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Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Study in Classic Horror- SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)

Well, well, a Frankenstein movie in which Dracula is the star. I must say I’ve really been looking forward to this one, primarily for the reputation of Bela Lugosi’s performance as Ygor, and I concur that it is everything people say it is. Bela’s flair for throwing himself completely into a role really pays off here. This is the part that conclusively establishes how much more he was than simply screen presence with an accent.  Of course the Lugosi aura helps, but where many of his characters are rather one-dimensional Ygor is, at last, a character with depth, at times earning our sympathy, at others our revulsion, an echo even of the Monster who he befriends and controls.

Taking place some time after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, this story concerns the journey of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) back to the castle and surrounding village where his father Henry conducted his notorious experiments so many years before. The villagers remember the creature Henry Frankenstein unleashed on them all to well, and Wolf, along with his wife Elsa and his son Peter (Josephine Hutchinson and Donnie Dunagan) are greeted with a rather cool reception. Only Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), who himself lost an arm to the Monster as a boy, shows them any treatment resembling respect, but he still advises them to leave for their own good. Soon Wolf encounters Ygor, an estranged villager shunned by the town having been convicted and unsuccessfully hanged for grave robbing. Ygor reveals he has befriended the Monster (Boris Karloff) Wolf’s father created, but that the Creature has fallen ill. Wolf, who had been in denial that the Monster even existed, now comes to his aid, not knowing that Ygor has been using him to enact his murderous revenge on the jury that convicted him, and so finds himself continuing the work of his father, just as the villagers feared.

Karloff is in good form as usual, though I wish there could have been more of a progression in the Monster’s development from the more articulate characterization in Bride of Frankenstein. Here he’s reverted back to the grunting and moaning Monster of the first film. Lionel Atwill gives a fine performance as Krogh, the voice of reason among all the madness. There are some rather nice scenes between him and young Donnie Dunagan as Peter. It’s a nice turnaround from the character I saw him play in Man Made Monster, which came two years later. Now, I’ve seen Basil Rathbone’s performance criticized as over-the-top, but I didn’t see it that way. I think maybe it’s because he exhibits behavior we’re used to in slapstick comedies. As things start to unravel around him, he runs around in hysterics trying to hold things together, not unlike Archie trying to keep Betty and Veronica from finding out he’s made a date with both of them on the same night. Yet Wolf’s behavior is justified. This is a man who’s found himself out of his depth trying to protect his family while trying to hide a terrible secret.  I think the performance works.

Finally, I must say I loved the art direction for this movie, particularly the enormous and sparse interiors of the Frankenstein home.  Wolf and Elsa take their meals in a virtually empty dining room while enormous twin gargoyles loom over them from a pair of fireplaces you could walk into. Young Peter’s bedroom appears to be on the farthest end of the house, accessible by a delicate-looking staircase, serving to heighten the danger he’s in when the Monster’s on the loose.

Overall, it’s not as solid as James Whale’s entries, but it’s still a worthy part of the series, a fitting swan song for Karloff’s tenure as the Monster. And congratulations to Lugosi, though I fear this is probably also the moment when his career entered into decline.

Supporting features:
Tom and Jerry in The Night Before Christmas (1941)
The Our Gang short Birthday Blues (1932)

Next time:
The Climax (1944) starring Boris Karloff, Susanna Foster, Turhan Bey, and Gale Sondergaard