After Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, I didn't see Son of Frankenstein until many years later when I was 17, although I had seen some of the later films by that time. This movie is an important film in the pantheons of Universal's classic horror films for several reasons. First, it was the start of the second cycle of Universal's horror films after Dracula's Daughter ended the first one in 1936 and was made due to the enormous success of a re-release of both Dracula and Frankenstein. Second, it's Boris Karloff's final performance as the monster. It also introduces Bela Lugosi in one of his best non-Dracula characters, that of the broke-necked Ygor. It's probably the longest Universal horror film as well, at one hour and thirty-nine minutes.
The story takes place many years after the events of The Bride of Frankenstein. Wolf von Frankenstein, the adult son of Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth, moves to his father's old estate with his wife and their young son. The people of the nearby village are immediately hostile towards them, angry over the ruin the very name of Frankenstein has brought to the village. As Wolf and his family settle in, he meets Ygor, a broke-necked criminal who lives on the estate and is keeping the still living monster in a crypt under the old laboratory. Wolf eventually manages to bring the monster out of a coma brought on by being struck by lightning but Ygor uses him to exact revenge on the men that hanged him. Now, Wolf must defend his family from not only Ygor and the monster but from the increasingly angry villagers.
Basil Rathbone, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in many films at the time, plays Wolf von Frankenstein. From the moment he's introduced, it's shown that he doesn't believe all the legends about his father's creation and feels that the hate spewed on his family is unwarranted. It turns out he doesn't remember his father, suggesting that he died when he was quite young but his mother told him all about him and his work. When he arrives at his father's estate, he is given two boxes, one of which is filled with all of his father's research and a note from him personally, encouraging his son to try to succeed in the experiments and clear the family's name. From then on, Wolf is determined to redeem his father, bolstered even more so by the villagers' hatred. When Ygor shows him the monster, Wolf believes that if he can make him well and then fix his abnormal brain, that would be the ultimate redemption. Unfortunately, Ygor has his own sinister plans for the monster.
Wolf is also a dedicated family man. He clearly adores his wife and young son but his desire to succeed where his father failed clouds his judgment by the middle of the film. It leads him to lie to his wife about the monster's existence but he is good enough to think to send her and their son away while he tries to finish his work. Unfortunately, the villagers' aggression over new murders committed by the monster keep him from doing so and up until the film's climax, he's so full of rage that he begins to act very irrationally. He goes as far as to kill Ygor when the latter refuses to leave well enough alone but when he hears that the monster has taken his son, he comes to the rescue and ultimately destroys the monster. He leaves the estate to the villagers to do with what they wish and they've apparently lightened up towards him by the end of the movie.
As I said, Bela Lugosi's role as Ygor is one of his best alongside Dracula. Ygor's broken neck is due to his being hanged for grave-robbery but after he was pronounced dead, he somehow came back to life. They can't hang him again so he was thrown onto the Frankenstein estate, where he's lived with the monster. How he got control of the monster is never explained but he must have found him in the rubble of the laboratory after the explosive ending of the second film. He used the monster to kill the men who sentenced him to be hanged but when the monster became ill after being struck by lightning, Ygor had to get Wolf to restore him to life. Once the monster is made well, Ygor no longer needs Wolf and disobeys him at every turn to finish his revenge. He makes it clear towards Wolf that he's not going anywhere as long as he has the monster to protect him.
Lugosi plays Ygor as rotten and conniving a character as you can get. As I said, he tricks Wolf into reviving the monster so he can finish killing the men that sentenced Ygor to be hanged. Just the way he talks, you know that he's an untrustworthy character. When he first meets Wolf, he says this about the monster: "He's my friend. He... he does things for me." Yeah, murder! Whenever he sends the monster out to kill someone, he plays a sinister tune on a shepherd-like horn he has. He at first lies to Wolf about having those men killed but when he realizes that Wolf can't touch him, he admits that he did so and refuses to leave. He also apparently threatens to sic the monster on him if he interferes again. But, Ygor's overconfidence gets the best of him and is apparently shot dead by Wolf. (I say apparently because Ygor reappears in the next film.) A memorable and sinister character, that Ygor. It's interesting how his name has been mistaken over the years to be the name of Frankenstein's hunchback assistant.
In this film, the monster himself is a curiosity piece. For one, he's back to the way he was in Frankenstein, only able to grunt and growl, even though he learned to talk in the last film. It's never explained in the context of the film why but you could argue that the explosion at the end of The Bride of Frankenstein may have damaged his brain, reverting him back to his childlike mindset. (Karloff himself stated he didn't like that the monster talked and maybe they reversed that in order to get him to play the role again.) That could also be the reason why Ygor is able to control him so easily. Second, he wears a fur vest, which never appeared before and never reappears in any of the subsequent films. Maybe Ygor put it on him because it got cold but that doesn't explain its disappearance after this film but whatever. Another interesting note about the monster is that on their way to the village, Wolf says that the name Frankenstein has become associated by many with the monster and some even call him by that name. As you probably know, that's still a controversy today that Frankenstein is the name of the doctor and not the monster but apparently, that was starting to occur even as early as the 1930's and they wrote it into the script of this film.
Karloff was tired of playing the monster by this point and that comes through in his performance here in my opinion. He doesn't play him with nearly as much feeling and zeal as he did in the first two films. His movements are more lackluster and his grunts don't have the intensity that they use to have. However, Karloff does still manage to have some great moments in this film. One is actually related to a moment in Bride. In that film, the monster is drinking from a mountain stream when he sees his reflection in the water. He hates what he sees and smashes his hand into the water. In this film, when the monster first comes across Wolf, he sees himself in the mirror and is once again repulsed by his image. However, he begins to put together the pieces by seeing how that image copies his movements. He finally grabs Wolf and holds him beside him as he looks in the mirror. He realizes that the hideous creature he sees is himself and he simply lurches away and moans in depression, perhaps finally understanding why so many are afraid of him. Another great moments is when the monster finds Ygor's body after he's been shot and, realizing that he's lost his only friend, gives a mournful scream. Later, he tears up the laboratory and gets the idea to kill Wolf's son as revenge. But, just as he's about to throw Peter into the sulfur pit below the lab, he apparently has a change of heart. However, that doesn't stop him from holding the boy hostage when Inspector Krogh battles him. Wolf, ultimately, pushes the monster into the sulfur pit. Pretty memorable way for Karloff to make his exit as the monster. Too bad a lot of his performance before didn't live up to it.
Lionel Atwill makes his first appearance in a Universal horror film as Inspector Krogh. He's a memorable character, due mainly to his false right arm that he has to move with his other one. His arm was torn by the roots when he was a child by the monster, making him seem much more sinister than he was ever portrayed as being before. He sort of befriends Wolf but there's always a detectable tension between the two, especially when evidence begins to mount that the monster is still alive. He takes it upon himself to protect the family, especially Wolf's wife Elsa and son Peter. He could just let the villagers kill them because they're part of the Frankenstein family but as a policeman, he can't let his feeling get in the way of his duty. He does threaten to arrest Wolf, believing that he is the one controlling the monster but the matter is cleared up after the brief final battle with the monster. Ironically, the monster tears Krogh's artificial arm off just as he'd done to him as a child. My favorite thing that Krogh does is when Wolf tensely invites him to play darts and Krogh jams the darts into his fake arm to hold them while he tosses them. James Karen said on the documentary Universal Horror that he used to imitate Krogh when he was a kid and did so with a piece of cardboard hidden in his shirt sleeve and watch people's shocked reactions! Maybe you should try it if you want to prank somebody!
The other characters are fairly done. There's not much to say about Josephine Hutchinson's role of Elsa, Wolf's wife, although her simultaneous devotion to her husband and fear of what's going on does remind me of Elizabeth in the first two movies. There's Edgar Norton as Benson, Wolf's old friend who is ultimately killed off-camera by the monster. Nothing to say about him honestly. Of all the secondary characters, the one I can't stand is Peter, Wolf and Elsa's young son played by Donnie Dunagan. Thankfully, he's not in the film much but his voice is indescribably annoying. He sounds like he's from the American South, which really hurts my belief that he's Wolf's son but Elsa does seem to be American, so who knows? He tends to enter a room and say, "Well, hello!" God, I want to strangle him! He's about as annoying as little Danny in The Blob.
Rowland V. Lee directed this film. The same year, he happened to direct a historical epic called The Tower of London, which also featured Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. He brings a big, grand feel to the film with his large sets. It's obvious this film had a large budget behind it. Apparently, everyone had fun making this movie from what I can gather and it does show. The set of the laboratory is well designed with the sulfur pit, secret passageway with the Frankenstein crypt, and old equipment. However, it is a bit out of continuity with the previous films because Henry Frankenstein did his experiments in an old watchtower, not in a lab by his house. The biggest downside of Lee's direction is that he cannot match the richness and quirky genius of James Whale. This film is as straight a horror film as you can get, even more so than Frankenstein. The time period is also clearly that of the time it was made know, seeing as how there are cars present. These aren't bad in and of themselves but do show that Lee was a very different director and not quite up to Whale's caliber.
The music score by Frank Skinner is a very memorable one because it would be recycled not only in future films of this series but in others as well. The main title music especially would be heard in many other films. It is very good music though. I like the theme given to the monster because it does fit his brute-like character, especially the way he's portrayed here. The music that plays in the lead-up to the climax is also very well orchestrated.
For its faults, Son of Frankenstein is an enjoyable film. It's well acted, well designed, and well-paced, never seeming to drag despite its longer than average running time. I highly recommend it for Universal horror fans. It's one of the best for sure. However, the departure of Karloff from the role of the monster would begin the downward spiral for the character, as we'll see in the movies that followed.