By the late 30’s, Universal Studios was not on good financial ground. The Laemmle’s, who founded the studio; had been sent packing after defaulting on their loans and the new studio head, Charles R. Rogers; was not at all interested in making anymore horror films.
And he probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for one very important factor appearing on the landscape that forced the studio to sit up and take notice.
Apparently, a movie theater in Los Angeles was in similar financial straights as the studio. So on April 5, 1938, the nearly bankrupt theater tried a last ditch effort born of desperation and staged a triple feature showing of Frankenstein, Dracula and King Kong. It worked. The box office saved the theater and the trend caught on across the country, igniting a nationwide revival of Universal horror films in theaters.
Universal, still in a financial slump came to the obvious conclusion. If showing the original horror films could save a movie theater from bankruptcy then continuing the franchise would obviously get the studio itself out of its’ financial slump.
And so it was that, two years after the release of it’s last horror film with Dracula’s Daughter; Universal greenlit the production of a third Frankenstein film. One thing was clear: James Whale would not be returning so a new director would have to be found. A replacement was found in Roland V. Lee, an actor turned director who had handled modest budgeted fare like The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Three Musketeers (1935), a Fu Manchu film (1930) and a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street in 1929. Catchy title, that one. Someone should recycle it.
Anyway, the idea was to churn out a quick sequel to capitalize on the theater revival but of course, the director had another idea. Instead of approaching it like the subtle parody that Whale had made with Bride of Frankenstein, Lee saw the Frankenstein films as a dark fable and would make more of a commentary on the Frankenstein Mythos created within the Universal movies. Because of this decision, the end result is probably the first true movie trilogy. Sequels had been made before of course but they were more just another adventure with the same character like the Charlie Chan series. What Whale had started with Bride was the idea of continuing the story from the previous film which was pretty groundbreaking at the time. And with Son, Lee continued this approach, acknowledging the events of the two previous films and having the characters react and deal with the consequences and actions of what came before. As a result, we have here the first true example of the three cycle series that would be the model for everything from Star Wars and The Godfather to The Dark Knight Trilogy. This is where the Holy Movie Trilogy begins. From the moment this film begins, you can feel the weight of the events of films one and two over everything that happens here.
Wyllis Cooper was hired to write the script but apparently, the film was rushed into production because it started shooting without a finished screenplay and scenes were completed just moments before the actors shot them. This would actually end up benefitting the story, particularly one specific character which we’ll get to.
Since Colin Clive had passed away and was no longer available to play Henry Frankenstein, the film introduces us to his son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein played by Basil Rathbone who took the role after Claude Rains passed and Peter Lorre had to bow out due to an illness. Basil had become in demand after playing Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, right before shooting started. After this film, he would go on to his most famous role as Sherlock Holmes in 14 films for 20th Century Fox. Even though he would also appear in Tower of London that same year with the same director, Rathbone (like many actors at the time) had a particular dislike for horror films and it manifests here with a pretty over the top performance that ironically, aids the character and story like many before and after him.
The story begins about 30 years after Bride with Wolf traveling with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to the town where the events of the previous films took place. He has inherited his father’s castle and by extension, that secret lab where the Monster was made. They look upon it as a grand adventure but once there, they find the town hostile and fearful of another another Frankenstein returning, having clear recollections of the havoc his father and the Monster had brought to their town.
Protective of his father’s reputation, Wolf nonetheless tries to calm the villagers fears to no avail. As the family settles in at Castle Frankenstein, they are paid a visit by the local police in the form of Inspector Krogh in another wonderfully intense and over-the-top performance by Lionel Atwill. Despite his stiff, robotic presence, Atwill plays the Inspector with a kindness and sympathy toward Wolf. When asked if he remembers the events of 30 years prior, Krogh explains the encounter he had with the Monster as a little boy in which the creature tore his arm from his body, leaving the Inspector with his artificial arm that he manipulates with severe, limited movement. This character was of course, wonderfully parodied by Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein as Inspector Kemp and after seeing both films, I’m not entirely sure if Kemps performance in the 1974 comedy was a parody or just an accurate recreation. Either way, this character is one of the most mesmerizing in this film and given a layer of complexity in the relationship he has with Wolf that is equal parts rivalry, genuine friendship and mutual respect. Along with his welcoming tone, the Inspector informs Wolf of the towns misgivings about the Frankenstein name and explains that there have been even more mysterious deaths of prominent townspeople recently, giving fuel to the fire of the Monster’s legend. To Wolf, his father is simply misunderstood and the deeds of the Monster, an exaggeration.
Wandering around the family grounds the next day, Wolf investigates the remains of the old tower laboratory that blew up in Bride. It’s here that he encounters Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a man hung for grave robbing only to survive after being pronounced dead and now has a deformed neck as a result. He’s also the Monster’s only friend. Simply put, this is Bela Lugosi’s greatest performance and he steals the show. Ygor is at once, malicious, dangerous, bitter and filled with a vengeful glee. Yet, Lugosi walks the line with his performance in such a way that Ygor becomes pitiable and sympathetic. You’re totally rooting for this guy for instance, after he purposely coughs in the face of one of the judges who originally sentenced him to death and says “Sorry. You see, I have a bone stuck in my throat!”, as he points to his deformed neck. It becomes obvious as the film goes on that he’s manipulating The Monster and using him to kill off those who had him hanged one by one, explaining the mysterious deaths in the town. Yet there is a genuine friendship between these two outcasts that is enduring and Ygor’s revenge seems actually understandable even though it’s unacceptable.
Originally, Lugosi’s character didn’t appear in the script and was only added later. Director Lee was fond of Lugosi and was unhappy with his treatment by the studio. As a result, his part was expanded as the film was rewritten on set which resulted in his greatest performance. Lugosi would be forever grateful to Lee as a result and the Frankenstein franchise was given one of it’s most memorable characters.
Leading Wolf to the secret crypt where his father and grandfather is buried, The Monster is revealed unconscious and not in good health. Ygor knows that the son of Frankenstein is the only man who can restore his friend to proper health and with the revelation that his father’s experiment still exist, Wolf becomes enraptured with the creature and the his fathers legacy. After examining the Monster, it’s not long before Wolf begins work to revive the Monster and for the last time in the franchise, Boris Karloff begins to lumber across the screen again.
The Monster here is back to being the mute he was in the first film seeming to have lost the element of speech he had in Bride. Still, for this last outing, Karloff is given some great moments. One of the Monster’s best scenes is in this film when he let’s out a scream of anguish at a painful discovery in the climax which recalls the character’s pathos that we’ve seen in previous outings. The Monster’s sympathetic nature is shown again too when, after kidnapping Peter Frankenstein, he has a moment where he’s going to throw the child in the sulphur pits beneath the lab but then hesitates, realizing he can’t kill an innocent. Despite all of this, Karloff saw the writing on the wall, seeing the Monster becoming more and more “a prop” as he put it, deciding that there was nothing left to explore with the character. He would return again to the franchise later on but never again in the iconic role he made so memorable.
As the tale builds to it’s climax, the Inspector begins to close in and Ygor’s nefarious agenda begins to become clear, leading to a climactic showdown in the remains of the now legendary lab.
While not on the same level as Bride, this is a worthy conclusion to the story that began with Whale’s classic. While maybe lacking the artistic flair of the films under the Laemmle regime, this film still has an interesting subtext with the theme of father/son relationships being the most prominent. Wolf is living in his father’s shadow and finds himself in the position of redeeming the troubling legacy that he’s saddled him with, going so far as to start to take on his father’s obsession while simultaneously defending it. This connection runs to the next generation of Frankenstein with Wolf’s young son Peter who is the true innocent in the tale but is still a victim of his families’ legacy. The story plays wonderfully with this element and how fathers mold the traits their sons exhibit. This is showcased in a subtle fashion when we learn that young Peter shows no fear of the world around him, having been raised by a scientist who has taught him to never be afraid of the unknown. It’s only later when it’s revealed that the Monster has been visiting the boy at night that it becomes obvious that the fearlessness he’s instilled in his son is exactly what puts the boy in danger which, in turn is another variation on the Franeknstein’s trait to plunge headlong into these dangerous experiments, never considering the ramifications of their actions.
And of course, the mythos itself has affected every character in the film, from Ygor’s need for revenge and his total control over the Monster, to the Inspector’s artificial limb and his drive to end the cycle of death and destruction he witnessed as a child, to the village itself which seems on the verge of a riot from the moment the Frankenstein’s arrive. Even the wonderful production design feels slightly apocalyptic as it constantly showcases the ruined bones of the previous films’ locations and settings. It evokes, yet again the German Expressionistic look of the other films but with a kind of scorched earth quality.
Jack Pierce once again provides Karloff with his signature look and the Monster himself is given a nice variation with a fur vest not seen before but which invokes the passage of time and his fugitive/vagrant-like state. The score is evocative and would become one that would be recycled for years to come in a variety of Universal films, including Creature From The Black Lagoon.
Altogether, this is a fitting end to the original Frankenstein cycle and the last of the Universal “A” films. Charles R. Rogers himself wouldn’t survive as studio head before this movie would be released due to a shakeup in executives looking to save money in hard times but one can’t help but wonder if his three year neglect of the horror genre didn’t have something to do with it. After this, the films would become “B” films and while enjoyable in a different way, they would never quite be given this kind of care again and would slowly deteriorate into schlock before the studio would abandon these monsters in the late 40’s to fully embrace the Drive-In crowd in the 50’s with original creations even adding one more monster to the stable with the Black Lagoon films.
It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Bride of Frankenstein but this film does a great job of enfolding the themes of the Frankenstein films and giving a great final performance for Karloff as the Monster. It’s a fitting and satisfying sign off for the story begun in 1931. The Monster would be back again but it would never be quite the same.
Thanks Mr. Karloff. Say goodnight.