Saturday, October 17, 2009

“One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.”

Boris Karloff would play the Monster one last time in a Frankenstein film, a movie that would load up on a big name cast with Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill joining the fray. So how does 1939’s Son of Frankenstein hold up compared to the first two?

A man and his family travel by train to the region of “Frankenstein” (I guess that’s how they work things into the “Baron von Frankenstein” thing they had in the last movie). He’s a scientist too, and the local burghers give him a cold welcome when he arrives. Why? Because, he is the Son of Frankenstein! (Dun, Dun, DUN!!) So the new Baron Frankenstein moves into the family castle, then he meets a crazy old hunchback who knew the old doctor and the Monster, bringing the new Frankenstein to the doctor’s ruined lab and an underground tomb where the Monster lies asleep, sick with some…malady or something. After some prodding, Ygor convinces Frankenstein that this looks like a job for MAD SCIENCE!

Meanwhile, the townsfolk are getting antsy and the local police inspector starts to ask questions as to what the new Baron is getting up to.

Baron Wolf von Frankenstein: Basil Rathbone is not a name I automatically associate with horror films, but here he is, the main character in a Frankenstein film. Amusingly, he expresses his disdain that the Monster is being referred to in uneducated circles as “Frankenstein” himself (well, I got a kick out of it at least). He does a really interesting job, too. At first, he’s more concerned with moving in and being a good family man, but when Ygor shows up, wheels start turning in the Doc’s head, as they often do in these films. The lure of Mad SCIENCE is just too good to pass up, and Rathbone tries to juggle trying to figure out how to “cure” the Monster with keeping the local authorities from snooping in places where they don’t belong. He never really goes into full villain status, but as the movie goes on, its great seeing Rathbone dangling wildly over the precipice of madness with only his fingertips still clutching desperately to sanity.

Elsa von Frankenstein: Josephine Hutchinson is Wolf’s concerned wife. She’s not a particularly interesting character, unfortunately.

Peter von Frankenstein: Donnie Dunangan is Wolf’s son, which also makes him the Son of Frankenstein (Dun, Dun, DUN!!). The kid’s not in it all that much, but he gets moments where he can be really annoying in a “pwecious” sort of way.

Benson: Edgar Norton is Wolf’s assistant/butler guy. Poor, poor Benson. Being an assistant to a Frankenstein is practically a death sentence, as Benson here proves.

Inspector Krogh: Lionel Atwill puts in a very interesting appearance as a local police inspector with a very valid reason to hate the Monster. When Krogh was a kid, the Monster ripped his right arm out during a rampage. Now armed with a fake arm that he has to move around with his good hand, his childhood dreams of becoming a general went out the window and he got stuck as a small town cop, so yeah, I’d say it’s a good reason to not like the Monster. Krogh, aside from a German accent that slips up occasionally, is one of the most interesting characters in the movie, and in terms of wanting to protect innocent folk, is the movie’s actual Hero.

The Monster: Boris Karloff one last time, except this time he’s traded in his ability to speak for a sweater vest. Its… actually disappointing that he can’t speak anymore. Anyway, the Monster isn’t much of a major player in this film. He’s sick during most of the film, and when he’s up and about, he’s more or less being controlled by Ygor. Still, there is a great scene where the Monster confronts Wolf in the lab and they both look in a mirror (this is after Ygor told Wolf that the Monster is effectively his brother) and the unspoken realization is that they are both Sons of Frankenstein! (Dun Dun DUN!!!)

Ygor: Bela Lugosi is the film’s true villain, and turns in a fantastic performance. Ygor apparently knew Henry (or the more Germanic Heinrich as the movies are calling him now) back in the day and Ygor himself has had a sketchy past. He was arrested and executed for stealing bodies, except they didn’t do a great job when they hung him, since he survived getting his neck broken. Now disfigured, Ygor is the town’s crazy old man who’s been sending the Monster to kill off the burghers who convicted him. Lugosi’s creepy and sinister performance, done in a haggard accent and covered with a beard is outstanding and barely recognizable as Lugosi. The film’s clear and creepy badass, especially because he upstages Karloff.

Directed by Rowland V. Lee, the film goes for a big, almost staged look, though it looses some of that Expressionist feel that the first two had. Visually, its not bad at all though, and Frankenstein’s new lab in the ruined tower and located above a sulfur pit (because apparently it was the site of Roman Bath once upon a time, or something) is probably the most interesting new visual location in the franchise. The pacing of the film does feel a little slow though compared to the last two.

Wyllis Cooper handled the script this time, and doesn’t hold back on the wild ideas that a fertile ground like this provides. As Wolf is examining the Monster, we get all sorts of meta-science gobbledygook about how the Monster’s physiology is no longer that of a normal human’s and so on. Dialog is generally pretty good, and I really liked the cat & mouse thing that Krogh and Wolf had going when Dr. Frankenstein was really starting to crack from the strain of trying to hide his experiments.

The score by Frank Skinner is okay, but doesn’t match Waxman’s excellent work in the last film. It’d be just mean to try and compare the two.

Son of Frankenstein is not a bad film by any means. However, its rather long for the time period, and it definitely feels like it. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff in here, especially the performances by Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill. I just wish there was more for the Monster to do in his own movie.

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