Wolf von Frankenstein returns to the Baronial manor from the United States with his wife Elsa and son Peter. He not made welcome by the locals who are still terrified of his father's works and the monster he created. The local Burgomaster gives him a sealed briefcase left by his father and inside, Wolf finds his father's scientific notes. At the manor house he meets his father's assistant Igor who has a surprise for him: the monster his father created is still alive, though in some sort of coma. Wolf's initial attempts to re-animate the creature seem to fail but when Peter says he saw a giant in the woods, it appears he's met success. When people are mysteriously killed in the village there is little doubt that the monster is responsible. Written by
Series note: I strongly recommend that you watch the Frankenstein films to this point in order. Each builds on the events of the previous entry and will have much more meaning and significance if watched in order. The first film is Frankenstein (1931), and the second is Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The third film in Universal's Frankenstein series, Son of Frankenstein is set after the first two film's Henry Frankenstein has passed away. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), Henry's son, is on his way to claim his inheritance from his father, and receives a not-too-warm welcome from the small German town that has been frightened out of its wits by Henry's doings with monsters. While staying at the family castle, Wolf opens a box containing his father's research records and a note from his father encouraging him to follow in the same footsteps. He initially believes he's not worthy of such encouragement, but becoming a "mad doctor" may be easier than he thinks.
In both the overall tone of the film and in the tone of Boris Karloff's last turn as "The Monster", Son of Frankenstein is much more closely allied with James Whale's first Frankenstein film, rather than the camp-fest that was Bride of Frankenstein. New series director Rowland V. Lee has everything played various seriously, even Bela Lugosi's Ygor, which could have easily become funny, intentionally so or not.
Adding to the atmosphere are the sets, which are just as grand in their own way as anything in either of Whale's two Frankenstein films. This time around the expressionist influence is at its strongest, but it is combined with a prescient minimalism. While the first two films had strong surrealist visual touches combined with their expressionism, Son of Frankenstein dispenses altogether with any concerns of approaching realism or naturalism. The idea here instead is to create starkness and shadows, often with a maximum of intentional artificiality. It's an appropriate approach that both pays homage to the earlier films and reflects the plot of the present film--shadows are an offspring of their parent objects, and the monster is an artificial man. The production and set design of the film is even more remarkable when one realizes that art directors of the era routinely worked on many films at once. Son of Frankenstein's Art Director Jack Otterson, for example, worked on over 50 films in 1942 alone!
It's a rare treat to have three genre icons the caliber of Rathbone, Karloff and Lugosi together in one film. They mesh exquisitely, managing to enhance each other's performances with no one upstaging anyone else. Lionel Atwill, as Inspector Krogh, easily holds his own with the trio (although any fan of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) is sure to laugh at occasional moments involving Krogh, since he is so perfectly spoofed in Brooks' film), as does the beautiful Josephine Hutchinson as Frankenstein's wife Elsa (named after the woman who played The Bride in the previous film, Elsa Lanchester) and Donnie Dunagan as their son Peter.
Lugosi's Ygor was supposedly improvised then written into the film--Lugosi was originally slated to play a policeman. This is remarkable in that his shepherd character and relationship to The Monster are so well integrated. The Monster symbolically wears a heavy woolen vest/smock, and has a deeply symbiotic relationship with Ygor that is the core of the film. Ygor is also "undead" in his own way.
While Son of Frankenstein is not nearly as epic as the first two films, it should not be. Its aim is to unfold more like a stage play, with highly abstract, symbolic sets and finely integrated performances from a skilled cast. As such, it is every bit as good as the first two films in the series.
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