Monday, May 5, 2008

Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee)

Though not held in as high esteem as either the two preceding films in the franchise(the eponymous first and follow-up Bride Of…), Son of Frankenstein is a worthy addition to Frankenstein lore. Of the three principle members of those first two films, only Boris Karloff returns in his role as the monster; director James Whale is replaced by journeyman Rowland V. Lee, and Colin Clive, Baron von Frankenstein, passed away two years prior (at the age of 37) of pneumonia. Lee proves an able substitute as director, deft at adapting to the stylistic milieu Whale established. While Bela Lugosi as Ygor and Basil Rathbone as the titular offspring of the good doctor prove spirited additions to the cast.

Sixty plus years later, the original Universal Horror films might not posses the ability to truly scare modern audiences weened on an ever increasingly extreme genre the way they did in their era, however, they preserve due to the quality of their distinct expressionist idiom and thematic subtexts. And boy does Son have art direction and set design style to spare! In the film, Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathborne) returns to the castle of his father, now sparse and decaying. The angled design, haunted ambiance of the sets and heavy reliance on shadowy juxtapositions are so pronounced that they must bring a tear to the eye of Tim Burton. For example, here is the Frankenstein family dining room:
How are you not supposed to experiment with manufacturing human life when you have your morning cup of coffee here?

Resurrection is an essential theme of the entire Frankenstein movie series (as well as, obviously, Mary Shelley's novel) it also unifies three of the main characters in Son. Ygor (spelling in credits, although I've seen it spelled with both an "E" and "I" in other circumstances) has survived a public hanging and proclamation of his own death for his responsibility in the grave robbing of the first film. He is, uh, bitter. He manipulates Rathbone's Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (awesomest horror name...ever) to take up the work of his deceased father which he considers an opportunity to restore his ostracized reputation. Frankenstein, already on the precipice of obsession in regards to his father's work, requires little convincing to resurrect the lifeless monster from his "death" in the climax of Bride. As in the original novel and first two films, the lesson is, the dead really ought stay that way.

Bela Lugosi who famously rejected the opportunity to play the monster in the original Frankenstein, shines here as the true villain of the piece, going over-the-top early and often. In the process he redefines the role of Ygor from subservient man-child to a master schemer (he, "pulls the string" if you will) manipulating Frankenstein to resurrect the monster who he then uses to do his own biding for personal vendettas. Rathbone also brings the right air to his role. He never tries to replicate Colin Clive's iconic performance, managing to create within his own unique persona the same obsessive qualities as Clive. His Frankenstein is a man constantly confronted with the sins of his father and often falls prey to those sins in himself. This marks Karloff's final performance as the monster, and a sense of disinterest, or at the very least sameness, is apparent, perhaps due to the regression of his character who goes back to speaking monosyllabic grunts instead of further forming language as in Bride. He's also for reason completely unexplained, wearing an unflattering huge fur sweater over the famous size-too-small suit, proving Ygor to be as adept at costuming as he is at brain finding. And while we are on the subject of the film's performances, Donnie Dunagan, as the grandson of Frankenstein gives one of cinematic history's most obnoxious child performances, due in large part to a voice which is several octaves above Shirley Temple's. He would later voice Bambi; it cannot be denied he's the right temperament for that role, but imagine that voice in a gothic thriller. A little distracting.

As the first film to not adhere at all to the plot of Mary Shelley's original novel (though both of Whale's films were loose adaptions to say the least), director Lee and screenwriter Wyllis Cooper are afforded the opportunity for some meta-commentary. The previously mentioned exaggerated sets are a playful satire and tribute to the design construct of Universal monster films in general, and very early Baron Wolf expresses exasperation at people who mistake his family name as the name of the monster,a nod to one of filmdom's most frequent perception errors (kind of like how Mrs. Voorhees not Jason is actually the killer in the first Friday the 13th). The theme of desire for friendship amongst the socially alienated that resulted in the monster's demand for a mate is mirrored in Ygor who desperately insists to the monster that he is his true "friend". In the denouement, Boris Karloff's monster is redeemed when he does not throw a child into a body of liquid (sulphur instead of a lake) a callback to the monster's fatal playful mistake in the first film.

The film is an epic by comparison 99 minutes long (all others in the series tend to waiver somewhere between 65 to 80) and was originally intended to be the first Universal Monster film shot in color.

Son of Frankenstein as well as two other entries in the franchise (the still unseen by myself: Ghost of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein) was included on the Frankenstein Legacy Collection DVD that came out a couple of years ago to capitalize on the release of the godawful Van Helsing. The other Universal Monsters (Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Invisible Man and Creature From Black Lagoon ) also received similar DVD sets featuring 4 to 5 movies in unison. As far as "threequels" go, it's respectful of what came before and succeeds in adding to the legacy, instead of coasting on past glory. And, needless to say, it's a hell of lot better than Van Helsing.

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