SON OF FRANKENSTEIN wrapped up the immortal Karloff trio with an entertaining bang, although its success, another feather in the banner cap of 1939, did open the way for the even sillier, cheaper-budgeted, sloppier follow-ups which disappointed critics and purists. How pure do you really want to get with this kind of thing? would be the unspoken kid-reply, since small fry fans (now grown to nostalgia-crusted geezers who rewatch these oldies for smiles rather than thrills) were more than happy to look forward to the next time the lumbering monster and his homicidal compatriots would emerge from the mists of the never-never Europe that spawned them.
The son in question is Basil Rathbone, by now an actor with enough of a fan-following and laudable credits to give him top billing over Karloff. * Boris also takes a back seat to old rival Bela Lugosi, having a merry time as the literally twisted ‘Ygor’, his most famous role outside of Dracula. Basil’s ‘Baron Wolf von Frankenstein’ brings his wife ‘home’ to the family castle, determined to clear his fathers name, and put a forgive-forget face on the numerous murders ‘accidentally’ resulting from Dad’s ‘work’. “But if you like me burn with the irresistible desire to penetrate the unknown, carry on.” Attitude.
Erstwhile blacksmith/criminal graverobber/hanging survivor/amateur flute player Ygor finds that Karloff had somehow stayed intact through the explosions of Bride Of Frankenstein, and he wants to use his new—and face it, only—‘friend’ to even the score with the snooty villagers who bollixed up Ygor’s execution. The burghers can be blamed for Ygor’s neck, but not for his snaggle teeth, which might be something any Doctor Frankenstein (all Frankenstein’s are doctors of some ‘scientist’ kind) could work on, if they were not, within a scene or two, consumed trying to harness nature and show fools how genius runs in the family.
Basil/Wolf’s wife and son (pretty awful child acting of the old school) are along for threat’s sake, but together with Ygor the great new addition is Lionel Atwill’s handicapped ‘Inspector Krogh’, who is as polite as a bitter remote-village constable with an artificial arm could be, given said limb was yanked loose by Wolf’s new project/Ygor pal Boris. “One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.”
None of this explains the regional vegetation (“What strange looking country“), the instantly vengeance-crazed villagers, or why director Rowland V. Lee told Atwill to stick darts in his fake wooden arm. Wyllis Cooper, creator of the horror-themed radio hit Lights Out, wrote the screenplay, and $420,000 went into the stylized set design, portentous music, shadowy photography and general insanely weird vibe.
Karloff’s ability to converse from the previous film is back to grunts (presumably stunned into vocabulary recession by the castle collapsing on top of him in the previous film), but he does inject a jarring bit of humanity in one moment when the monster screams—it’s a jarring howl of anguish.
99 minutes, with Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan (that grating little boy Frankenstein), Lionel Belmore. Ward Bond has an uncredited bit (one of twenty-one jobs he landed in 1939).
*Rathbone, 46 at the time, was at the top of his career in 1939. Basking in a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1938s If I Were King, which complemented his great turn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood, after Son Of Frankenstein wrapped he added to 1939s tally with The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Sun Never Sets, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Rio and Tower Of London. The last, also with Karloff, was likewise directed by Rowland V. Lee, who handled Basil in The Sun Never Sets as well. His skill at playing dastards to the side, Rathbone disdained horror pictures, but he adds dash and verve to his role here. Lee also saw fit to beef up the Lugosi role of Ygor, giving the industry-slighted actor a decent salary and a creepy character to sink his scenery-nibbling teeth into: not sharp fangs this time ala Dracula, more like something you’d see over a cold squirrel breakfast in a wet hut during the 1400s. Bela eats it up with a twinkle.