Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

[Note: Once again, the review of this 70+ year old movie contains spoilers]

Son of Frankenstein represents the third of Universal Studio's Frankenstein films and the final appearance of Boris Karloff as the Creature. In the first film, Frankenstein (1931), we saw the creation of the monster by Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in his laboratory in an abandoned medieval watchtower and the Creature's subsequent rampage. The Creature is believed to be killed at the end of the first movie as the windmill he escapes to is burned down by a torch wielding mob. The first sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), begins while the wreckage of the windmill is still smoking. The Creature, which survived the fire when he fell into a cistern below the windmill, immediately begins a second, much more subdued rampage. Eventually, Frankenstein's creation gains a friend in the form of a blind hermit. The Creature learns to talk and, at the prompting of would-be monster maker Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), demands that Frankenstein build him a companion. The monster-making is a success while the matchmaking is not. After telling his creator to leave and save himself, the Creature declares "we belong dead!" before throwing a switch that overloads Frankenstein's equipment and destroys the tower. This of course kills the Creature...

Well, actually it doesn't. And, to top it off, in this second sequel the Creature is no longer capable of speech. These are the biggest qualms I have with Son of Frankenstein. As much as I disliked the first half of The Bride of Frankenstein, once the monster learns to talk the film takes a sharp turn and becomes the film it should have been. The final scene of the first sequel is absolutely perfect and is a highpoint of classic cinema. Then Son of Frankenstein comes along and undoes all the good stuff. The only thing carried over from The Bride of Frankenstein is the exploded tower located within easy walking distance of Castle Frankenstein... wait, what? In the previous movies the Frankenstein family had a nice home in town. Henry Frankenstein deliberately chose the watchtower as the site of his laboratory for its remoteness. Why do they suddenly have an ancestral castle on the same grounds as the ruined tower? This latter inconsistency doesn't bother me as much as the fact that Son of Frankenstein effectively ignores all the plot and character development of the preceding film, but it is a bit distracting.

Anyway, the movie begins with a meeting of the town council of Frankenstein (the town is apparently named after the barons' family now). The councilors are concerned about the fact that Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of the deceased Henry Frankenstein, will soon arrive with his family to claim Castle Frankenstein. The townsfolk haven't forgotten about the death and horror that Henry's creation brought to their village and the name Frankenstein is now a curse among them. When the young baron and his family get off the train, they're given a cold welcome by the locals. Frankenstein attempts a lame apology, but it's obvious that he admires his father's work.

It was at this point that I realized that, deliberately or not, The Bride of Frankenstein's awkward attempt to shift the era in which the story takes place works to Son of Frankenstein's advantage. The original film appeared to be set in the year in which it was filmed (i.e., the early '30s) while the first sequel moved the story back to what seemed to be the late 1800s. The events of Frankenstein delayed the wedding of Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth until immediately before the creation of the Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein. However, the protagonist of the second sequel is Wolf von Frankenstein; the adult son of Henry Frankenstein who is married and has a young son of his own. The clothing and automobiles indicate that this sequel takes place in the '30s, which could only be the case if the events of The Bride of Frankenstein were indeed meant to occur decades before the movie was filmed.

Also interested in Wolf von Frankenstein's arrival is Ygor (Bela Lugosi). As I mentioned in my review of Frankenstein, the only hunchback present during the creation of the first monster was Fritz, who was killed shortly thereafter. Ygor had also been in the grave robbing business until he was convicted and hanged for it. Although the hanging broke his neck and he was pronounced dead, the now-deformed Ygor eventually revived. Since he was hanged as sentenced, and since he had been declared dead, the authorities decided that he should simply be considered dead. Rejected, Ygor began to lurk around the then-abandoned Castle Frankenstein and the ruined watchtower, moving at will throughout the buildings thanks to a series of secret passages. He continues to hide on the grounds even after the Frankensteins move into the castle.

As a medical doctor and as the scientist's son, Wolf von Frankenstein can't help but to be fascinated by Henry Frankenstein's work. However, he has no serious intention to continue his father's legacy; a fact the townsfolk don't believe for a moment. The kindly Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) begins to visit the castle, ostensibly to offer the family his protection in case they have troubles with the villagers. This is at least partially motivated by the fact that six prominent citizens of the town have died recently under mysterious circumstances; the townsfolk blame the supposedly dead monster. However, Krogh eventually makes it clear that there will be no monster-making on his watch. Frankenstein, still eager to defend his father's reputation, challenges the Inspector to list a single confirmed atrocity committed by the Creature. This proves to be a mistake; the Inspector is missing his right arm due to an unfortunate childhood encounter with the monster.

Not long after settling into the castle, Frankenstein investigates the ruins of his father's laboratory. He notes, among other things, that a pit of boiling sulfur was exposed when the watchtower exploded (plot point!). Also noteworthy is the presence of the skulking Ygor, who has need of the services of a Frankenstein with a medical degree. He takes the young baron into the underground chamber where Frankenstein's father and grandfather are buried. Ygor leads him to the back of the chamber where his sick friend lies. I'll give you three guesses as to who Ygor's friend is.

That's right; Ygor's friend is the not quite dead Creature. The monster had survived the watchtower's explosion and had remained on the premises for years until Ygor found him. He had recently fallen into a coma after having been struck by lightning. The statement that the Creature had been "hunting" at the time of the accident, Ygor's suspicious behavior, and the fact that Ygor is played by Bela Lugosi, indicate that their relationship may not be based on a simple need for mutual companionship.

Eager to learn more about the "miracle" that his father achieved, Frankenstein uses a tarp as a makeshift roof and begins to study the comatose monster in his father's old laboratory with the aide of his faithful butler and lab assistant, Benson (Edgar Norton). Even while unconscious, the Creature's blood pressure is three times higher than normal, his heart rate is incredibly high, and the two bullets in his chest seem to have little effect on him. The Creature's physiology proves to be superhuman at the cellular level, as well. Eventually, Frankenstein attempts to jump start the monster with a jolt of electricity. When this fails to revive the Creature, Frankenstein declares that nothing more can be done.

When Inspector Krogh visits again, Frankenstein is clearly nervous and chooses his words carefully; no, he's not been making monsters in his father's laboratory (it's technically true since he's actually trying to wake up a preexisting monster). A visit from Frankenstein's son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan), offers the baron an excuse for breaking off an uncomfortable line of questioning... well, at least until Peter starts talking about the giant that visited him in his room. The giant seemed friendly enough so the boy gave him a picture book. Frankenstein, visibly disturbed, excuses himself and claims that he has to get back to an experiment (which is technically true, I guess).

The doctor arrives in an empty laboratory where the comatose monster is noticeably absent. Frankenstein pockets a knife and is starting to prepare some sort of chemical concoction (a poison or a tranquilizer maybe?) when the Creature arrives. The monster is clearly confused and disturbed. He half-heartedly begins to strangle his creator's son until Ygor arrives and calls the monster off. Frankenstein, realizing that the Creature obeys only Ygor, tells him to keep the monster in the tower until the doctor can find some way to fix his mental derangement. In Ygor's estimation, however, the monster's current condition is perfectly acceptable.

As the astute viewer may have guessed, Ygor has been using his influence over the monster to exact his revenge on the jury that sentenced him to be hanged. Six are already dead and two more are scheduled to meet Ygor's friend. The townsfolk begin to get restless when those two are finally killed. To make matters worse, Benson disappeared after visiting the watchtower and hasn't been seen since the night of the most recent murders. While Frankenstein confronts Ygor about the dead jurors, Inspector Krogh manages to question Peter while his father is away. Peter tells the Inspector that the giant visited him again and gave him a watch. The dedication inside the watch cover shows that it belongs to the missing butler.

Before Frankenstein can send his wife and son off to Brussels (supposedly for nothing more than an innocent vacation), a mob gathers at the gates of Castle Frankenstein. Inspector Krogh makes yet another visit and delivers the news that the mob has agreed to disperse if Frankenstein is arrested. The Inspector allows himself to be delayed in his duty, knowing that Frankenstein is not directly involved in the murders but suspecting that the doctor knows a lot more than he claims. Frankenstein declares that Ygor is somehow involved and vows to throw him off his lands. While the baron rushes off, the Inspector finds the secret passageway in Peter's room that has allowed the Creature to visit the boy. Within the passage is Benson's dead body.

Ygor attacks Frankenstein the moment he enters the watchtower. The doctor came prepared, though, and the man who survived the gallows doesn't survive the bullets put into his chest (or maybe he does; Ygor returns in the third sequel). Almost as soon as Frankenstein leaves, the Creature arrives to find his friend dead and cries out in despair. While destroying the laboratory in anger, he happens to see the picture book Peter gave him earlier. His thoughts turning to revenge, the Creature uses the secret passage to enter Peter's room and kidnap him.

The Creature takes Peter to the watchtower and very nearly throws him into the boiling sulfur pit. However, as the only living being that has shown him any kindness, the monster finds that he can't bring himself to kill the boy. When Krogh shows up, the Creature becomes violent and attacks the Inspector. He manages to rip off Krogh's fake arm and gets a few bullets in the chest in return. The hot lead fails to slow the monster. Frankenstein has more success when he grabs hold of a rope and swings himself into the Creature, knocking him off balance and causing him to fall into the boiling pit. Thus the Creature is finally destroyed... or not (Lon Chaney Jr. replaces Boris Karloff in the role when the Creature returns in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)).

With the apparent destruction of the monster (you'd think they'd realize by now that a monster isn't really dead if there isn't a body), Wolf von Frankenstein finally restores the family name by granting the castle and its grounds to the town.

I'm torn on this movie. Unlike its predecessor, it's consistently good. I much prefer Basil Rathbone's Wolf von Frankenstein to Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein, Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh makes for a good secondary hero, and I enjoyed every minute that Bela Lugosi was on the screen. Even though Boris Karloff's creature can be a murderous brute, he still manages to earn some sympathy. The film doesn't even inflict any odious comic relief characters on us (I still hate the damage that Minnie did to the first sequel). And yet I can't stand that everything good about The Bride of Frankenstein has been undone or ignored.

Without explanation, all the Creature's character development from the previous movie has been wiped away, relegating him to the role of superhuman menace that he had in the original film. The confused mute that we see in Son of Frankenstein might as well have just crawled out of the ruins of Frankenstein's burning windmill. Only the shattered remains of the watchtower laboratory remind us that a despairing Creature once proclaimed "we belong dead!" before trying to end his and the Bride's unnatural lives. I was genuinely disappointed to realize that the Creature may have survived to see another film, but we had lost the powerful character Boris Karloff gave us in the The Bride of Frankenstein.

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