wolfgang begins to explore the castle and the watchtower that is on the grounds, and which contains the remains of his father's laboratory. While going through the old equipment he meets with Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a shepherd whose neck was broken when he was hanged for stealing bodies. Proclaimed dead by the town doctor, he was released as the sentence was technically carried out, but he still lives in a broken battlement of the castle as a village outcast. He leads Frankenstein through a secret passage in the tower and into the crypt where his grandfather and father are interred. There is one other occupant, however. The monster (Boris Karloff), partially comatose due to a lightning strike.
Frankenstein agrees to work with Ygor to restore the monster's health, and with Benson's help starts to make several discoveries regarding the creature's strength and size. It turns out the "superviolet ray" that Henry sought to give life to his creature was actually cosmic rays, and it has made the monster superhuman and almost immortal. Wolfgang's curiosity gets the better of him, as he knows he should destroy it, but also wants to clear his father's name. Using some of his own electrical devices he attempts to bring the monster back to life, but apparently fails. He soon realizes that he was more successful than he thought when Peter tells him of the "giant" that visited him in his room.
The electricity manages to restore the Monster in some ways, but the progress he made toward humanity has regressed. Also, he shows an unwavering obedience to Ygor, who it turns out has been using the monster to get revenge on the men who had him hanged. When bodies start turning up in the town, the villagers attack the castle, despite Krogh's attempts to turn them back. With both Elsa and Peter in danger, Frankenstein decides to put an end to his father's work.
As Wolfgang von Frankenstein is Henry's son, Basil Rathbone was under no duress to try to imitate Colin Clive's performance. Rather, he begins as a fellow that just wants to make friends, and slowly begins to break down due to isolation and fear. While his scientific curiosity gets the best of him, he doesn't have the amoral streak of his father, and what he has done largely paralyzes him into inaction. Needless to say Rathbone does a fine performance.
Unfortunately, that fine performance is constantly upstaged by both Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi. Inspector Krogh, with his articulated arm, is quite the dashing hero that he always wanted to be, while Ygor is one of the best screen villains ever. Too bad he is criminally overlooked and constantly confused with Fritz, the original assistant to Henry that was played by Dwight Frye. Ygor is not Wolfgang von Frankenstein's assistant, but more his nemesis. He ultimately uses the younger Frankenstein's curiosity against him.
Josephine Hutchinson is a voice of reason within the storm, and thankfully not prone to any situations where she needs rescuing, although she and everyone else around her are in danger the entire time they are in the castle.
While Boris Karloff is back for a third and final time as the monster, he is not given much to do. A good portion of the movie finds him comatose, the rest just kind of stumbling around. There is a great part where he sees himself in the mirror that recalls how the character was developed in the James Whale films, but largely he is just Ygor's tool.
Despite being a longer length than most Universal films, there are no wasted moments here. No prologues or introductions, just straight into the story. Again, as in the other two, a large portion of the movie's interest is the set design, and it is a wonderful cross between medieval architecture and Art Deco throughout. It reminded me of some of the sets from The Black Cat, and I do wonder if some of the interior castle sets had been reused from that movie. If so, it was done brilliantly, particularly the dining room with the two looming boars' heads.
While this is more of a run-of-the-mill monster movie plot, the choice not to try to keep going down the same road was a wise one. It was also wise to give Lugosi as much screen time as he got, even if Karloff hated him for it and went full-tilt into ruining the Hungarian actor's career after this film.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson
Director: Rowland V. Lee