31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.
Nature of Shame:
Forgotten (?) Universal Horror.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade – 1930’s
Classic Universal Horror
The Advance Word: Who can keep track anymore? I’ve seen Frankenstein many times. I’ve seen Bride of Frankenstein many times. I don’t remember Son of Frankenstein. Basil Rathbone! Bela Lugosi in a mop!
#7. Son of Frankenstein
I have to write 26 more of these; therefore, I’m going to recycle the opening paragraph from my She-Wolf of London writeup because it works as an intro to this review as well. Submit your gripes to the 30Hz Complaint Department. Your complaint will be logged, filed and ignored in the order in which it was received.
I watch and enjoy Universal horror movies indiscriminately. They’re comfort cinema. Therapy through high-contrast black and white cinematography. German Expressionism for the Moviewatcher’s Soul. My parents introduced these movies to me as a wee lad; The Invisible Man being the one that hooked me. The films aired non-stop on AMC (if I remember correctly) during the week of Halloween, and I’d cram as many as I could onto a stack of VHS tapes. As a result, I could hardly be expected to keep track of what I’d seen.
Beyond Frankeinstein and Bride of Frankenstein how well do you know your Universal Frankensteins? This is the question I asked myself when I needed an entry point into the new Frankenstein Universal Horror Collection Blu-ray. I recall watching House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula not too terribly long ago so I sampled the Blu-ray upgrade for a bit and moved on. Yet Son of Frankenstein felt like hazy memory. Trace notions of preferring it to Frankenstein popped up as I stared at the contents of the set.
If I needed to be bold enough to suggest something as offbeat as SON OF FRANKENSTEIN > FRANKENSTEIN, I needed first-hand, recently-viewed ammunition to defend this claim. Good news, gentle #31DaysOfHorror viewers; Son of Frankenstein confirmed all of my decaying notions of superiority. Plus, I know for a fact that the film never looked this good.
Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry Frankenstein, creator of “the monster.” Wolf moves back to his father’s castle, wife and son in tow, and aims to restore his father’s name. The villagers, however, greet Wolf with some resistance. Off camera, they’re sharpening pitchforks and readying torches with lighter fluid. Fire hazards be damned. Poor Wolf’s only friend is Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh, who never fails to remind his friend about how his father’s monster ripped off his arm.
Wolf investigates the castle grounds, stumbles upon the old laboratory and meets the comatose body of the monster. Here he also becomes acquainted with another friend who’d like him dead. Ygor (Bela Lugosi, having just gone to the barber and asked for “the shaggy John Lennon”) plays coy after throwing some skull-crushing rocks down upon poor Wolf. (Honestly, with friends like these… ) In short order, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein becomes obsessed with reviving the slumbering monster. Finishing his father’s work consumes him. Ygor supports him, propelled by his own agendas. Wife and son remain casually oblivious to Wolf’s decaying mental state.
Son of Frankenstein represents arguably the best of the second wave of Universal horror. For two years, between 1936 and 1938, the studio removed horror from their lineup. Both Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr. (the originators of the horror cycle at Universal) had been forced out of the company after a number of financial duds.
In 1938, a struggling Los Angeles theater showed a Dracula/Frankenstein/King Kong triple feature (per Wikipedia). The box office success of that triple bill reminded Universal that they’d been sitting on a goldmine. Universal immediately put a new Frankenstein sequel into production starring Lugosi and Karloff. James Whale opted out (thinking his success in horror had initiated his career decline), opening the door for veteran director Rowland V. Lee. Another interesting note: Universal planned to shoot Son of Frankenstein in color, but abandoned the notion midstream. Behind the scenes clips of Karloff in green makeup survive, if not the actual color film footage.
Son of Frankenstein marks a drastic leap forward in stateside filmmaking ability to borrow and regurgitate the teachings of the German Expressionists that inspired filmmakers during the first wave of Universal horror. The whole production leans toward artificiality. The more grotesque sets have been designed specifically to cast long, otherworldly shadows. As the final A-production Universal horror film, design and cinematography remain striking, especially for this brand of genre film. Critics cited the film’s lack of actual “terror,” but from our vantage point none of these films really provide many frights. Therefore, I deem these critics irrelevant. (Don’t tell them.) It’s precisely this high-contrast, unnatural setting that draws us into this film as something far more proficient than a simple horror film.
Even more interesting to note is that Son of Frankenstein clearly served as Mel Brooks’ primary inspiration for Young Frankenstein. The haphazard behavior of Rathbone’s Baron Wolf von Frankenstein and his “frenemous” relationship with Ygor speak directly to the character dynamics of Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein and Marty Feldman’s Igor. You’ll note at least a dozen smaller instances of carryover between the films.
After comparing specific scenes from both the DVD Legacy Collection and the Blu-ray Legacy Collection, I can confirm, with 100% confidence, the necessity of upgrading Son of Frankenstein. While the 4K scans of both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein exist elsewhere, Son of Frankenstein becomes the real treat for fans of the franchise. Never has the stunning black and white contrast been more pronounced. While the DVD looked good, a side-by-side contrast reveals how profound the difference really is. Look specifically at the scene where Wolf first arrives at the estate.
Call me crazy, but I think Son of Frankenstein rivals Bride of Frankenstein, at least as pure entertainment. While Whale’s Bride clearly remains the superior film, Son of Frankenstein offers a visual feast of chiaroscuro to go along with the thrill of watching three legendary stars — Rathbone, Karloff and Lugosi — do battle in a “silly” little horror flick with Grade A technical achievement.
Blu-ray Verdict: Doesn’t get much better than this for fans of classic Universal horror.