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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Son of Frankenstein

Universal Pictures went to the well again, releasing in 1939 a third installment in their popular Frankenstein series. Son of Frankenstein (SoF). The monster is the only character carried over from the previous film. He is played by Boris Karloff, for the last time. Basil Rathbone stars as Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry and Elizabeth from the previous movies. Like the second film, SoF is repeat of the original trope, but with more interesting "other" characters. Director/Producer Rowland Lee maintained James Whale's dark German Expressionist visuals.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The people of the village of Frankenstein meet the new Baron at the train station. Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry, is the new heir to the estate. He and his wife Elsa have come from America. The townsfolk are not keen on having another Frankenstein living in the castle again and treat Wolf cooly. Inspector Krough comes to tell Wolf of the villagers' fear and animosity. He has a wooden arm, since the monster ripped it off when he was a boy. At the castle, Wolf opens a box left by his father. It contains all his notes. Wolf imagines being able to vindicate his father, blaming the monster on the bad brain Fritz brought. While exploring his father's damaged lab, Wolf encounters Ygor who lives in the ruins. Ygor gives his backstory. Hung for body stealing, he didn't die, but has broken neck. Villagers consider him dead, since hung. Ygor shows Wolf the sleeping monster in the crypt below. Before, the monster was Ygor's only friend. "He does things for me," but now has fallen ill. Ygor encourages Wolf to make him better. Wolf thrilled at the opportunity to revive the monster, maybe fix him, and clear the family name. Wolf has equipment brought in (which upsets the villagers). The town council interrogate Ygor. Two of the councillors are all that remain of the eight that sentenced Ygor to be hung. Wolf sets to work examining and reviving the monster with many sparking devices. The monster does not revive. Later, Krough visits the castle again. During banal chatter, Wolf's young son Peter says a giant visits him in his room. Wolf runs out to the lab. He encounters the monster, who regards him with curiosity. The monster is revolted by his own reflection, and seems to plead with Wolf (to make it better?) Ygor comes in, saying that the monster was healed by Wolf's treatments after all. Later, Ygor sends the monster to kill one of the remaining two jurists. He grabs Neumuller off his wagon, kills him, then places his body under the wheels of his freight wagon. Krough is not convinced it was an accident. Later yet, the monster enters Herr Lang's home and kills him too. Wolf and Elsa notice that their butler Benson is missing too. An angry mob of villagers rant outside the castle gate. Krough visits again. Wolf makes excuses and acts nervously. Wolf goes to lab and shoots Ygor three times. Peter is taken by the monster, to the lab. Krough finds Benson's body in the secret passageway and follows it to the lab. The monster, angry at the death of his only friend, rips off Krough's wooden arm. Wolf climbed to a hole in the wall, grabs a chain and swings in, kicking the monster into the pit of molten sulphur where one presumes he is finally killed. Peter is safe. Wolf gives the villagers the deed to the castle and bids them farewell at the train station. The End.

Sci-fi Connection
The most significant sci-fi element is a delicious tie-in to 50s sci-fi movies -- Cosmic Rays! After Wolf studies his father's notes, he declares that his father discovered a "super-violet ray" with life-giving properties. Actually, he attracted "cosmic rays -- the very source of life itself. Neither he nor anyone else knew it existed. This creature isn't a monster. Not one part of his being is like human beings. He's unearthly." -- The monster is a prototype of 50s aliens!

Compared to the Novel
SoF begins the departure of the movie franchise from the novel. The credits still claim that the screenplay is suggested by Mary Shelley's novel. The connection is thin, but could reasonably be seen in two places. The first is where the monster meets Wolf for the first time and entreats him with gestures. Make him better? Shelley's novel had this. The second novel affinity is the monster's jealousy towards Wolf's son, Peter. In the novel, it was Frankenstein's wife, but the trope is similar.

Saga Connection
Wolf, son of Henry, is also a scientist, and has the same dream. All of the other characters from Bride, besides the monster himself, are dropped. The new character of Ygor is introduced. He will figure in future installments.

Sequel Tonic -- Universal Pictures ran into financial troubles after Bride of Frankenstein ('35). High production costs on Show Boat put Universal into the hands of creditors. Laemmie family control was ended. Another sequel to the highly popular Frankenstein saga seemed like good financial medicine. To their credit, the new producers did not scrimp too much. They did make sure to repeat famous signature line, "It's Alive!" which has been in all three movies now.

Gray Face -- It is sometimes said that SoF was planned to be shot in color, but the producers scrapped the idea because the color of Jack Pierce's monster make-up did not photograph well. This smacks of PR spin. Changing the color of the makeup was not that hard. The fact that Technicolor was three times more expensive than black and white, and Universal struggling for solvency, seems more a plausible explanation. Either way, having SoF in black and white actually works well for the topic and mood.

Bela's Best -- Continuing that loose co-mingling of Frankenstein and Dracula, Bela Lugosi plays the role of Ygor. Like Dr. Pretorious in Bride, Ygor takes on the Mephistopheles role of devil-incarnate, tempting a Frankenstein to dabble in dark arts. Lugosi plays the part marvelously, almost stealing the show.

Wooden Arm -- Another show stealer is Lionel Atwell's character, Inspector Krough. His wooden arm, with black gloved hand becomes fascinating to the point of distraction. Interesting metaphors aside, Krough's wooden arm made such an impression that Stanley Kubrick used it with his Dr. Strangelove character in 1964.

Actor Recycling -- Watch for Michael Mark as Herr Neumuller (the monster's first on-screen victim). He played little Maria's father, Hans, in the first and second films. Watch for Lionel Belmore as Herr Lang, the monster's second victim. He played the Burgomeister in the first film. These, and other actors in Universal's stable, will reappear in later chapters too.

Botttm line? SoF is starting to show some of the genetic dilution common to sequels, but it is still a strong enough movie in its own right. The basic trope is repeated, (mad scientist makes monster live) but new characters such as Ygor and Krough freshen things up. Rathbone does a fair job, with his "hammy" overacting for Wolf's nervous phase, being oddly colorful too. Overall, SoF is a worthy addition to the franchise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is probably my favorite of the FRANKENSTEINS because of Basil Rathbone. He really did a great job in this production. I should like to add that this is also the basis for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, including the wooden arm of the local constable.